Ross Perot died early Tuesday morning at age 89, an event that surely left many Americans with an embarrassed thought: Wait, what?…I am pretty sure I thought he was already dead.
The contrast between the quietude of Perot’s last aging years and the blaring trumpets of his 20th Century business and political career is so wide that it takes some effort now to recall how large this cocksure Texas bantam once loomed.
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A touch of exaggeration is standard in obituaries, but it actually doesn’t take much in Perot’s case. He was a secular prophet who in his own time anticipated and personified the disruptive currents of the present time.
Whether that’s a compliment or not, of course, depends on what you think of the present time. But for people who on occasion (perhaps several times a week) respond to the news in the Trump era by thinking to themselves, I can’t believe this is happening, Perot’s story is a useful reminder that norm-shattering, cult-of-personality politics is not an exclusively recent phenomenon.
A quarter-century before Donald Trump, Perot was a brash, can-do showman who expressed contempt for politics-as-usual and promised voters who shared his disdain that the path to national greatness was to send an autocratic businessman with a touch of jingo to the White House to kick ass in Washington.
Perot said cozy, insider self-dealing had corrupted Washington and was screwing over average Americans, and he complained that free-trade agreements like NAFTA were a raw deal for workers and the larger economy. This message from 1992 is a linear ancestor of the one that echoes to some degree in both parties and vaulted Trump to the presidency in 2016.
He also said budget deficits of some $250 billion annually would bankrupt the country, a message that sounds quaint at a time of trillion-dollar deficits that even onetime fiscal hawks no longer are especially agitated about.
Unlike Trump, under whom the country gets to actually run the experiment of seeing what would happen by saying to hell with conventional politicians, Perot’s significance as a political figure resonates largely because of two what-if questions:
What if Perot had not waged an independent candidacy that captured 18.9 percent of the vote in 1992?
There’s a good chance that there never would have been a Clinton presidency. The question of whether Perot took more votes from Bill Clinton or George H.W. Bush spurred endless and ultimately imponderable post-election analysis among pollsters and political scientists. There wasn’t much doubt, however, among operatives close to both candidates over who the beneficiary was and the real-world impact. Perot, who loathed Bush, amplified Clinton’s criticism of the GOP incumbent, and at important junctures spoke approvingly of Clinton and his running mate, Al Gore. He gave conservative-leaning swing voters who didn’t like Bush a safe alternative to Clinton.
Clinton ultimately paid a price for the Perot phenomenon. When the Texan ran again in 1996 as the founder of the Reform Party, he never factored heavily in the outcome but still commanded 8 percent of the vote, leaving Clinton capped at 49 percent. While Clinton is sometimes lauded as the most agile natural politician of modern times, he (unlike George W. Bush or Barack Obama) never won majority support in a presidential election.
What if Perot had been a little less, um, erratic?
Idiosyncrasy — or at a minimum an eagerness to break standard political molds — was part of Perot’s charm. The incumbent’s cracker-barrel quips and homilies were, for a while, entertaining even to people who didn’t take his presidential ambitions seriously.
“If you see a snake,” he said, “just kill it — don’t appoint a committee on snakes.” The federal debt was “like a crazy aunt we keep down in the basement.” The most intractable problems of government, he promised, could be fixed by letting him get “under the hood” in the same way he had gotten rich as the founder and CEO of Electronic Data Systems. Part of the Perot mythology (in a story later chipped away at by skeptics) was how he deployed a private commando team to rescue two employees from Iran in 1979.
Conspiracy theories were always part of his appeal, as with his claim that the first Bush administration was suppressing knowledge of POWs still alive in Vietnam.
But sometimes Perot’s renegade streak turned simply weird. He surprised people in the summer of 1992 by dropping out of the presidential race, offering praise for the challenge that Clinton and Gore were presenting to the elder Bush. Then in the fall he surprised people again by dropping back in the race. In a bizarre moment, he claimed without substantiation that Republican operatives had tried to sabotage his daughter’s wedding.
Despite what was widely interpreted as evidence of loose screws, Perot still captured the allegiance of one in five voters. Though Perot preached self-discipline — strict dress and hair codes at his corporations — when it came to his political campaigns he proved incapable of practicing it. If he had, and maintained a consistent message throughout his 1992 campaign, it is easily conceivable that he could have ended up the victor.
As it was, his race revealed clear evidence of a constituency in national politics, radicalized in its disaffection with the major parties and with a nagging sense of American decline — a constituency that didn’t go away even after Perot did.