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H. Ross Perot, RIP

H. Ross Perot died on Tuesday at age 89, and although one is always well advised not to speak ill of the dead we think he had a largely negative effect on the country’s history.
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

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Rasslin’ With Power

Perhaps the two most tawdry spectacles in America are politics and professional wrestling, and president-elect Donald Trump has managed to merge them into something tawdrier yet. Trump has been a past performer in the professional rasslin’ ring, having famously shaved the head of World Wrestling Entertainment owner Vince McMahon following their “Battle of the Billionaires” at “Wrestlemania XXIII,” and now he’s recruited his past faux foe’s wife and business partner to run the Small Business Administration.
Linda McMahon is not without qualifications for the job, we must admit. Say what you will about the WWE, the McMahons have brought it from a small time local circuit to a big money-making global monopoly, and she’s also the founder and chief executive of Women’s Leadership Live, which advises independent businesswomen. In addition, she has some political experience from running a failed race for a Senate seat in Connecticut, where the “tea party” wave of 2010 didn’t quite reach, and she once staged a slapping match with her daughter for the entertainment of a crowd and has survived being kicked and body-slammed by Steve “Stone Cold” Austin‘and “tombstoned” by a behemoth named Kane, so at least she acts like she fights.
More pertinent selling points, we’re guessing, include her longstanding business relationship with Trump, the $6.5 million she contributed to his campaign, and the $5 million she’s contributed to the Trump Foundation, which supports such worthy causes as the reelection campaign of that Florida Attorney General who decided shortly after the check cleared to not pursue a case against Trump University. Trump frequently boasted during the campaign of all the favors he’d bought from politicians during his dazzling career, on the other hand, so perhaps he just considered the contributions another example of the business savvy McMahon will bring to the job, which is the very logic that got him elected.
In any case, we hold to a firm belief in the separation of politics and political wrestling, and contend that if only the founding fathers had been more farsighted they would have surely put something about in the Constitution. The last time the two came together was back in ’98 when Jesse “The Body” Ventura beat out Hubert Humphrey’s son and a perfectly reasonable Republican to become governor of Minnesota, and that did not end well. His crazy proposals for a unicameral legislature and instant run-off voting were rejected by both parties, 45 of the bills that did get passed were vetoed, he was bogged down a recall effort that focused on his use of state funds for a promotional book tour, and he left after one contentious term blaming everything on the media. Since then he’s been best known for peddling crackpot conspiracies and getting in bar fights with war heroes, and Minnesotans are still trying to remember what they were so fired-up angry about when electing him.
At the risk of sounding unfashionably elitist, we’d prefer that people in positions of political power have an innate sense of dignity that precludes them prancing around a ring in a feather boa, as “The Body” used to do, or shaving an opponent’s head, as “The Donald” once did, or getting “tombstoned” by some one-named giant in leotards or slap-fighting a daughter, as “The New Head of the Small Business Administration” has done. Presidents and their highest appointees were once recruited from the best of industry, academia, the military, sometimes the arts, oftentimes those who had proved themselves over long careers in politics, and although they frequently failed at least they did so with a certain dignified bearing. This is an age when reality shows and fake fights are all the rage, though, and with everyone so fired-up angry about something we suppose that the WWE’s newfound political was bound to happen.

— Bud Norman