Perot, Ross (1930—)

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Perot, Ross (1930—)

Maverick businessman Ross Perot turned American politics upside down in 1992 when he mounted one of the most effective independent campaigns for president in American history. Although he was ultimately unsuccessful, Perot's bid threatened to derail the hopes of Republican incumbent George Bush and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton, who ultimately won the election.

Henry Ross Perot, who normally went by his middle name, Ross, was born June 27, 1930 in Texarkana, Texas. He learned his distinct world-view of self-reliance and ambition as an Eagle scout and later as a Naval officer. He married Margot Birmingham in 1956; they would eventually have five children. After several years as a computer salesman for IBM, Perot founded Electronic Data Systems Corporation (EDS) with $1,000 in 1962. Perot's shrewd dealing and ability to land lucrative government contracts made EDS a major player and Perot a billionaire in a few short years.

Long before he ever ran for elected office, Perot courted controversy several times. He was seen by some as an apologist for the Nixon administration, holding televised "town hall meetings" in 1969 that, according to Perot biographer Todd Mason, gave implicit support to Nixon. Nevertheless, Perot's interest in American prisoners of war in Vietnam tended to strain his relationship with Republican administrations. In 1969 he tried to deliver Christmas gifts, food, and medicine to American POWs, and in 1986 and 1987 he strongly criticized the Defense Department and the Reagan administration, accusing them of covering up information that POWs remained in Vietnam.

Perot achieved a reputation as a folk hero and a certain amount of notoriety in 1978, when two of his employees were imprisoned by Iranians who demanded that EDS design a new computer system for Iran. Perot, who made a point of hiring Vietnam veterans, recruited several talented members of his staff to rescue the pair. The tale of the rescue was told in Ken Follett's book On Wings of Eagles and adapted as a television movie starring Richard Crenna as Perot.

Perot gained more attention on February 20, 1992, when he announced on the Larry King Live talk show that he would run for president if volunteers could get him on the ballot in all 50 states. Within days his Texas offices were swamped with hundreds of thousands of phone calls from volunteers offering to help with the campaign. The following weeks and months were a flurry of activity as word of Perot's intentions spread and volunteers across the country joined the effort to get Perot on the ballot. Eventually the nationwide volunteer effort coalesced into a new political party, known as the Reform Party.

Perot's greatest edge may have been sheer luck. The political scene in 1992 was perfect for a third-party candidate to enter. Voters were fed up with what they perceived as "politics as usual" in Washington: Republicans and Democrats at each other's throats, pointing fingers and spreading blame without really solving any problems. Perot appealed to the large segment of the population who identified with neither Democrats nor Republicans and resented being forced to choose between the two.

Perot energized the segment of the population that was disgusted with politics in general. Cynical voters who had long ago given up any hope of finding a candidate who would stand up for what they believed in suddenly found someone they could believe in. Even those who disagreed with Perot's political stance—and one of the main criticisms leveled at him was that he often appeared to have no real stance—could not deny that he had a powerful personal charisma and rarely allowed himself to be bullied. In addition, many voters were leery of the influence of special-interest money in campaigns. Perot's pledge to pay his own campaign expenses greatly heartened those who feared that politicians were increasingly "for sale."

Despite such grassroots support, Perot had a difficult time being taken seriously by much of the mainstream media. With his short stature, squeaky voice, and large ears, he was rich fodder for late-night comedians and editorial cartoonists. Furthermore, Ross Perot always did and said exactly what Ross Perot thought was best, a trait that tended to both endear and infuriate his followers. In 1990, Perot biographer Todd Mason wrote these oddly prescient words, which perfectly describe the difficulty many had envisioning Perot as president: "(Perot) realizes that his low tolerance for frustration rules out politics.… He continues to decline invitations to run for president. He doesn't have the patience to deal with the inanities of public office. He can't compromise. He sees bureaucracy as maddeningly slow and ineffective at its best, and wrongheaded and corrupt at its worst."

As a presidential candidate, Perot had an advantage in the mercurial nature of public opinion, which was unusually difficult to predict in 1992. 1991 had been a historic year, marking the fall of communism and an enormously popular conflict in the Persian Gulf. Bush's approval ratings hovered above 90 percent for months after the war, but an economic recession hurt his approval ratings in 1992. Clinton understood this and ran on a theme summed up by his motto, "It's the economy, stupid." Perot also campaigned on an economic platform and took the bold step of validating the worst fears people had about the economy. Speaking plainly, Perot told America that everything was messed up, that the government had squandered their money, and that if the country continued on the same course things would only get worse. Perot also made a special point of bringing up the nation's $4 trillion debt, a number so large it almost defied description, and which he insisted must be paid sooner or later.

Perot ran an unorthodox campaign, eschewing large staffs and often ignoring the advice of his experienced campaign strategists, Hamilton Jordan and Ed Rollins. Perot used television as a campaign medium in manners very unlike anything that had been done in major races of the past. He avoided paid advertisements, preferring to appear on the "free media": talk shows, morning news shows, and Larry King Live. The differences in his approach to campaigning, his bitter-medicine campaign speeches, and his outsider status struck a chord with many voters early in the summer. At the campaign's peak, Perot ranked ahead of Clinton and Bush in many voter polls, including a June poll which reported that 37 percent of the voting population intended to vote for Perot.

On July 16, Perot made a surprise announcement: He believed that the revitalized Democratic Party was the right choice to lead the nation. Furthermore, the close three-way race would end up throwing the election into the House of Representatives, according to Perot, so he had decided to drop out of the race entirely. The reaction of Perot's followers covered the gamut from complete shock to anger. Most felt betrayed. Supporters and critics alike wondered if Perot's entire campaign had been a rich man's game, a diversion played out with millions of pawns until he had quit when the going got rough. By October, after weeks of speculation, Perot returned to the race, claiming that he was not satisfied that Bush or Clinton were really willing to fix the severe problems with the economy. After quitting once already, Perot had an uphill battle on his hands to regain his credibility.

His biggest advertising effort came late in the campaign, when he purchased half-hour blocks of time on major networks to present his campaign "infomercials." The infomercials were charming, low-budget affairs. For the most part they featured Perot speaking in an office, using his distinctive folksy humor and illustrating economic issues with a pointer. "Let's take a little time to figure out what's happened to the engine (of the American economy)," Perot said in one characteristically homespun analogy. "Let's raise the hood and go to work." Once again Perot flew in the face of conventional political wisdom and managed to come out on top. "The ruling political wisdom was that a single 'talking head' was the most boring thing in television and would drive viewers away rather than attract them," wrote Robert D. Loevy in The Flawed Path to the Presidency 1992. Instead, Perot's infomercials attracted large audiences and praise from voters. The first of the presentations attracted 16 million viewers.

Unlike many politicians, Perot ignored negative campaigning almost altogether, even as he painted a drastic picture of the economy. Perot's speeches, advertisements, and infomercials often avoided attacking his opponents by name, which was another popular move. And he also made a strong impression during the presidential debates with Bush and Clinton; many observers felt he was the real winner of the first and third debates and held his own in the second.

Despite the popularity of Perot's approach, Perot was not wholeheartedly embraced. Many of his most devoted followers and volunteers felt betrayed by his quitting; they had put their lives on hold for his campaign and he had failed them by bailing out for reasons that never became quite clear. In addition, negative reports that his management style was dictatorial and autocratic, and that he maintained absolute control over his company and employees repelled some. There were also those that questioned the wisdom of his choice of running mate, retired Rear Admiral James Stockdale. The choice of Stockdale, who had been the highest ranking prisoner of war during the Vietnam conflict, was in character for Perot because of his respect for Vietnam veterans and former POWs. Nevertheless, Stockdale seemed a bit out of touch to some and tended to further turn away those whose support for Perot was wavering.

The week before the elections, Perot harmed his campaign by revealing that he had initially quit the campaign based on information he had that a Republican "dirty tricks committee" was planning to sabotage his daughter's wedding. Perot never offered any evidence to support this allegation, and it gave much ammunition to his detractors, who painted him as a conspiracy-theorizing, paranoid eccentric. Ultimately Perot lost the election, garnering 18.9 percent of the popular vote and no electoral votes.

Perot had energized many voters in the 1990s, but he was tapping into a larger zeitgeist that has infused American politics nearly since the country was founded. Reformers in American history such as William Jennings Bryan and "Battling Bob" Lafollette have ridden the wave of "throw the bums out" public opinion to varying degrees of success. Perot was only the latest reformer to take advantage of his outsider status. Although his campaigns have ultimately been unsuccessful, he left a strong populist legacy and a reminder to both parties that a two-party system was not the unassailable fortress many believed it to be.

His extraordinarily high poll numbers early in 1992 and 18.9 percent of the final vote, one of the highest ever for an independent candidacy, sent a clear message to Washington that voters no longer considered a third party an irrational choice. His presence and influence reminded Republicans and Democrats alike that the two-party system could not be taken for granted, and that may well be his most important political legacy.

—Paul F.P. Pogue

Further Reading:

Black, Gordon S., and Benjamin Black. The Politics of American Discontent: How a New Party Can Make Democracy Work Again. New York, John Wiley and Sons, 1994.

Follett, Ken. On Wings of Eagles. New York, New American Library, 1984.

Loevy, Robert D. The Flawed Path to the Presidency 1992: Unfairness and Inequality in the Presidential Selection Process. Albany, State University of New York Press, 1995.

Mason, Todd. Perot: An Unauthorized Biography. Homewood, Illinois, Dow Jones-Irwin, 1990.

Pomper, Gerald M., editor. The Election of 1992: Reports and Interpretations. Chatham, New Jersey, Chatham House Publishers, 1993.

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Perot, Ross (1930—)

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