Former presidential candidate H. Ross Perot, a man who briefly represented a lot of hopeful things to a lot of people, passed away this week at age 89, and I have to admit I felt somewhat nostalgic over the mention of his name.
The thing is, I was never a big Perot fan. While he was undeniably interesting — almost cartoonish with his buzz haircut and that barbed-wire Texas drawl — I could never shake the notion that he was a billionaire who ran because he figured his wealth somehow qualified him to be president.
However, there’s no denying that he brought something to the political table in 1992 when he launched a high-profile, mostly self-funded independent quest for the White House. He struck a national nerve at a curious moment, tapping into a frustration that many Americans felt toward a two-party system that seemed increasingly detached from the realities on the ground. Unlike most other candidates, who always claimed to be running against Washington’s business-as-usual swampiness, Perot was a non-politician who truly was running that race, and his populist platform got him a ton of news coverage and attention. And he did all this before the internet was a societal staple and years before social media was ever a thing.
He nearly caught that moment by the tail — he collected almost 19 percent of the popular vote in 1992 — but it’s odd now to look back on it all, especially in THIS particular time.
Perot was a self-made billionaire with an unvarnished charm and a knack for expressing things in a direct, earthy matter. He could say something like, “If you see a snake, just kill it — don’t appoint a committee on snakes,” and you knew exactly what he meant. He trumpeted America and the little guy in a unique style that no one has been able to precisely emulate before or since. And a lot of Americans responded; at one point in the late spring of 1992, Perot was actually outpolling both President George H.W. Bush and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton in a three-way presidential race.
For a time, the Perot magic was everywhere. It wasn’t uncommon to see Perot bumper stickers in the Yankton area, for instance. His anti-NAFTA stand and “little guy” rhetoric cast him as a champion for the masses — which was ironic, for he was anything but a little guy. But he seemed to understand those people, and for those yearning to send an unmistakably clear message to Washington, he was the ideal messenger.
But something about him also bothered me. Perot was known as a demanding businessman who reportedly could be tough to work for, and this occasionally characterized his campaign style. He seemed prickly at times when faced with political disagreements, and his habit of blurting out whatever seemed to pop into his head added a comic weirdness to him. (Dana Carvey’s letter-perfect portrayal of Perot on “Saturday Night Live” was hilarious — and perhaps devastating. However, Carvey said this week that Perot actually loved the send-up.) Perot’s aggressive assuredness, which served him well in business, made me wonder if a corporate mogul accustomed to dictating matters on his terms could oversee a nation in which political bargaining is an essential part of governing. If Perot had a veto overridden, I wondered, what would he do? Fire Congress?
Perot did win 18.9 percent of the national vote that fall — he garnered 21 percent in South Dakota — and that laid the groundwork for a new movement, which was called the Reform Party.
But the flaws were eventually exposed. Perot ran for president again in 1996 at the head of his party, but this time, he was old news and garnered much less notoriety and support. He stayed on the sidelines thereafter, and his Reform Party floundered. It’s fielded presidential candidates every election since — Donald Trump ran for the Reform Party nomination in 2000 — but the party is a minute shadow of what it was. It could be argued that Reform Party was little more than a personality cult. It certainly wasn’t the same without Perot at the helm.
Now, in this moment, there’s also the debate about whether Perot, the corporate outsider, paved the way for the 2016 version of Trump, himself a corporate maverick from outside his party’s mainstream. It’s an interesting study filled with parallels and differences (Perot, for example, rarely resorted to name-calling, even when others ridiculed him); perhaps it’s a nut to be cracked by future historians.
Then again, it’s fair to suggest that Perot stood as a warning about the state of our political climate. He burned brightest as a champion of the dissatisfied. Or perhaps he was a response to a problem that needed a solution. Quite possibly both. Whatever the case, a lot of people took Perot very seriously, once upon a time. And that makes his legacy an important historical chapter, for it may be a crucial reminder that politics as usual can — or must — ultimately produce a formidable backlash.
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