H. Ross Perot is dead, and a part of Texas dies with him. To understand Perot, you must understand my beloved homeland, Texas. Frankly, only a Texan could have done what Perot did. Perot’s campaign required the fantastic, world-beating hubris of Texas. He had the two principal Texas virtues:
1) A lack of patience with bullshit.
2) The ability to speak truth that sounded like a higher, grander level of bullshit.
He was the Jerry Jones of American politics, with everything that implies.
Perot was not Donald Trump, but he was Trump’s John the Baptist, minus the beard.
Ross Perot requires some background, for younglings in our audience who have no living memory of 1992. Also, rumor tells me some of you readers lead healthy lives: there are people out there who live with zero awareness of political history. God bless you, you’ve probably made the right choices in life.
Anyway: Perot was a rich Texas software magnate. He was in the navy, got out, then got in computers at the right time. This made him obscenely wealthy, which is the ground floor of Texas prosperity. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Perot got involved in populist issues, including the POW/MIA cause. But that’s not the reason he rates an article in Paste politics. In 1992, Perot became famous because he ran for president.
As an independent.
I need to explain exactly what that meant three decades ago.
In 1992, President Bush Sr. was coming down off the high of invading Iraq. He’d left the American economy for dead, but figured he’d swing by later and give the corpse mouth-to-mouth.
The First Bush Administration was the encore performance of the Reagan Presidency. In the Eighties, Reagan’s backers pillaged America. The Californian would’ve finished the job, but the Constitution and the infirmities of age stopped him. He handed off the finishing moves to Bush.
Who was Bush running against? Bill Clinton. A triangulating centrist with a shady past, who emerged from the hollers of Arkansas. We had a hint about Clinton’s carnal lusts. Nobody spoke much about his desire for rapacious Wall Street tycoons, Alan Greenspan, and selling out the New Deal. Looking back in the rear-view mirror, we were given a strange choice: The Cryptkeeper or Elvis. Would we choose Bush, the bloodless and depraved WASP? Or Clinton, who represented the equally dreadful world of huckstering con-artist capitalism?
Then, Perot arrived.
He was the Outsider coming in.
It’s hard to adequately communicate what Perot meant to millions and millions of Americans back when. The American consensus had been breaking down since the ‘70s. Capitalism dropped its side of the social contract. Factories closed. Reagan’s election in 1980 broke the liberal consensus. As it turned out, crazed right-wing hallucinations were not a sound policy for good government. The Election of 1992 promised more of the same. Clinton’s plan was Bush’s economic policy, except with more Fleetwood Mac in the background.
Those were the two choices. Neither one made sense. The Soviets had collapsed in 1991, and we’d won a quick victory in the desert. So why were so many people hurting? Why didn’t our governing class care? What had changed in America?
Perot was the first serious, no-joking indication that the system was broken. I cannot stress enough how bizarre this felt in ‘92. Here’s how the New York Times referred to him yesterday—they’re still not used to him:
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 … Stiff-necked, cantankerous, impetuous, often sentimental, he was given to homespun epigrams: “If you see a snake, just kill it. Don’t appoint a committee on snakes.” Under the banner “United We Stand America,” he spent $65 million of his billions in a campaign that featured innovative half-hour infomercials about himself and his ideas. They were popular, with ratings that sometimes surpassed those of prime-time sitcoms. Ignoring negative newspaper and magazine articles, he laid siege to radio and television talk shows. Switchboards lit up with calls from people wanting to volunteer.
Yesterday, you might’ve watched the evening news, and you might’ve seen a recordings of Perot, and wondered “How did anyone take this man seriously?” If it seems strange to you now, imagine how it felt 30 years ago.
If you want an epigraph for the past half-century, here it is: We moved from the possibility of Perot to the reality of Trump. Trump’s first GOP debate was Aug. 6, 2015. It’s been almost four years since “President Trump” became a possibility. An unpolished billionaire circus monster is our king now.
We’ve had some time to get used to this idea, as the Englishman said to the rowdy American. Perot was the start of that.
Read any old Perot quote. They have shocking relevance, in the year 2019.
Here is what Perot said about the First Gulf War. When Perot said this, President Bush Sr. was near his height of popularity and power. Perot seemed not to care. He told Americans, correctly, that Hussein had been an American employee:
What happened here? For 10 years we created Saddam Hussein with your taxpayer money. But let’s go back to 1982. When the Israelis went over and blew up his original nuclear capability Vice President George Bush publicly deplored that they did it … Now, come on up to just before Desert Storm. May of that year, our President, who was sending delegations over to burp and diaper and pamper Saddam Hussein and tell him how nice he was — now, that’s all public record — now, we’re July 25 just before the build-up started in August. We gave written instructions to our Ambassador to go tell Saddam Hussein that we would not become engaged in his border dispute with Kuwait and in plain Texas talk, we were saying, “You can take the northern part of the country.” Now, only in America would you make a mistake like that. Now, then he took the whole thing. And then the White House says, “I can’t believe he ate the whole thing.” Then we got — our manhood was questioned and off we go into the wild blue yonder with the lives of our servicemen at risk because of 10 years of stupid mistakes and billions of dollars of taxpayer money that you and I will still have to pay because they were Federal guarantees to these various banks.
Here’s Perot in the first debate with Clinton and Bush, on October 16, 1992. He figured out NAFTA early on:
We have got to stop sending jobs overseas. It’s pretty simple: If you’re paying $12, $13, $14 an hour for factory workers and you can move your factory South of the border, pay a dollar an hour for labor…have no health care—that’s the most expensive single element in making a car— have no environmental controls, no pollution controls and no retirement, and you don’t care about anything but making money, there will be a giant sucking sound going south…when [Mexico’s] jobs come up from a dollar an hour to six dollars an hour, and ours go down to six dollars an hour, and then it’s leveled again. But in the meantime, you’ve wrecked the country with these kinds of deals.
In the same debate, he said, basically, what Bernie is saying now:
Now, the facts are we have to fix it. We are leaving — I’m here tonight for these young people up there in the balcony from this college. When I was a young man when I got out of the Navy I had multiple job offers. Young people with high grades can’t get a job. People — the 18- to 24-year-old high school graduates 10 years ago were making more than they are now. In other words, we were down to 18 percent of them were making — ah, of the 18- to 24-year-olds were making less than $12,000. Now that’s up to 40 percent. And what’s happened in the meantime, the dollar’s gone through the floor.
Perot had Trump’s lines too:
I don’t have any foreign money in my campaign. I don’t have any foreign lobbyist on leave in my campaign. I don’t have any PAC money in my campaign. I got five and a half hard-working people who put me on the ballot. And I belong to them.
Cable news was in its infancy, and Perot made for fascinating airtime. Unlike Trump, Perot was willing to pay for airtime.
Perot was the prototype for the wild-ass capitalist who Will Say Things Nobody Else Will Say. Hunter Thompson wrote of Perot: “Ross Perot was the best thing that happened in American politics since Richard Nixon acquired a taste for gin. In both cases, the political dialogue of the day was enriched by spontaneous gibberish that entertained the wrong people and made the right ones question their faith.”
Perot was definitely a goofy bastard, a prickly man who subjected his employees to lie-detector tests, a kind of prophet, and the most successful third-party candidate since Teddy Roosevelt pistol-whipped the Republican party in 1912.
He dropped out of the ‘92 race, and then dropped back in. On Election Day, Perot ended up with close to nineteen percent of the whole show. About twenty million people cast their ballots for him. The Republicans crowed that Perot had taken Bush’s term from them. Much as Gore blamed Nader in 2000, or Clinton blamed Stein for 2016. But remember, Perot’s rank-and-file was disgusted by the election. Without Perot, they probably wouldn’t have shown up to the polls, period.
He ran again in 1996, but the bloom was off the rose.
By the standards of the outside world and the Times, Perot was odd. But not in Texas. Perot was strange in the same way David Lynch is strange, or true believers are strange. If you’re used to people who are performatively weird, people who are trying to be “odd,” then yeah, Perot could come across that way.
Let me rephrase what I’ve written elsewhere: Such “oddness” is mostly in the eye of the beholder. The truly strange are more like Richard Nixon. What you think of as “oddness” is their baseline normal. Perot was an unaffected man. Wealth had given him the confidence to express himself, and the outside world found it quaint. But when you grow up in Texas, guys like Ross Perot or David Lynch are everywhere. They are the single squarest people you will ever meet.
Perot had plenty of vices, but had virtues very few wealthy people can claim. Say what you will about Perot, but I cannot imagine him chugging Soylent or acting staring blankly at walls, like Mark Zuckerberg must. The old man had skin in the game. Who else would have masterminded a successful rescue mission in Iran? It was a dangerous and foolish endeavor, but Perot did it anyway. He was God’s own creature. The stars at night are big and bright, wherever you are.