Ross Perot: Profit and patriot
My Republican father went to his grave in 2010, still blaming me for the outcome of the 1992 election. “It’s your fault that Bill Clinton got elected,” he would say. Dad was referring to my support for Ross Perot, a self-made Texas billionaire who ran as an independent candidate for President against Clinton, the Democrat, and George H. W. Bush, the Republican incumbent. To many, Perot was nothing more than a spoiler who cost Bush the election. “You wasted your vote,” Dad would say. I didn’t believe that then, and I still don’t believe it 27 years later. What Perot accomplished and contributed that year is nothing short of phenomenal, and I can’t help but feel that America would be better off had he been elected. Perot made another run for the White House in 1996, but after a disappointing showing, he dropped out of the public eye. Ross Perot passed away last week. He was 89 years old.
Political junkies and journalists under the age of 50, only know Perot by googling him, but for those of us who covered or participated in the ’92 election, he will be remembered as an unforgettable force of nature, and the most successful third party Presidential candidate in history. Yes, I’m aware that Teddy Roosevelt fared a little better in 1912 than Perot did in 1992, but by the time Roosevelt ran on the Bull Moose ticket, he had already served two terms as President. Perot, on the other hand, though widely accomplished, was not a household name when he entered politics. After having served in the Navy for four years, Perot borrowed $1,000 from his wife, Margot, and created Electronic Data Systems, which he later sold for over $2 billion.
He then started Perot Systems, which he sold for $4 billion. In 1969, Perot traveled to North Vietnam to negotiate for the release of POWs, and 10 years later when two EDS staffers were held hostage in Iran, Perot mounted his own successful, private, para-military rescue mission.
Ross Perot was tough-minded and business-savvy, but he was best known for his plain-speaking and often humorous phrasings. During their three-way debate in October 1992, Perot stole the show from Bush and Clinton when he uttered his now-famous warning about what would happen if Congress passed NAFTA: “We have got to stop sending jobs overseas. It’s pretty simple. If you’re paying $12 an hour for factory workers, and you can move your factory South of the border, pay a dollar an hour for labor, have no health care, have no environmental controls, no pollution controls, and no retirement, and you don’t care about anything but making money, then there will be a giant sucking sound going south.”
In fact, Perot was the only candidate who made the economy and our growing deficit a central focus of that campaign. And while history will show that Perot got nearly 20% of the popular vote in 1992, that doesn’t tell the real story of his rise to prominence, and how much of a threat he posed to Bush and Clinton early on. Lest we forget, after Perot officially entered the race in February, he quickly became the front runner, and by June he was still in the lead, polling 39% to Bush’s 31%, with 25% for Clinton (source: NYT, 6/11/92).
But less than one month later, Perot suddenly and mysteriously dropped out of the race. His official reason for the pull-out was that he believed the Democratic party had become unified, and he didn’t want to hurt Clinton’s chances. Only months later did we learn the real reason for Perot’s retreat. He claimed that multiple sources told him that Bush’s campaign was plotting to disrupt his daughter’s wedding by, among other things, distributing lewd, doctored photos of her. Bush’s press secretary denied Perot’s charges and implied that the Texan was crazy.
Nevertheless, the Perot wedding went off without a hitch, and Ross’s daughter, who had known nothing about the threats against her, urged her Father to re-enter the race. Despite a winning debate performance, however, Perot was never able to regain his earlier momentum, and he finished third on election day.
We’ll never know what kind of President Ross Perot would have been, but we know what kind of a person he was. He was a dedicated husband and father, a fair and courageous employer, a military man who hated war, an unlikely, plain-speaking politician in the Harry Truman mold, and a candidate who wasn’t afraid to tell us the truth.
Sorry, dad, but I have no regrets for voting for Perot in 1992. As far as I’m concerned, the Bush and Clinton supporters wasted their vote that year. R.I.P., Ross.
Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11 a.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).