AllPolitics - Back In TIME

He's ready, but is America ready for President Perot?

Look out Washington -- look out George Bush and Bill Clinton -- here comes the first revolution in history ever led by a billionaire

[TIME Cover]

By Walter Shapiro -- With reporting by Laurence I. Barrett/ Washington and Richard Woodbury/Dallas

(TIME, May 25, 1992) -- All that was missing was Norman Rockwell to immortalize the scene for an old Saturday Evening Post cover. The sea of white faces in the crowd at the Texas state Capitol in Austin last week was freckles-fritters-and-fried-chicken America: elderly retirees, earnest young men and women in ROSS FOR BOSS T-shirts, and a sprinkling of former Vietnam POWS in black shirts as a reminder of their suffering. As the patriotic pageantry built to a climax, a compact man with jug ears, weather-beaten face and glasses, the sort of fellow who looks like he might belong behind the counter in a small-town hardware store, bounded up to the impromptu stage, and the crowd roared, "Run, Ross, run!"

Not bad for the kickoff rally of an up-from-nowhere independent presidential campaign. Not bad for an almost candidate who says he deplores the hokum and hoopla of professional politics. Not bad for a reluctant dragon whose supporters had just filed petitions containing more than 200,000 signatures -- about four times what he needs to get on the ballot in Texas. The speech, delivered in his trademark East Texas twang, was more sound bite than substance: "If I could wish for one thing for my children, it's to leave the American Dream intact, so they can dream great dreams and have those dreams come true." But the message was unmistakable: look out Washington -- look out George Bush and Bill Clinton -- here comes the first revolution ever led by a billionaire.

Ross Perot, the plutocrat populist poised for the presidency, holds court from the 17th floor of a North Dallas office tower -- a memorabilia-filled aerie (the artistic motif is Rockwell paintings and Frederic Remington sculptures, and Perot is happy to tell with a chuckle what he paid for almost everything) that radiates almost preternatural calm. His desk is clean, save for the week's schedule of media interviews and a list of Perot coordinators in all 50 states. But at a time when Bush and Clinton are racing around the country, giving speeches, honing positions, posing against scenic backdrops, this small man, who loves the sobriquet "Billionaire Boy Scout," suddenly leads the polls. A TIME/CNN survey last week by Yankelovich Clancy Shulman underlines Perot's surprising appeal: he wins a three-way race for the White House with 33% to Bush's 28%, with Clinton trailing at 24%. Perot has done the impossible: crafted a credible national campaign out of two dozen TV interviews and half a dozen speeches.

It's hard to remember that three months ago, Perot was just another TV talk-show guest, a blustery businessman who was supposed to chat with Larry King about the economy before a CNN special on breast implants. Asked at the outset whether he planned to run for President, Perot gave a typically forthright answer: "No." But 45 minutes later, Perot -- by all evidence impulsively -- dropped the biggest bombshell of the 1992 campaign. Yes, he'd run, and run hard, if his supporters would put him on the ballot in all 50 states as an independent. That "if" has been all but answered by the largest outpouring of volunteer enthusiasm America has seen since yellow ribbons dangled from every lamppost during the gulf war. (Perot, despite his superpatriot image, strongly opposed that war.) In an interview with TIME last week, Perot made it clear that the official declaration of his candidacy is a mere formality awaiting the proper dramatic moment.

Make no mistake: Perot, 61, just might (gulp!) be the next President of the U.S. -- a leader unfettered by any party, untested in any office, unclear in his policies and unshakable in the faith that he is right and the entire bipartisan governing establishment is wrong. No independent candidate in 80 years has attracted anything like this kind of support -- and remember, Perot has just barely begun to dip into his personal bank account to spend, as he promises, "whatever it takes to run a proper campaign."

In the TIME poll, Perot draws from both major-party candidates almost equally: 27% of Clinton voters say they would switch to Perot in a three-way race, and 25% of Bush backers say the same. But the who-does-it-hurt-the-most question is fast becoming irrelevant. If he could keep his support through the fall -- the ultimate challenge for an independent candidate feeding on voter protest -- Perot would not be a spoiler but the front runner in the popular vote for President.

Who is Perot anyway? (He uses his full name Henry Ross Perot only to sign checks and never ever the first initial H.) Is he simply what he purports to be: the ultimate straight arrow, the billionaire who never lusted after money, a self-effacing idealist uncontaminated by personal ambition, a brilliant problem solver who never ducked a challenge and a patriotic outsider untouched by the muck of political horse trading? Or is there, as critics claim, a darker side to Perot: thin-skinned, self-righteous, unwilling to compromise and potentially authoritarian? Does Perot, in short, have the right stuff to be President at a time of domestic upheaval, economic unease and global uncertainty? Or does Perot represent the specter of chaos to come, a candidate who will create an Electoral College tangle, a President who will discover that leading the nation bears no resemblance to running a business?

Unlike Bush, Clinton or anyone else who has seriously run for the White House since Dwight Eisenhower, Perot is defined almost entirely by his person rather than by specific issue positions. Asked his views in an April TV interview on the upcoming environmental conference in Rio de Janeiro, Perot gave an answer, both refreshingly candid and alarmingly ill-informed: "I don't know a thing in the world about it." In an appearance on Meet the Press, Perot appeared befuddled as he tried to defend his misguided assertion that $180 billion could be saved by eliminating waste, fraud and abuse in the government. Displaying his petulant side, Perot complained, "This is an interesting game we're playing today. It would have been nice if you would have told me you wanted to talk about this, and I'd have had all my facts with me." Shortly after this hapless performance, Perot announced that he plans to retreat from the spotlight for a while to commune with unnamed policy experts, as if he could acquire ideological direction off the shelf just like a business buying a state-of-the-art computer system.

Perot, to be sure, boasts a formidable asset: a political-bull detector that can cut through the fog of Washington-style obfuscation. His one-liners can be devastating. On the budget: "The chief financial officer of a publicly owned corporation would be sent to prison if he kept books like our government." On the gulf war: "Only in America would you have a war, get it over with and have all the heroes either be generals or politicians." He also deserves credit for taking stands that run counter to the timorous can't-tell-the-truth-to- the-people philosophy of both parties. He favors means testing for both Social Security and Medicare because he believes it indefensible for someone as rich as himself to get government benefits at a time of $400 billion deficits. He is justly irate over the systemic corruption in Washington, as former officials cash in a few years of public service for lucrative careers as lobbyists for corporate or even foreign interests.

Yet some of Perot's ideas border on the demagogic. He advocates a constitutional amendment to bar Congress from raising taxes without a vote of the people, even though this would make it even tougher to reduce the deficit than Bush's read-my-lips, no-tax pledge. Perot is entranced with the idea of electronic town meetings to divine the will of the people on complex issues like health care. Again and again, he comes back to this high-tech gimmick as a touchstone of a Perot presidency. "With interactive television every other week," he says, "we could take one major issue, go to the American people, cover it in great detail, have them respond, and show by congressional district what the people want."

This potentially smacks of plebiscite democracy. TV call-in polls are about as representative as trying to gauge the mood of the country by listening to talk radio. As James Fishkin, chairman of the government department at the University of Texas, argues, "Electronic town meetings are just a device to step outside established political mechanisms -- to abandon traditional forms of representation and elections -- in order to acquire a mantle of higher legitimacy. And in the very worst case, it could be invoked toward extraconstitutional ends."

But for the moment the big question is, Can Perot stand the heat necessary to get to the kitchen? Despite more than 20 years in the public eye (dating back to his unsuccessful 1969 crusade to send Christmas packages to American POWS in North Vietnam), Perot has never endured the media scrutiny that comes with a modern presidential campaign. Up to now, he has largely sculpted his own Horatio-Alger-hero-with-a-heart-of-gold image -- most notably by fostering On Wings of Eagles, Ken Follett's breathless account of a Perot-sponsored 1979 private commando raid to free two employees trapped in an Iranian jail at the height of the Khomeini revolution. A longtime aide questions whether Perot can handle media coverage that he can't control: "He's used to talking to business reporters. I don't believe Ross is going to put up with it." Perot, of course, will have no choice. For, as James Carville, a top adviser to Clinton, puts it, "If he gets through what he's about to be put through, maybe he deserves to be President."

Perot knows his reputation for being hypersensitive to criticism -- and last week went out of his way to gush over how much he enjoyed Dana Carvey's impersonation of him on Saturday Night Live. But he also took pains to stop visitors to his 17th-floor office suite before a portrait of himself, commissioned and autographed by former Vietnam prisoners of war, so he could say, "I don't think the POWS would have given me this if they thought what I had been doing for them was a publicity stunt." Like a salesman whose primary product is his own reputation -- as it was, in a sense, when he created EDS, the computer-services firm that made his fortune -- Perot hates adverse comment. He remembers the tiniest unintended factual errors by reporters and delights in haranguing them, and anyone else in earshot, about them. One can imagine President Perot keeping the White House switchboard busy all night tracking down out-of-town editorial writers to complain about errant sentences.

Throughout his career, Perot has endeared himself to Main Street America partly by the enemies he has chosen. The son of a small-town cotton broker in Texarkana, Texas, Perot attended the U.S. Naval Academy, spent four years in the Navy and then in 1957 joined the white-shirted brigades of IBM as a computer salesman. The Perot myth was born when he broke with the rigid corporate culture and inflexible commission system of IBM in 1962 to found EDS -- and became a just-folks billionaire seven years later, shortly after he took his company public. During the 1970s, Perot tangled with North Vietnam on behalf of the POWS, the Iranian revolutionaries and naysayers in the Carter Administration who objected to his lone-wolf style of high-profile private diplomacy.

But this real-life Crusader Rabbit was just getting warmed up. General Motors -- that ossified symbol of America's industrial decline -- volunteered for the Perot treatment when the giant automaker bought EDS in 1984 and GM chairman Roger Smith looked to this take-no-prisoners Texan to shake up the hidebound hierarchy. Within two years, Perot was going public with his bitter and prophetic denunciations of the GM bureaucracy ("I could never understand why it takes six years to build a car when it only took us four years to win World War II"), and the company ultimately paid him $700 million just to go away and, it was hoped, shut up. (Perot characteristically took the money and kept on talking.) The Reagan Administration went from friend to bitter foe over the issue of the missing in action allegedly still in Vietnam, as Perot kept hinting that some broad and ill-defined conspiracy was preventing America from repatriating the MIAS. Texas Democratic Governor Mark White in 1984 recruited him to head a statewide commission on educational reform. Perot responded by taking on that ultimate Lone Star icon: the cult of Friday-night high school football. And with the cry "No pass, no play," he boldly proposed barring failing students from extracurricular activities.

Judging solely from the bottom line, Perot's record probably would not qualify him for a performance bonus. General Motors -- bloodied, but unbowed -- only now is facing up to the need for far-reaching internal reform. No living MIA has ever been found in Vietnam. Texas enacted some of Perot's educational reforms (no pass, no play; reducing class size), but on Friday night far more students are still cheering touchdowns than prepping for calculus exams. But embedded in these crusades are important -- and not always reassuring -- clues as to how Perot might behave if handed the toughest challenge of them all: the presidency of the U.S.

Resting in a place of honor in Perot's office is a thin business self-help book, Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun. It serves as a small reminder of the management style that made Perot a billionaire. "If you're in his way, he'll run over you," says a close associate who prefers anonymity to Perot's wrath. "He does not compromise well. Ross has two modes: your way and my way -- and we're going to do it my way." The problem is not that Perot refuses to listen; he in fact delights in bypassing the chain of command to call some subordinate himself with a question. But once Perot makes a decision, that's it -- no dissent -- either go out and do it or get off the team.

Even at General Motors, where he ridiculed other board members as "pet rocks," Perot had his fans. "I've never seen an executive so accessible to his own people," says former executive vice president Elmer Johnson, who negotiated Perot's $700 million buyout. "Maybe it's a little simplistic, like Ronald Reagan could be, but he knows how to prioritize and exactly where he wants to go." But the consensus is that Perot resorted too quickly to guerrilla tactics at GM, lobbing brickbats from the sidelines, rather than ever trying to build support on the board or enunciating a clear road map for reform. David Cole, the director of the University of Michigan's automotive studies center and a close observer of General Motors, says, "With Perot, you're either with him or against him. If you're against him, you're in deep, deep trouble. If Perot were elected President, he'd be about the closest thing we've had in a century to a dictator."

White, who was defeated for re-election as Texas Governor in 1986 largely because of opposition from teachers and football coaches who really wanted to tar-and-feather Perot, still says with admiration, "He galvanized the business leadership to get [education reform] done. He's a consensus player, as long as you sign up with him. He's a consensus of one." But Perot never understood political negotiation; he failed to bend when there was still room for accommodation. "Perot made school administrators his opponent," contends Mike Morrow, who headed the Texas Association of Professional Educators. "He'll have a hard time with compromise. If you say something he doesn't agree with, then he sees you as an adversary."

When cornered, Perot can be as fierce as the rattlesnake whose fangs he keeps preserved in a glass bowl in his office. When EDS lost part of the lucrative Texas Medicaid contract to a rival firm in 1980, Perot employees promptly dug up enough dirt on the winning bidder to overturn the contract award. One of Perot's current business ventures, run by his son Ross Jr., is to develop the land around Fort Worth's new Alliance Airport, which sits on property that the Perot family shrewdly donated (thus vastly increasing the value of the adjoining acreage they kept for themselves). Perot tried to persuade the state legislature to put up $500 million in bonds to lure a giant McDonnell Douglas facility to the new airport. Blocked by a committee chairman, Perot's top lieutenant, Tom Luce, tried to induce the committee vice chairman to act in the chairman's absence. Luce failed, but the committee chairman, Steven Wolens, howls, "They came in and tried to hijack our committee without regard to protocol or the Texas constitution."

Richard Connor, publisher of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, recently charged that Perot in effect tried to blackmail him back in 1989 after the paper ran articles critical of his son's management of the airport. Perot angrily suggested in a phone conversation, according to Connor, that he possessed compromising photographs of a newspaper employee and a city official. Perot acknowledges that he did talk with the publisher, but denies any hint of blackmail or mention of compromising photos.

Connor said news accounts of an analogous incident from Perot's past helped prompt his public charges. In the mid-1980s, when Perot was feuding with Richard Armitage, then Assistant Secretary of Defense, the Texan tried to convince Washington reporters that the U.S. Defense Department official was in no position to press the Vietnamese on MIAS. Perot's weapon: an old snapshot of Armitage at a party with several men and women, one of whom he alleged was Armitage's Vietnamese girlfriend.

Do any of these stories, if true, disqualify Perot from the White House? Probably not, since the presidency was not designed for the fainthearted. Perot's will to win is indeed intense but presumably no greater than that of John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson or, more ominously, Richard Nixon. Perot may be mulishly stubborn when he thinks he is right, but then so were Reagan and Harry Truman. A presidential election is, after all, a choice among available alternatives -- and right now Perot is not exactly competing against an all-star team from Mount Rushmore. Says political analyst Kevin Phillips: "If Bush is re-elected, I don't think he'll have a successful four years. I'm not sure Clinton would do better. So in my mind the threshold of successful governance is lower."

In the weeks ahead the TV talk shows are apt to be filled with Washington insiders harrumphing mightily that, of course, Perot could never deal with Congress; it would be a disaster. This conventional view is buttressed by a strong argument: Perot, the perpetual maverick who could never recruit allies on the GM board of directors, would be facing a Congress of 535 members of the opposition parties. Pet rocks, indeed. But legislators can also read the election returns, or they wouldn't be on Capitol Hill in the first place. As California Democratic Congressman Howard Berman says, "The level of demoralization around Congress is so deep now it can cause people to contemplate doing things that make little sense in normal times." Things like cooperating with America's first independent President in 200 years.

What should instead give voters some pause is Perot's sincere let's-go-back-to-the-way-it-was-in-my-civics-book naivete, a primeval patriotism that is a pivotal part of his political appeal. Each time Perot says a political question has a "simple answer," alarm bells should go off. Each time Perot promises to get "world-class experts" together to solve a national problem, warning lights should flash. There is, alas, nothing simple about governing today's America; there is nothing easy about solving pressing problems when the government is nearly $4 trillion in debt; world-class experts are no substitute for presidential leadership; and electronic town meetings are no quick fix to replace the clash of competing interests that is the stuff of politics. The issue is not sincerity; Perot believes what he says. Rather the question before the nation in the months ahead is whether this buoyant billionaire's self-confidence is justified -- or dangerous.

For Perot's candidacy is both a symptom of the failure of American democracy and a hopeful beacon of its ability to regenerate itself. Over the past two decades, presidential politics has become a blood sport reserved for the paid professionals; there is no room for amateurs anymore, no storefront headquarters staffed with volunteers, no buttons, no bumper stickers. Into this cynical world of negative TV spots and staged sound bites Perot marched in to announce, in effect, "This is America. We don't have to take their candidates, we can nominate our own."

What Perot has tapped is the spirit of volunteerism that so entranced Tocqueville 150 years ago, the this-is-a-new-land- and-we-can-do-anything ethos that once defined the national character. Ross Perot in three short months has out of nothing created something far larger than a multibillion-dollar company, or perhaps something even larger than the multimillion-dollar campaign he will fund. Win or lose, his populist crusade and the challenge he is mounting to the establishment parties may well help break the deadlock of American democracy.

AllPolitics home page
Copyright © 1996 AllPolitics
All Rights Reserved
Terms under which this information is provided to you