There was plenty to be said for the colorful character, and it should be acknowledged. Although he was the son of a prominent and politically-connected cotton trader in his beloved home state of Texas he became a multi-billionaire by his own considerable smarts and inexhaustible energy. After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy he found himself bored with peacetime service, and left the Navy as soon as his Annapolis obligations had been met. He took a job as a salesman for the International Business Machines Corporation that then dominated the nascent computer industry, and was by all accounts extraordinarily successful at it, once meeting his yearly quota in three weeks. Perot stuck around IBM long enough to learn everything he needed to know about the computer biz, and in 1962 he left to start his own business.
Texas-based Electronic Data Systems proved a very profitable company, mostly from a number of sizable contracts with the federal government. He used much of his share of the profits to become an early and significant investor in what became Apple Computers, which proved even more profitable, and in 1988 he created Perot Systems Corporation, which further increased his multi-billion dollar wealth. He increased his already considerable fame after the Iranian Revolution of 1979 when he claimed to have raised a mercenary army to rescue to EDS employees who had been there working on a contract with overthrown Iranian government. The story was apocryphal, but was rivetingly told in the best-selling book “Wings of Angels” and then on a highly rated made-for-television movie.
Like so many other self-made men Perot eventually came to worship his creator, however, and by 1992 had decided that he was the best possible person to be President of the United States. He ran as an independent, with a small but enthusiastic following doing the legwork to get him enough signatures to be on the ballot in every state, and he was included on the televised debates with major party nominees, and he wound up winning 19 percent of the popular, the biggest share for a third-party candidate since former President Theodore Roosevelt and his Bull Moose party’s 27 percent in 1912.
Just as Roosevelt’s run wound costing the eminently conservative Republican William Howard Taff re-election and handed the White House over to prototypical progressive President Woodrow Wilson, Perot took enough votes from quintessentially establishment Republican President George H.W. Bush to give cleaned-up hippie Democratic President Bill Clinton the office with a mere plurality.
Perot’s platform called for higher taxes but huge cuts in social programs and promised balanced budgets and the full payment of the federal debt, which was at that time an obsession for most Republicans. He also ran on the argument that he was untainted by any previous political experience, and that the billions he had in the bank were proof he was smart enough to run anything, which then as now is somehow persuasive to a lot of Republicans. His foreign policy positions were more vague, and he’d been critical of the first Gulf War, although it was quickly won and established a Pax Americana in the Middle East that would last several years, but Reagan and Bush had won the Cold War and no one seemed to care much about foreign policy.
The first President Bush was known for his cautious if clumsy language and patrician bearing and impeccable public service credentials and stay-the-course leadership, but an increasingly rural and blue collar and anti-establishment Republican party was growing weary of all that, and with his cheap haircuts and jug ears and folksy language and authentic Texas twang Perot provided a stark contrast. He might have peeled off a few votes from Clinton, but we believed at the time and still do that most of his 19 percent would have won the Republicans a rare fourth presidential election victory.
Perot then transformed his ad hoc political organization into the Reform Party, which mostly attracted the sorts of Republicans who thought that the Republican party had become effete. The Grand Old Party had recently won the Cold War and created a large and long-lasting economic expansions, but then as now many Republicans felt it wasn’t protecting them from the oftentimes disruptive economic transformations that resulted from free trade and new technologies, and felt a sense that those establishment know-it-alls with the impeccable credentials didn’t identify with them, and they were looking to disrupt even the most venerable of America’s institutions.
Perot ran as the Reform Party nominee in ’96, but a truce between Clinton and the newly-installed House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his fellow firebrand Republicans installed in the mid-term elections resulted in a balanced budget, which deprived Perot of one of his signature issues. The second time around he finished with 8.4 percent of the vote, and although that probably didn’t cost Republican nominee Sen. Bob Dole the election it might have peeled off enough Democratic votes that Clinton had to settle for another plurality.
The Reform Party stuck around for a short while after Perot’s departure from public life, but long enough to do further damage. Former boa-clad professional wrestler and bona fide nutcase conspiracy theorist Jesse Ventura became governor of Minnesota for tumultuous turn on the Reform Party ticket, and paleo-conservative Pat Buchanan used the party’s presidential nomination to spread his paranoid populism and his admittedly fascist-friendly “America First” foreign policy. Outright racists such as former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke and a large number of erstwhile Republicans with class and race resentments of an establishment they just knew was out to get them found a home there, and a brash self-proclaimed billionaire named Donald Trump made his first foray into politics when he sought the party’s nomination.
Perot was quite right to warn about the federal debt, and deserves credit for suggesting that an unpopular tax hike and painful spending cuts might be required to pay it off, but it doesn’t seem to have had any lasting influence on either party. We thought his xenophobic protectionism was wrong then and still think it’s wrong as President Donald Trump pursues it, and we retain the same opinion about both Perot’s and Trump’s isolationist foreign policy instincts.
We wish a Perot an eternally happy afterlife, and freely acknowledge he was one of those rare individuals who left his mark on history, but he always appreciated blunt talk, so we feel free to say he had a mostly corrosive influence. He not only got Clinton elected and helped him get reelected, but he fostered a paranoid and conspiracy-theorizing suspicion of well-credentialed public servants and venerable political and economic institutions that persists in the Republican party to this day. The Democrats have their own paranoid and conspiracy-theorizing elements with crazy protectionist and isolation ideas, on the other hand, so as we wish Perot a fond farewell we’ll be hoping the center still holds.
— Bud Norman