I was passing through security at the U.S. District Court building in St. Paul when the person behind me set off alarms. In a voice that sounded like a parody of Jesse Ventura, the man explained that he had a metal hip.

“Can’t do much about it when it’s inside yer body,” he bellowed jovially.

I turned to see that the man was indeed Ventura, old “Scruff Face,” as he’s called in the book “American Sniper.” He was in town to sue the estate of the book’s author, Chris Kyle, for defamation. Kyle has since been murdered.

Ironically, Ventura has said he refuses to fly because he is constantly stopped and searched because of his metal hip, and in fact he has sued Homeland Security and the TSA, and lost, over these “warrantless and suspicious-less scans and body searches.”

“America is turning into East Germany,” he has said.

It was just a few months ago Ventura reported he was going “off the grid” (with his television show of the same name) to dodge those invasions of his privacy and “so the drones can’t find me.”

But this week Ventura left his “undisclosed location” and braved drones and oppressive government. He submitted to a frisk with a wand in good humor, this time inside a building owned by the government he claims to distrust.

But this was important. After all, Scruff Face had the widow of a murdered war hero to sue.

Looking a little leaner and a lot older, Ventura wore a rumpled gray pinstripe suit, the kind you save for church or court, and walked with that cocksure gait we got used to when he was governor, his jaw perpetually tilted up as if in defiance of something, anything.

The plot against America

This is one of those stories that exemplifies this American carnival we live in. Former wrestler and Minnesota governor, turned promoter of paranoia, from Sept. 11 attacks to the “police state” and “secret societies,” sues the “most lethal sniper in U.S. history,” who was later murdered while helping a mentally disturbed soldier. The suit is over — of all things — whether or not a bar fight between them actually happened.

So the guy who got famous staging faked fights is suing a guy over a fake fight. At stake: millions of dollars.

American Gothic, writ large. Just try selling that cockamamie plot to Hollywood.

The lawsuit, in a nutshell: Kyle wrote a brief vignette (two pages) in his book in which he claims that he met Scruff Face in a bar and that the guy made some cracks about President Bush and dead Navy SEALs. Kyle said he proceeded to punch Scruff Face out. In later interviews, Kyle identified Ventura as Scruff Face.

Not true, says Ventura, who claims the anecdote defamed him and ruined his reputation.

I’ll pause a moment to let that sink in.

So, the guy who celebrated his inauguration by singing “Werewolves of London” wearing a feather boa thinks he has a reputation to protect?

The guy who angrily moved out of the governor’s residence because the Legislature wouldn’t increase security spending, who made reporters wear badges that said “Media Jackals,” who moonlighted and cashed in on his name while governor, who once suggested we legalize prostitution and said we live in a fascist state … has a reputation to protect?

The thing is, I have no idea who is telling the truth in this case, and I’m not sure the jury will either by the time this is over. Both Ventura and Kyle seem to have possessed sizable egos, and both seemed capable of embellishment of their own life stories.

In fact, in one of Ventura’s own books, he writes of a scene in which he intimidates some students in a bar because they are wearing “Harvard sucks” T-shirts, and he was teaching there at the time. In the book, Ventura portrays the event as a near-brawl, but acknowledged on the stand the encounter was done in good fun.

Imagine, someone exaggerated something in his memoir. Ventura didn’t even seem to catch the hypocrisy.

Macho image wounded?

The fascinating thing that came out of the trial last week was the acknowledgment of the fact that much of Ventura’s life has been theater, that many of his most controversial statements and behaviors were for “entertainment value.” It’s hard to know which of his beliefs are real, and which is part of the shtick.

Is this lawsuit for real, or just part of a promo for a new TV series? Is Ventura “hurt” because he’s portrayed as disloyal to his fellow SEALs, or because getting punched out wounds his macho image? Or is the guy who used his name for money just irritated that someone else may have too?

One thing is certain, however, sniper autobiographies sell. During the trial, receipts from the book and a pending movie were shown, ranging from a $187,000 advance to royalty payments that ranged from $90,000 to $1.6 million.

When asked by his lawyer why his books and shows were titled so provocatively, he responded without irony: “That’s what the publishers want. That’s what sells books.”

Ventura may have summed up the situation when asked how he ended up teaching at Harvard when he didn’t even complete junior college.

“Only in America,” he said.


jtevlin@startribune.com 612-673-1702

Follow Jon on Twitter: @jontevlin