Editor's note: The following column originally appeared in The Washington Times.
Former pro wrestler and politician Jesse Ventura used to be known as Jesse “The Body” Ventura during his wrestling days. Now he’ll be known to many simply as “The Jerk.”
Mr. Ventura emerged victorious from a lawsuit surrounding an event the late former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle asserted occurred in a bar. According to the account in Mr. Kyle’s book, “American Sniper,” Mr. Ventura uttered a disparaging comment about the Navy SEALs, for which Kyle allegedly punched him. Mr. Ventura insisted it never happened, and a jury agreed with him, awarding him $500,000 for defamation and $1.3 million for “unjust enrichment.”
The revulsion many felt surrounding this adventure stems from the fact that Mr. Ventura opted to continue with the lawsuit after Kyle was murdered at a shooting range by a veteran he was trying to help cope with post-traumatic stress disorder. Mr. Ventura’s continuing his fight to the point of dragging the widow and children of the assassinated veteran to court, strikes the conscience as loathsome.
We all, of course, have a right to pursue what we choose. Yet there is a difference between the things we can do and things we should do. After all, when the issue is reputation, it’s not as though the very famous Mr. Ventura didn’t have options other than pursuing a lawsuit. This is where common decency enters the decision-making process.
Unlike a private citizen, Mr. Ventura has no problem at all garnering press attention. Once Kyle was in his grave, it would have sent a moving and generous message for him to announce that he was dropping the lawsuit, and, in that effort to clear his name, would like to meet with fellow Navy SEALs to make sure they knew the truth.
The irony of Mr. Ventura’s position, made before and after the verdict, is that he went to this length to “clear his name.” He asserted again when appearing on “CBS This Morning” that the bar story irreparably damaged his reputation with the Navy SEAL community.
Yet it was his very handling of the process itself that revealed a surprisingly narcissistic callousness in a man many had thought an eccentric, but well-meaning, social character.
That callousness emerged in his first post-trial interview with CBS, when Mr. Ventura made it clear none of his decision-making had anything to do with the widow. It had everything to do with him.
Mr. Ventura told CBS, “All I wanted to do was clear my name, and it has nothing to do with a widow or anything like that … . I can’t go to a SEAL reunion anymore. That was the one place that I always felt safe. I can’t go there anymore. I would be looking over my shoulder now wondering who’s going to come after me next. And so, don’t think I come out of this unscathed.”
Mr. Ventura implies he has had a significant relationship with his Navy SEAL community leading up to this. He felt “safe” with them. I don’t suppose you feel safe with people you don’t know very well. So how is it that such a special and long-standing relationship would be irrevocably damaged because of a brief story in a book?
Even Mr. Ventura dismisses the seriousness of the possible genesis of Kyle’s story. When asked by CBS how he thought the story got started, he said it was a “Sea story . In the Navy it happens all the time . One sailor lies to another sailor. That second sailor then tells the story three more times, and all of the sudden, the sea story becomes the truth. They were drunk. They were drinking heavily, and it was just a story that happened in another bar .”
It seems rather dramatic to take a dead man’s family to court for something that “happens all the time.”
Most of us understand the importance of reputation. It’s arguable Mr. Ventura’s has been somewhat in flux in recent years.
In an interview with CNBC in February as reported by The Politico, Mr. Ventura explained he was hiding from drones: “I’m off the grid. I move about with my TV show [in Mexico] so that the drones can’t find me, and you won’t know exactly where I am .”
After a lawsuit he brought against the Transportation Safety Administration was thrown out of court for jurisdictional reasons in 2011, Minnesota Public Radio reported on Mr. Ventura’s remarks: “He also said he lost his patriotism and would then refer to the U.S. as the “Fascist States of America I will never stand for the national anthem again .”
Well, now he has won a lawsuit. Whether he has “cleared his name” is another issue, but we do know this: The public outrage seems to have registered within the Ventura camp. The Associated Press is reporting that Mr. Ventura’s lawyer, David Bradley, insists an insurance company will pay all of the damages and costs. “‘This money does not come out of a widow’s pocket; it comes from an insurance company,’ Mr. Olsen said.”
Not so, according to John Borger, the Kyles’ attorney. While attorneys’ fees are covered, “insurance won’t cover everything. [Mr. Borger] said it will cover the $500,000 awarded for defamation, but not the $1.3 million for unjust enrichment,” according to The AP’s article.
There are clearly no winners here, and yet a little compassion and perspective could have changed everything for everyone involved, especially someone worried about his reputation even after a veteran, husband and father had been fatally shot.