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The Ross Perot you don't know.

The things that make him a great leader would make him a dangerous profit.

I'm better than that," lamented Ross Perot. He pounded a bony fist on his antique desk. "I could have gotten that fire put out'"

On a September morning a few years back, Perot was sitting in his North Dallas office, blaming himself for the incineration of Yellowstone National Park. "I could've raised enough hell that they would've had to put that fire out."

Somehow it didn't seem at all strange that this private citizen, who had accumulated a $3 billion fortune selling computer services, regarded fighting forest fires as not merely his mandate, but his burden. And it doesn't seem strange today that the new burden he'd like to shoulder is running this country. No public figure in America defines his personal mission in more cosmic terms than Perot; no public figure so conspicuously embraces the role of savior. Ross Perot is better than that: It might be the slogan for his rearguard charge against George Bush and Bill Clinton. It is certainly the perfect expression of his confidence.

Ross Perot is utterly self-assured, the sort of person who walks into someone else's house and turns on the lights. He is, he says, a simple man. Yet his legend is full of contradictions. He is a political neophyte who wants to save our political system, a billionaire who claims to speak for the little guy, an antigovernment crusader who made his fortune on government contracts, and the consummate noncandidate, now actively running for president. It is these contradictions that leave him exhaustively chronicled but poorly explained. Who is Ross Perot?

Packs of reporters have told the Perot legend: born in Texarkana (on the Texas side, of course), a salesman before he was a teenager (garden seeds, saddles, newspaper subscriptions), class president at the Naval Academy (twice), and IBM supersalesperson (one year he earned the maximum annual commission IBM allowed by January 19). He founded Electronic Data Systems (EDS) in 1962; six years later he became a megamillionaire. Fortune called him the "fastest richest Texan ever." Today, he is the 13th wealthiest man in America.

But Ross Perot has never been content with mere money. In the sixties, he spent $1.5 million to hand-deliver mail, medicine, and Christmas meals to American POWs in North Vietnam. In the seventies, he financed the rescue of two EDS employees from an Iranian prison. By the eighties, his targets had multiplied: drug use, mediocrity in Texas public schools, myopia in corporate America. And today, he's set his sights on the American system in general.

It is no coincidence that the historical figure Perot admires most is Winston Churchill. At the moment of crisis, Churchill did for England what Perot wants to do for America: He mobilized the will of a nation. But to what end? The Coy Candidate will issue no position papers; he is decidedly vague on the details. To understand the current presidential hopeful, then, you have to plumb the secrets of Perot past-the shrewd salesman, the plain-living billionaire, the judgmental philanthropist, the crusading school reformer, and the political pragmatist whose firm beliefs in efficient government, strong public schools, and drug-free kids sometimes make little allowance for niceties like the Constitution.

No one can doubt Ross Perot's good intentions; it's clear that the nation's problems deeply engage him. And no ego in America is better primed to take the pounding. But before we line up behind Perot, we had better get to know him: a man whose righteousness and impatience might shake things up in Washington as they have in Texas. And who, when things finally settle down, might leave some nagging questions in his wake.

Waiting for Perot

"Is there any scenario in which you would run for president? Can you give a scenario in which you'd say, 'OK, I'm in'?"

It was February 20, and "Larry King" was live.

No," Perot answered flatly. But for the Texas billionaire things are seldom that simple. After a few minutes' discussion, Perot had apparently reconsidered. "Everyday folks" were pressing him to run, he explained, "writing me in longhand. . . .Now that touches me. I don't want to fail them

Moments later, Perot was preaching directly to the little people: [I]f you're that serious-you, the people, are that serious-you register me in 50 states, and if you're not willing to do that-"

So you're considering running as an independent, King interrupted logically. Perot recoiled. "I'm not asking to be drafted ... I am not encouraging people to do this ... the push has to come from them."

Of course, Perot had already been doing a little pushing himself. Weeks before, he had resolved to run for president and had arranged his own appearance on Larry King (after duly considering other media outlets) specifically to orchestrate his own draft. His remarks had been well practiced.

If Perot's posturing is sometimes transparent, it's also-make no mistake-a canny way to sell himself to the American people. Practically before anyone could say Texarkana," petition drives were underway in all 50 states. A pair of national polls showed Perot-without having sullied himself with a declaration of candidacy, without tapping into the $100 million he promised to invest in a national campaign-pulling more than 20 percent of the vote. Perot was suddenly serious business: the "ultimate wild card," as The New York Times put it, "in a year in which half the cards in the political deck seem to be jokers."

Selling, not managing, has always been Ross Perot's genius. At IBM he broke so many sales records that the company started capping his commissions. One can just imagine a younger Perot making a sales pitch, sitting across a desk from some executive who has never heard of a computer, leaning forward, looking oh-so-earnest, selling not just a machine but a promise of a new world. When it came time to start his own business, that salesmanship helped him parlay his $1,000 investment-the minimum required to incorporate under Texas law-into an empire. But what Perot's mythmakers sometimes forget is that this bootstrap philosopher owes much of his success to the federal government.

Electronic Data Systems Leasing Corporation, which Perot founded in 1962 on his 32nd birthday, struggled for its first four years. When EDS moved into its own building and put its name up outside, some people wandered in expecting to find a restaurant named "Ed's." Then, in 1965, the federal government got into the health insurance business; Perot quickly began capturing lucrative state contracts to computerize systems for paying Medicare and Medicaid claims. Profits soared.

Perot's EDS was a tight ship, captained by people as smart and tough as he. In accordance with a written dress code, his male employees wore dark suits, white shirts, and subdued facial hair. But beneath the corporate gloss was a strict, sometimes nasty meritocracy. Employees who won a critical bidding war with IBM received cash and stock bonuses "while they were still sweating," as Perot put it. The less successful were expelled with equal speed.

Identifying with his troops, Perot ate in the EDS cafeteria and attached his personal fortunes to the company's. That strategy proved a smart one. Less than two years after EDS went public in 1968, the paper value of his interest-about 78 percent of EDS -leapt to $1.5 billion.

If money was the game, Perot, after eight lively years, had won. In 1970 he freed himself from day-to-day affairs at EDS while retaining the title of chairman. Now he would have the time to exercise his salesmanship skills more broadly.

North Dallas sporty

"America's first welfare billionaire," Ramparts magazine called Perot in the sixties. But the nuanced way he has treated those billions is a quality those Ramparts editors might grudgingly respect. When EDS stock nosedived in 1970, costing Perot a one-day paper loss of $450 million, he said he would be more upset if one of his children had broken a finger. Most rich Texans think that wealth is a way of keeping score. To Perot, money is primarily a tool, a lever to force the world in the direction he wants it to go.

It has been written, wrongly, that Perot buys his clothes off the rack at K-Mart. He is not ostentatious, but neither is he an ascetic. His 22-acre estate in North Dallas, guarded round-the-clock by an elaborate security system and armed guards, includes a pool, a gymnasium, a tennis court, and stables. In 1984 he sold EDS to General Motors for $2.5 billion, but he continues to live by rules of thrift. He doesn't want anything he can't use, and he insists on getting value for his money, whether it's being spent on cigarette boats or charity.

It's in his charitable giving that Perot's attitude toward money is most apparent. Only months after he first acquired wealth, he established a charitable foundation, and he has since parted with more than $120 million. For many years he did not take a tax deduction for his charitable contributions on the grounds that he owed his wealth to his country. He was not shy, however, about accepting credit for his largesse. In 1969, as he financed the massive airlift of supplies to POWs in North Vietnam, he reveled in the media spotlight, appearing on the "Today" show and taking out ads in hundreds of newspapers.

The politics of Perot's philanthropy are characteristically complex. His first major gift, at a time when he was still regarded as a right-wing businessman, was $2.4 million donated to establish special learning programs at one of Dallas' inner-city black elementary schools. While Perot is no advocate of government handouts to the poor, he's personally handed them millions. In choosing which projects to devote his time to, he measures worthiness by one primary criterion: the potential for greatness. "World class" is Perot's mantra. And the most world-class of all his projects-until now-was the wholesale remaking of the Texas school system in the mid-eighties.

There was no denying at the time-although the teachers tried to-that the Texas schools needed serious fixing, and Perot, appointed by the governor as chairman of a state committee on public education, helped package the issue brilliantly for the public. He found state colleges of education that were turning out illiterate teachers, a junior high school that closed at noon on Tuesdays for football games, a student who had been excused for 35 class days to exhibit his prize chicken. As usual, Perot was convinced he could "do better than that." He would raise the passing grade from 60 to 70; establish a no-pass, no-play rule to correct Texas' overemphasis on athletics; provide smaller class sizes in the lower grades, a Head Start program for four-year-olds, teacher-competency testing, and merit pay raises; and redistribute state aid to narrow the funding gap between wealthy and poor school districts.

This project, unlike many of Perot's other schemes, required not just money, but real political finesse: The education establishment had political influence in every community in Texas. So Perot hired the best lobbyists in Austin and stroked the local and national press to turn one man's idea into a mandate. Once again, he made the sale. In an arduous special session, the Texas Legislature passed the Perot reforms with modest changes.

It was a stunning political accomplishment-one that has secured Perot a place in Texas civic history. But public approbation did not soften Ross Perot. Shortly after his triumph, supporters of Bishop College, a debt-ridden black school in Dallas, pleaded with Perot for a contribution that would keep its doors open. Unconvinced that the college had the leadership to become "world class," Perot let Bishop die.

"The last thing those students need," he explained at the time, "is anything second-rate." You can almost hear him today saying the same thing about Americans' choices in Campaign 92, a race between men without world-class potential. And in Perot, that notion breeds a powerful temptation. If he thinks he can do better, he's going to try.

Go-Go Perot

In The Go-Go Years, a book about the stock market boom of the sixties, there's a description of Perot's meeting with a group of long-haired West Coast radicals in 1969. When they arrived at the chairman's office, the radicals stated their purpose: Would he fund the Revolution?

Without missing a beat, Perot shot back: "How long will it take, and how much will it cost?"

As that response suggests, Perot is a man without discernible political ideology. Instead, he sees life as a series of puzzles. What is the problem? What is the solution? Who can get the job done? He praised Jesse Jackson for his 1983 mission to Syria to free a captured U.S. flier. He called Mikhail Gorbachev "the most interesting leader alive." He has criticized Reagan and Bush for failing to deal with the budget.

At one time, Perot sought to promote his political opinions the way most businessmen do: through campaign contributions. Now he donates only token amounts to politicians. The political vision he prefers to support is his own.

The 11th-floor headquarters of the Perot Petition Committee-the spontaneous people's crusade-bears the billionaire's unmistakable, high-efficiency mark. The committee, which in March registered with the Federal Election Commission, operates out of the silver-glass North Dallas skyscraper where Perot presides over his empire. Perot is personally bankrolling the committee's space, as well as the cost of a massive phone system manned seven days a week by scores of volunteers.

In the second-floor phone room, binders hold scripts to guide these volunteers. One sample question reads, "Where does Ross Perot stand on the issues?" The answer: "At this point, we're focusing on the petition drive to get Ross Perot on the ballot. His basic character and positions seem to be well known." Well, okay. But what do his business moves, his charitable projects, his personal crusades tell us about Perot as president?

Forget his proposed electronic town meetings and phone systems over which average citizens could offer their solutions to America's problems. Perot finds corporate bureaucracies maddeningly slow; imagine how he would find real participatory democracy. Instead, a Perot presidency would be a stiff dose of medicine, administered with swiftness and the expectation that we would swallow gamely-that we would see as clearly as he does the fundamental rightness of his vision.

In accordance with that vision, he would take on the education lobby, just as he did in Texas. He would raise taxes to reduce the deficit, while the shrewd philanthropist in him would cut social security benefits for those not in need. The antidrug crusader would force millions of federal workers in sensitive jobs to submit to drug testing. And if a defense contractor billed the government for boarding its executives' pets in kennels, the unostentatious Perot would, in his words, "put them under the jail and pour the cement."

On foreign policy, he would try to make the Japanese and Europeans foot the bill for their own defense. He would cut government aid to any developing nation that lacked promise of becoming world class. It would be hard to imagine a better leader in wartime: cutting through red tape to speed industrial production, inspiring workers to accept lower wages while they work overtime for the national good, assigning Boy Scout troops and PTAs to collect scrap rubber and metal for recycling.

But let's not draft him yet. Many elements of Perot's character are poorly suited to a peacetime presidency. He is abrasive, turning opponents into implacable enemies. His ego is unaccustomed to compromise. And most importantly, he has a tendency to act too boldly-like "an unguided missile," Molly Ivins once wrote. In search of the flashy project that will create great change and galvanize public attention, he can do a fair amount of damage.

A few years back, after cruising drug-infested South Dallas neighborhoods in a police car, Perot proposed his own solution: The city should cordon off sections of the area and send in hundreds of cops for a house-to-house, person-to-person confiscation of drugs and weapons. Under the Constitution, that's illegal; it's also inhuman. But Perot saw it as the simplest way to free the neighborhood from crime.

That same simplicity of vision guided Perot's mission to free the two EDS employees imprisoned in Iran-a rescue mission remembered as a brilliant success. Yet, to free the jailed pair, Perot's commandos orchestrated a riot that sprang 11,000 people-including murderers and rapists-from a Teheran prison. The mission also violated both U.S. and international law.

It is the fatal flaw of the pragmatist: Obsessed with blazing the shortest path to a solution, he's willing to sacrifice as "details" those safeguards that keep government from abusing its power. Such conviction is compelling in Citizen Perot. It could be-and has been-frightening in a leader.

In 1986, Perot told a black-tie audience gathered to honor him that he had once dreamed of being the beautiful pearl in an oyster. Instead, he decided, his lot in life was to be the grain of sand that irritates the oyster to produce the pearl. Although the candidate seems to have forgotten his own insight in the "Draft Perot" frenzy, it captures why we should hope that Ross Perot does not become president. His value to the nation is the purity of his opinion, his radical pragmatism. He can serve America best as an irritant.
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Author:Elkind, Peter
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:May 1, 1992
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