WORLD

The outsider’s pitch

H. Ross Perot wants to be president

MARCI McDONALD May 18 1992
WORLD

The outsider’s pitch

H. Ross Perot wants to be president

MARCI McDONALD May 18 1992

The outsider’s pitch

WORLD

THE UNITED STATES

H. Ross Perot wants to be president

It has become the defining anecdote of the unlikeliest presidential draft movement in American history—the story of one individual’s can-do determination in the face of government foot-dragging and personal danger. And Texas data-processing tycoon H. Ross Perot has not hesitated to recount the saga that has made him the hero of a bestselling book, a television mini-series and a popular mythology that now seems on the verge of launching him on the most quixotic and lavishly funded third-party campaign in electoral memory. In fact, only two weeks ago, dismissing a spate of media criticism as “schoolgirl stuff,” Perot reminisced about his most spectacular exploit: the rescue of two former employees from a Tehran prison 13 years ago. “When you’ve got your life on the line, when you’re walking down the streets of Tehran and everybody is saying on loudspeakers, ‘We’re going to cut off the hands of the Americans,’ ” he said, “your fingers tingle.” But like many elements of Perot’s past, not everyone shares the same perceptions of that event. In December, 1978, during the collapse of the Shah of Iran’s regime, two employees of Perot’s Dallas-based corporation, Electronic Data Systems Inc., were imprisoned. Denouncing their $12.5-million bail as ransom, Perot railed at the U.S. state department’s inaction. Then, recruiting former Green Beret Col. Arthur (Bull) Simons and a team of Vietnam veterans in his employ, he flew to Tehran to reconnoitre the city for a planned paramilitary raid later immortalized in Ken Follett’s On Wings of Eagles. But the raid was not carried out. And Kenneth Taylor, the former Canadian ambassador who later spirited six American Embassy officials out of Iran, told Maclean’s last week that the February, 1979, release of Perot’s men had nothing to do with their boss’s derring-do. “It was one of those mysterious Iranian initiatives that were happening at the time,” Taylor recalled. “The prison doors magically opened for many reasons—nothing to do with Ross Perot or the U.S. Embassy.” Nor does Taylor remember the drama and danger that Perot loves to recount. “I don’t know what sort of poetic licence Follett took,” he said. “But my feeling was that, at that point, people were moving around town rather freely. I mean, I was still playing golf.”

Taylor’s recollections represent the most recent contradictions in a contradictory presidential campaign—a populist crusade by a selfstyled political outsider who has spent much of the past two decades performing secret insider favors for friends in the White House. But even

the growing controversy surrounding Perot’s history has failed to stop a potential grassroots candidacy that has emerged as the latest antipolitical phenomenon in an unpredictable political season. Ever since the 61-year-old computer billionaire mused, during a February interview on the Cable News Network, that he might consider running as an independent if supporters collected enough signatures to win him a place on the ballot in all 50 states, he has become the repository of a groundswell of voter frustration with the candidates of both major parties.

Now, pledging up to $100 million of his own money to vanquish the gridlock of government-as-usual, Perot portrays himself as a man of action who can parachute into the political fray to rescue the tarnished American dream. And last week, as he announced that he was cutting back on his recent media blitz to concentrate on fashioning a detailed platform, few political analysts doubted that he would formally jump into the race next month.

In fact, a Los Angeles Times poll put him in a dead heat with both President George Bush and prospective Democratic nominee William Clinton, giving each approximately onethird of the vote.

From Florida to California, thousands of people Perot calls “the owners of this country” have rallied to his cause. One of them is Joan Vinson, a retired public relations consultant in Maryland, who first met Perot in 1969 after her pilot husband had been shot down over Vietnam. That year, as part of his four-year campaign on behalf of U.S. prisoners of the Vietnam War, Perot organized a planeload of captives’ families to fly to Paris to lobby the North Vietnamese. At the time, Vinson recalled, “The government didn’t want us to say anything. It was very frustrating.” In contrast, she said, she found Perot to be “a man with a tremendous ability to conceptualize and get things done quickly.”

Now, Vinson is returning the favor. Working as Perot’s campaign co-ordinator in her state, she predicts that by June she will have amassed 125,000 signatures—nearly twice the 63,169 names required to put him on Maryland’s ballot. Said Vinson: “People are knocking down our door.”

Last week, Perot claimed that Bush was so worried about his third-party candidacy that top Republican officials had mounted a dirtytricks campaign against him—a charge that

presidential spokesmen promptly denied. But after recent polls showed that voters in California and Colorado favor Perot over Bush, Peter Flanigan, a onetime aide to former president Richard Nixon, told reporters that the candidate who was proclaiming himself a political outsider once offered to spend $60 million to burnish Nixon’s image by buying a major media outlet and founding a pro-Nixon think-tank. Although Perot ultimately did neither, he did contact the Nixon White House at least 40 times over government-contract disputes. Said Flanigan: “He was the ultimate insider.”

A decade later, Perot was also the private, covert operator of choice in Ronald Reagan’s White House. During the clandestine arms deals later exposed as the Iran-contra affair, then-National Security Council aide Oliver North repeatedly called on him to finance offthe-shelf operations—including putting up $500,000 overnight in an abortive attempt to ransom Brig.-Gen. James Dozier from leftist Red Brigade kidnappers in Rome. But Perot has also bankrolled leading Democrats, among

them Senate finance committee chairman Lloyd Bentsen. And one of his most famous forays into public service was under Texas Democratic Gov. Mark White in the early 1980s. Putting both his personal prestige and $2 million on the line, Perot spearheaded a 1983 educational reform drive that involved tackling the state’s powerful lobby of highschool football coaches to push through nopass, no-play rules for young athletes.

His longtime flirtation on both sides of the

political aisle helps to explain Perot’s current stance as an independent—as well as the debate among political analysts over which party his candidacy could most hurt. His bipartisan approach may be the result of his upbringing in Texarkana, which straddles the Texas-Arkansas border, where his father was a stem horse trader and his mother a devoted do-gooder who insisted on feeding Depression-era hobos. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Perot still betrays his admiration for the military

mind-set in the ramrod-stiff bearing with which he carries his own pint-size frame. And supporters do not doubt his claim that his chief literary influence remains the Boy Scouts’ handbook.

But it was another literary influence, transcendental philosopher Henry David Thoreau, who prodded Perot onto the path of entrepreneurial fame. In 1962, having read in Reader’s Digest Thoreau’s judgment that most men “lead lives of quiet desperation,” he quit his job

as a crack computer salesman at IBM, where the company had just put a cap on his commissions. With $1,000 saved from the teaching salary of his wife, Margot, he founded Electronic Data Systems (EDS), marketing computer programs and know-how rather than hardware. So successful did his concept prove that he won government Medicare contracts— earning the title “welfare billionaire.” Two decades later, he sold the company to General Motors Corp. for $2.5 billion and joined the automotive giant’s board of directors.

But Perot’s much-publicized clashes with GM chairman Roger Smith, and his sometimes autocratic management style, have prompted political analysts to predict that he could never cope with the complex minuet of compromises required to govern the nation. At EDS, he instituted a strict dress code of dark suits and no facial hair that he termed “corporate camouflage.” And he warned that employees would be fired if caught straying from marital fidelity. Although he inspired almost rabid loyalty with a generous system of financial rewards, some longtime Perot-watchers claim that he would bring that Big Brother-like philosophy to the White House.

In fact, addressing the American Newspaper Publishers Association in New York City last week in his own plain dark suit, white shirt and Texarkana twang, Perot’s folksy old-fashioned aphorisms failed to hide the fact that he has marshalled the most sophisticated high-tech wizardry to short-circuit the usual political process for his so-called people’s campaign. His toll-free 800 number has received so many calls—180,000 in one minute, he said—that Perot claims that it once threatened to disrupt the entire U.S. phone system. Recording each call, he has built an unprecedented computerized mailing list. He also admitted to tapping into voter discontent by eavesdropping on some calls—a process that he claimed was much more efficient than showing up at rallies in the flesh. Said Perot: “If I go, it gets disruptive.”

If elected in November, he talks of doing an end run around Congress and the media by holding electronic town meetings directly with the nation’s citizenry. And despite his muchpublicized disdain for “sound-bite politics,” Perot has already become so adept at media interviews that last week he offered helpfully to Meet the Press host Tim Russert, “I’ll soundbite it for you.”

With those formidable electronic skills and a quirky charisma, neither Democrats nor Republicans are underestimating the appeal of the action-oriented antipolitician who once inspired his EDS employees to celebrate the company’s seventh anniversary by dressing him up in a suit of armor and hoisting him onto a white horse. Still, as Perot prepares to ride into the political fray next month, voters will have to decide whether he is the long-awaited white knight of a lacklustre political season, or the wild card who could threaten America’s democratic institutions.

MARCI McDONALD