'That has to go': Ventura, Pawlenty slam new bios on Capitol portraits

Plaques next to portraits of past governors, including Jesse Ventura.
New biographical plaques went up this month next to portraits of all 38 past governors, including that of Jesse Ventura.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

Jesse Ventura spoke many memorable lines in his years as a pro-wrestling bad boy and as a Minnesota governor. He swears he never said, "Win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat."

That's the motto, though, that thousands of school children and other visitors will read when they pause at Ventura's official state portrait inside the state Capitol.

New biographical plaques went up this month next to portraits of all 38 past governors, paintings that had been removed during the Capitol's recently completed $310 million restoration.

None of the living former governors say they or close associates were consulted about what would be written, nor were they given an advance look at the finished product. This is the first time every portrait will include a biographical note. Previously, only deceased governors got write-ups.

Now, two of those living governors are pushing back — and the Minnesota Historical Society says it's listening to their calls for change.

Objections surfaced after MPR News posted images Thursday on Twitter of the new plaques. Ventura wasn't the only ex-leader unhappy about his immortalized text. Former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty argued the write-up for his portrait reeked of political bias.

Former aides to Pawlenty grumbled about what was said — and what wasn't — about their boss. Asked to comment, Pawlenty outlined his issues in an email.

Plaques next to portraits of past governors, including Tim Pawlenty.
The paintings had been removed during the Capitol's recently completed $310 million restoration.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

"It's disappointing, reads like a political commentary in parts, and is not up to the Historical Society's usual quality standards," Pawlenty wrote.

Specifically, he said the display leaves out what he sees as key accomplishments: "Moving MN out of the top 10 states in taxes, leading education and energy reforms, developing the first major state park in modern state history, innovative health care reforms, being elected Chair of the National Governor's association, the leading role my administration played in supporting members of the military, their families and veterans during two wars and much more."

He's also bothered by a section on the Interstate 35W bridge collapse that leaves out mention of the 1960s-era design flaw pinpointed by federal investigators as the cause of the disaster.

The rest of the placard describes Pawlenty's rise through politics. It ends with his disappointments on the national political stage and his new role as leader of a financial industry association described as a "Wall Street lobbying group."

"It seems it was written by someone with a biased political agenda," Pawlenty wrote in his email.

The Minnesota Historical Society declared itself open Friday to revising biographies posted alongside portraits of former governors after two objected to the way aspects of their life or political service are represented.

Historical Society curator of art Brian Szott said he takes the concerns seriously, and said plans were in the works to contact Pawlenty.

"These aren't written in stone and we will work with the governor and his representatives to make the necessary changes going forward," Szott told MPR News.

Ventura's portrait sits just down the hall from Pawlenty's in a ground floor corridor. The adjacent biography starts with a recitation of his days as "The Body" of professional wrestling.

When read to Ventura over the phone, he interrupted after a section early on that said his motto was "Win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat."

"That has to go," Ventura insisted.

Ventura, elected in 1998, argued those words never came from his mouth even though they were attached to him over the years.

"That's Kenny Patera's. I can tell you exactly who said it. Ken Patera used to say it, not me," he said of his one-time pro wrestling colleague. "To put that quote in at a building like the Capitol, I think is utterly ridiculous."

The Independence Party governor is fine with the way historians portrayed his time in public office and what came after.

Szott said the decision to include biographies for living ex-governors stemmed from a desire to give Capitol visitors more information about the former heads of state well before they die.

"They are continually leading long lives past their governorship and we want to include them, and we thought the public would be interested in their biographies, especially with such colorful governors as we have had in the recent past," he said.

Szott said a Historical Society editor reviewed the biographies, freshening up some old ones. They were also reformatted to make them uniform and more readable when the paintings returned to Capitol walls.

For the new ones, historians reviewed existing biographies on record with the society or from other places. Everything was conveyed in 350 or fewer words.

"We're more than happy to make amendments or changes going forward," Szott said. "Unlike the previous bios, these labels are easily updated and the old ones, if you remember, were on brass."

This isn't the first uproar over the portraits.

When a Capitol art subcommittee pursued a plan to rotate portraits instead of having all hang at once, state lawmakers objected. The Historical Society and the panel relented after the Legislature threatened to require the full display in law.

Former Republican Govs. Arne Carlson and Al Quie quibbled with some minor details of their biographies, but neither planned to seek out changes.

"Oh, it's certainly fair," Carlson said of the biographical placard, which he hadn't seen until MPR News emailed him a picture of it.

Carlson said it's hard to write a biography that doesn't rankle someone.

"Governors, as anybody as a whole, like only the flattering things said," Carlson said.

Quie said the facts are the facts.

"Truth is what you should have," he said.

When he was in office in the early 1980s, that meant a run of awful budget circumstances that confined his tenure to a single term.

Quie's plaque winds from his days as a Navy pilot during World War II to his time on the family dairy farm to his two decades in Congress through his governorship and his prison ministry work after leaving office.

"I'd vote for that guy," the 93-year-old said with a hearty chuckle.

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