Ross Perot Talks, Washington Squawks

With the shrewdness of a great politician, the presidential hopeful articulates the nation's deepest yearnings — and threatens to destroy the old order

Ross Perot in 1992. Credit: EUGENE GARCIA/AFP/Getty Images

No matter what happens next, Ross Perot has already done a good day's work for American democracy. Like a Wall Street arbitrageur raiding a Fortune 500 company, Perot has put the two-party system "in play." With his Will Rogers wit and twang, Perot has also put the fun –– and suspense –– back in the campaign. With the shrewdness of a great politician, he is articulating the nation's deepest anxieties and yearnings. His cocky self-confidence is mobilizing millions to engage themselves again in the adventure of self-government.

All that is valuable and a lot more than either George Bush or Bill Clinton has contributed so far. If Perot burns out before November, as Democrats and Republicans are desperately hoping, he will still have altered the fabric of national politics substantially –– both the way that candidates run for office and the way that citizens communicate with those in power. If Perot can dodge the land mines and brickbats, he may accomplish much, much more: His candidacy threatens to break up the old order and open the way for profound change.

As a result, 1992 has become a rare moment in the country's history –– full of great democratic possibilities. The nation, I suspect, is entering a long period of political disarray, in which the entrenched power relationships surrounding the federal government will be challenged in imaginative new ways and perhaps broken up. The status quo must either reform itself or be replaced. Either way this historic opportunity will require poise and patience (as well as hard work) from the citizens at large. If you want real change in politics, you have to be willing to accept some chaos and uncertainty.

Right now the air is blue with slanderous accusations aimed at decapitating Perot. The governing elites, including the major media, recognize the danger he poses to their own power; they're hacking away as though the diminutive Texan were a fiery dragon at the castle gates. Perot is a fraudulent outsider, they claim, since as a businessman, he's done the sort of deal making with political money that offends the public. Perot is a narrow-minded autocrat who will impose his own short-hair morality on the nation. Perot is a commando-style leader who will scrap the Constitution.

The New Republic, which used to idolize Bush and is now a courtier to Clinton, has already upped the ante and invoked the f-word. Ross Perot, it announced solemnly, is an American fascist.

Wow. A home-grown Mussolini from Texarkana? Fortunately, most Americans are smarter than Washington editors and reporters think they are. Everyone (including myself) has lots of unanswered questions about Perot. As he fills in the blanks in the next few months, we may decide that, indeed, he isn't up to the presidency. In the meantime, most are willing to give the man a little slack and listen to what he has to say.

For now, we know for sure that Perot is a smart character who's already achieved a serious purpose: His sudden rise confirms the bankruptcy of the status quo. The spontaneous popularity of a Texas billionaire who has never held public office reflects the fact that neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are confronting the threatening realities facing the nation and that neither party is genuinely connected to the common experience of ordinary Americans. Perot has already proved something else: The regular order is vulnerable –– vulnerable to an organized insurgency from powerless citizens.

Perot says he does not want the government interfering in the reproductive decisions of his wife or four daughters. He is unequivocally pro-choice on the abortion issue.

Perot declared himself against the war in Iraq while it was underway, not exactly a popular position when 90 percent of the country was cheering. As Clinton endorsed the conflict, Perot denounced it as "a sporting event" in which Bush set out to prove his manhood. "We were programmed to get excited about that war," Perot told TV Guide recently. "If you look at the careful orchestration of TV during the war –– videotape of smart bombs going down air shafts and so forth –– no pictures of men wounded on the battlefields, no casualties, no media to cover the bodies being brought back to Dover –– this was all very carefully controlled."

Perot has for years described Reaganomics as a disaster for workers and the economy. He calls deregulation "this silly stuff" that led to such disasters as the S&L bailout. He blames leveraged buyouts for wrecking major U.S. corporations. "The Eighties is the decade that we gave away our industrial lead and acted totally irresponsibly," he said in 1990.

Perot also opposed Reagan's war against Nicaragua and refused to contribute to the contras because the conflict was conducted in contempt of constitutional processes. "Some of the private groups have come around to see me, and I said, 'Look, if we're going to have a war in this country, Congress has got to make that decision, not private individuals,'" Perot said back in 1986.

In other words, contrary to the media's continual complaints, this man is neither vague on big issues nor short on specifics. While his rhetoric has a wholesome apple-pie flavoring, Perot has declared himself in unambiguous terms on dozens of large and controversial questions. I spent some time poring over his utterances from the last 20 years (greatly assisted by an entertaining new book, Ross Perot: In His Own Words, by Tony Chiu) and was more impressed by the opposite quality: his willingness to cut through the standard euphemisms and evasions.

At various times Perot has endorsed the idea of national service ("At some time in your life, you should give a year or two to your country," 1983) and the need for congressional pay raises ("As I study Congress, they work hard; we don't pay them enough," 1989). He has denounced the inequities of the criminal-justice system ("The guy who commits ... minor theft, who comes from a lower income status, will do time. The guy who does a multimillion rip-off of some institution or other investors will probably wiggle his way out of it," 1987). He has preached endlessly on the need to reform education ("In a recent worldwide algebra test, we ranked 14th out of 15 nations tested. If it makes you feel any better, we beat Thailand," 1988).

Like any other public figure, Perot also waffles on some matters. He says he's for gun control, but his rhetoric sounds a lot like the National Rifle Association's –– "getting the guns away from criminals." His critique of the federal tax code is right on target but still indistinct on how to reform it. When Perot fills in the blanks, I am fearful that his ideas will be nothing new –– more tax breaks for the rich.

Perot's flip remarks on the environment suggest a shallowness that could be quite destructive in a president. "I'm pragmatic," he said in May. "If there's a choice between survival and protecting the planet, we will pillage and plunder the planet if it gets that basic.… Nobody will think about the spotted owl if they're starving, except maybe to eat him."

Having sown the wind, Perot is himself now playing catch-up on these subjects and others. His fledgling campaign organization, hastily assembled in Dallas, is tapping both parties for information and expertise and promises to flesh out the attitudes and one-liners later this summer. John G. White, the former Carter White House official who is organizing policy issues for Perot, acknowledged, for instance, that the candidate must offer more than a non sequitur about the spotted owl. "We're developing themes around jobs and the environment," White explained. "It's not an either-or choice."

But in any case, Perot will not soon emerge sounding like another policy nerd, peddling boilerplate on every issue. His great strength as a politician is an authentic ability to articulate shared principles and perspectives ordinary people can understand and trust –– free of the tricky-track language of Washington or the artful bromides designed to appease various interest groups. If that disappoints reporters, so what? People do understand where this guy stands.

Reading Perot's words and watching him on TV, I'm forcefully reminded of another great communicator also initially disparaged and underestimated by the Washington press. His name was Reagan.

The central reason Perot's candidacy is flourishing is that the Cold War is over. As long as the nation was mesmerized by the Soviet threat, most voters would not dream of entrusting the presidency to a rank outsider. Now that risk seems less dangerous. More important, Perot is offering a genuine post-Cold War strategy for governing.

His priorities are domestic: jobs and wages; education; and the restoration of America's manufacturing base. Against Clinton and Bush, he is the only candidate willing to challenge head-on the laissez-faire rules of the global economy. His economic nationalism threatens the 40-year-old bipartisan consensus based on free trade and military empire.

Like most of his statements, Perot's economic pronouncements are evocative of the general direction he would take as president but lack underlying explication. He wants to send a bill for $100 billion to Germany and Japan for the defense the United States has provided those countries for free. That idea is, of course, a nonstarter in international diplomacy, but it gives you a clear sense of how he feels about continuing the Cold War defense subsidies for our economic competitors.

In trade, he proposes a level playing field with Japan that would apply the same barriers to Japanese imports as now confront American products in Japan. Unlike Clinton, Perot embraces organized labor's position on Bush's new free-trade agreement with Mexico: He's against it. "You would have a surge in building factories down there but a long-term drought here at a time we cannot pay our budget deficits," he's said.

His vision of how to restore America's manufacturing base links action in many realms: education reform, tax cuts for high-risk business ventures, government industrial policy to nurture long-term growth in promising sectors. In some ways, it resembles an American knockoff of Japan's winning strategy. But his rhetoric does not offer much comfort to big-business leaders, the corporate CEOs whom Perot describes as a large part of the problem. "Big is not beautiful," he once said. "Big is inefficient."

Thus, Perot combines qualities that cut across the usual Republican-Democratic distinctions. Despite his anti-Washington critique and his resemblance to Reagan, he is arguing for an activist government that would intervene in the private economy –– a perspective that resonates with liberal Democratic traditions. Yet he is a successful businessman who expresses the bottom-line sympathies and frustrations associated with conservatives in the Republican party.

But above all, Perot is an entrepreneur who started small and, through pluck and luck, became a billionaire. His most hostile scorn is aimed at those moguls of big business and finance who underwrote the Reagan-Bush regime and profited handsomely while the economy was wrecked. Perot has challenged their eminence in his business career, and he would likely do so again in government.

The rich and potentially contradictory mix of ideas and attitudes is part of what makes Perot so intriguing. It may yet destroy him as a candidate when he is forced to translate attitude into policy goals. But if he can somehow synthesize the competing strands into a coherent whole for governing, Perot will prove to be a true original –– a political leader who defines the future by escaping from the stale categories of the past.

The formidable barrier to a Perot presidency involves questions of "character." This is not about whether he smoked dope or cheated on his wife or dodged the draft. Perot makes us nervous for approximately the same reasons that he is so appealing –– he is a Lone Ranger from the business world, a man with a strong sense of right and wrong and a penchant for launching commando-style raids on large, complicated problems. But can-do virtues can become dreadful liabilities in the Oval Office.

How would this man govern? The press has hammered on Perot as a rigid moralist who would impose his own Norman Rockwell culture, but I'm convinced this is a bum rap. For one thing, as he told TV Guide, his favorite TV show is Cheers, which he watches every night in reruns. Cheers is not a sitcom for prudish minds: The wonderful characters and witty dialogue thrive mainly on good-natured sexual innuendoes, not to mention a steady consumption of alcohol. And a candidate self-confident enough to say "bullshit" in an on-the-record interview, as Perot sometimes casually does, has got to be pretty loose (Clinton and Bush could use a little of that themselves).

What's more, Perot's behavior and rhetoric do not fit the profile of a narrow-minded bigot (homophobic and racist and super-macho). "The real test is, have I ever had a policy in my business against hiring homosexuals?" Perot said. "The answer is no. Have I ever had homosexuals working for me? Yes. They were bright, they were talented, they were able. This was in their private lives. The point being, I have said again and again that what people do in their private lives is their own business." On race, Perot chides his own audiences, mostly composed of whites: "If you hate other people, I don't want your vote."

The troubling aspect of Perot's character, however, is his spooky preoccupation with secretive missions, whether rescuing hostages or investigating adversaries. If his instincts are inclined to clandestine action, he could be truly dangerous in the White House. The modern presidency is endowed with awesome powers to manipulate events secretly or to injure opponents in extralegal ways. In fairness, most of our modern presidents, including Bush, have abused these powers in their own self-serving ways. Even if we assume the worst, Perot would still not be the first chief executive to set aside the Constitution.

Perot's colleagues try to explain that many of his adventures –– especially the pursuit of MIAs in Vietnam –– were rooted in his sense of loyalty, especially to military rank and file. He is an Annapolis graduate and served four years in the navy; Ollie North, a fellow Annapolis alumnus, asked him for ransom money to free various hostages, and Perot agreed.

It is also possible Perot is telling the truth when he now says he got burned by these experiences and has become more skeptical. A vigorous supporter of the Vietnam War, Perot now insists that war-making requires a declaration by Congress. "Now I say if these guys ever call me again for anything, I'm going to want a joint resolution from Congress, a note from the president and a legal opinion from the chief justice," he said in 1987.

Still, character is the most serious of the unanswered questions about Ross Perot. America has already had one cowboy in the White House (Reagan) and one spy master (Bush). The republic survived, but they both did serious damage.

The other danger implicit in Perot's candidacy is not his fault: the illusion of celebrity. If people think one individual –– the man on horseback –– can somehow correct all that has gone wrong, they are going to be disappointed again and perhaps further alienated. This nation cannot rebuild its democracy from the top down –– it will require hard work from millions of ordinary citizens, their commitment and patience and, yes, their idealism.

To his great credit, Perot not only understands this but says it again and again –– if people want change, they must do it themselves. His candidacy has reawakened hope among the disaffected precisely because he's put the burden on them. He's opening political space for ordinary citizens that didn't exist a few months ago.

Even if his candidacy should fail, Perot has already taught the nation a powerful lesson: Despite all the obstacles, a vigorous democracy is still possible if people will engage themselves in the process. Whatever happens in 1992, that message will disrupt the political status quo for many years to come.