Linda McMahon Wants Your Vote … For Real!

Smart people – who are about half as smart as they think – express amazement that others can take pro wrestling seriously.

But for me, the question is a double helix. As I live and breathe, I will never be able to figure out why smart people are so dumb as to believe that everyone else believes. The bedrock truth of Linda McMahon’s Senate campaign remains unappreciated. That is the history of how her husband Vince, master of the pro wrestling universe, long ago let the public in on the joke, even if self-congratulating elites didn’t get the memo.

What the smart set also misses through all this is even more important – the proverbial elephant in the closet. The McMahons’ variation on wrestling’s cosmic thigh-slapper has a punch line: money and power. The exposure of their secret, which really isn’t much of a secret, shows that they did what they did for a reason.

It was the 1980s, and cable TV was transforming the wrestling industry from a confederation of small-time Mafiosi to a platform for global branding and marketing. Of equal importance was the government’s across-the-board embrace of deregulation. President Reagan’s Federal Communications Commission chairman, Mark Fowler, famously dismissed television as “a toaster with pictures,” and eliminated just about every restriction on commercialization of the airwaves. “Kidvid” producers of Saturday morning cartoons brokered deals between toy manufacturers and broadcasters, who neatly divvied up the profits from both commercial air time and spinoff merchandise

Wrestling went nuts, too. The elephant lumbered out of the closet, and a promotional war broke out. Linda’s husband won the war.

One of the remaining problems was that the McMahons’ industry was still regulated at the state level: the same athletic commissions fighting the ongoing battle to keep boxing on the up-and-up also had jurisdiction over what the World Wrestling Federation (predecessor of today’s World Wrestling Entertainment) started calling “sports entertainment.” This was not only intellectually absurd but also commercially inconvenient. To the extent that the commissions exerted any independence, they still tried to tell promoters who could bleed and how much, and they moderated bait-and-switch promotional tactics and other consumer ripoffs. Most importantly, they charged gate taxes to sustain their system of pointless nagging.

Now, we all know how excessive regulation and taxation can retard the Connecticut job-creation machine that was the dream of Vince and Linda McMahon. So they also went to war against athletic commissions, and they won that one, too. In the process, they cheerfully acknowledged that pro wrestling was exactly what it was. In carny lingo, they “broke kayfabe.” The other carnies thought this would kill business. Of course, business got bigger than ever.

The die was cast as soon as The New York Times ran a front-page story in 1989 “revealing” that WWF said its matches were fixed. Even so, it took serious lobbying money to dismantle the state-by-state network of political groupies and wrestling hangers-on who stocked the commissions. In Pennsylvania, where the McMahons’ most trusted lawyer, Jerry McDevitt, was a partner at the law firm then called Kirkpatrick & Lockhart, a young associate with far-reaching ambition, Rick Santorum, was detailed to head the effort.

Government got off the backs of these sterling small-business entrepreneurs. Over the next generation, the result was that hundreds of their “independent contractors” died needlessly trying to prove that while what they did may have looked fake, there was nothing phony when their own health and well being were on the line.

In 1999 those twin breakout Connecticut business titans, Martha Stewart and Vince McMahon, launched public stock offerings for their companies the same week. Can you guess which one landed behind bars?

In her latest round of TV commercials for her Senate campaign, Linda McMahon assures one and all that while what she has done in all those embarrassing YouTube clips of WWE television isn’t real, “our problems are.”

Linda is right about that. In fact, she’s dead right.

Next: “The (Thwak!) Deregulation of (Thump!) Pro Wrestling” – my 1988 article for The Washington Monthly, which became Chapter 3 of my book Wrestling Babylon.

Irv Muchnick

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June 2010

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