Everyone laughed at Ross Perot. If the biggest third-party threat to the presidency since the Bull Moose Party hadn’t existed, late-night comics would have invented him.
In the early nineties, when Perot took on Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush for the presidency and became a political phenom, Perot impersonations were the rage. Dana Carvey doing Perot doing Neil Diamond after Perot’s famed 1993 NAFTA debate with Vice President Al Gore was a hit (“You don’t bring me flowers… Yer not listenin’!”). Jim Carrey doing Perot doing Steve Martin was more risqué (“You every notice how there’s no blacks, Jews, or Puerto Ricans on The Jetsons? Future looks pretty bright, dudn’t it?”). I remember seeing standup acts in New York at the time and Perot was mandatory. He was America’s punchline.
Even after his passing from leukemia at 89, the rim-shot takes continued. The New York Times regurgitated the permanent insult for all short politicians — “elfin” — in its weirdly vicious story about Perot’s death:
And in 1992 he became one of the most unlikely candidates ever to run for president. He had never held public office, and he seemed all wrong, like a cartoon character sprung to life: an elfin 5 feet 6 inches and 144 pounds, with a 1950s crew cut; a squeaky, nasal country-boy twang; and ears that stuck out like Alfred E. Neuman’s on a Mad magazine cover…
Perot was an odd duck to be sure, and he had some troubling characteristics (including alleged overuse of surveillance against employees of his company, Electronic Data Systems). Detractors never figured out that it was precisely his eccentricity that won him support. Every joke lobbed at him added votes in an era when people were becoming distrustful of what Time called the professionalization of politics. Middle America saw Perot as an “antidote to politics-as-usual slickness.”
To Middle America, the glib, slick exterior of the two-party system (with its quadrennial stage-managed election façade) spoke to its alienation from the populace. This made the square-peg personality of Perot more accessible. You know who else has funny looks and goofy speech and would be easy fodder for comedians if they had to go on TV every day? Most people.
Voters understood on some level that Perot was being mocked less for being funny-looking than for having the temerity to run for president without going through party bureaucracies, donors, and the Washington media.
His half-hour campaign ads predicting future economic catastrophe were constantly ridiculed. Perot was a human George Foreman Grill! A joke! Who runs for president by infomercial?
But it should have been a huge red flag that up to 16 million people tuned in to these lectures from Perot. One of the first, “Balancing the Budget and Reforming Government,” showed him holding up a card that quoted Cicero:
History repeats itself.
The budget should be balanced.
The treasury should be refilled.
Public debt should be reduced.
The arrogance of public officials should be controlled.
These shows of a funny little Southerner in a suit talking by himself in front of pie charts for a half hour straight outdrew baseball games and primetime network entertainment programs. They won big ratings because of their hokey style and B-movie production values. This was the beginning of the collapse in trust in the news business and in traditional politicians, who were increasingly seen as having more style than substance.
Early in the 1992 campaign, Perot was leading the three-way race. At one point in June of that year, a Gallup Poll showed him with 39% support, with Bush at 31% and young Bill Clinton at 25%. A Time poll a few days later had him at 37%, with Bush and Clinton both at 24%. These were stunning numbers.
It can’t be an accident that a third-party candidate rose to prominence at precisely the moment when the two parties came together on economic issues, particularly trade.
Perot ran before it became historical fact that both parties supported NAFTA – Bill Clinton hedged a lot in that race, saying things like “on balance it does more good than harm” – but the Texan routinely hammered the theme that the two parties coddled financial interests above ordinary people. In one of the debates, he accused both Clinton and Bush of having “people representing foreign countries” working on their campaigns.
If Perot’s infomercial ratings were a harbinger of future anger toward the “fake news” media, the success of this campaign against NAFTA foretold the anti-globalism movement. Much as Perot in his business life capitalized on inefficiencies he’d spotted in corporate bureaucracies like that of IBM (where he’d worked as a salesman in his youth), he rose in public life because he was early to see cracks in our political foundation that later burst wide open.
Insofar as Perot was even remembered in recent years, it’s often said that he was a “precursor” to Donald Trump. Both were ostensible-billionaire non-politicians who campaigned against free trade and loosely fell under the rubric of populist/nationalist phenoms. Both men became political stars through gluttonous use of free media (Perot had Larry King, Trump had Mika and Joe). Also, Trump ended up running in 2000 for the nomination of Perot’s Reform Party, making the connection seem apparent.
It isn’t. Perot and Trump were elevated by the same winds of discontent, even if they were personally and politically dissimilar — Perot was neither a rake nor a con artist. Nothing remotely like to the accusations of personal corruption that surround Trump ever arose in connection with the fastidious Perot, a famed/infamous moral scold.
Perot was married to the same woman for 62 years and was said to be a loyal, if difficult employer (his company had a “moral code” that prohibited infidelity). Trump is the ultimate symbol of excess; Perot bragged about never owning more than three or four pairs of underpants at a time as a young person. Perot never spoke in favor of Trump. Apart from criticism of NAFTA, a protectionist bent, and a general disdain for the two parties, they didn’t have much in common.
Perot captured 19 percent of the vote in 1992, and probably would have had more, had he not temporarily dropped out of the general election race that year, citing a bizarre blackmail scheme. The Times reported that Perot was afraid a campaign of “Republican dirty tricks” would spread a story that his soon-to-be-married daughter was a lesbian, if he did not drop out. Like many other things about Perot, it was dramatic and odd — who knows what really happened?
Perot’s buzz cut and paperboy background spoke to nostalgia for a vanished past, but his political career was futuristic. His insight was that in the modern communications age, a politician could use technology to bypass traditional filters to power. Cable TV then, like social media now, allowed him to get around donors and parties and make a direct case.
When he failed, pundits laughed and dismissed his rise as a one-time weather event. It proved to be anything but, as Trump used the same tactics, if not exactly the same politics, to win the White House. Next time, we should probably do a little less laughing.