The phone rang and it was Ross Perot, who hasn't given an interview in years. Perot, who won 19 percent of the vote in the 1992 presidential election, making him one of the strongest third-party candidates in American history, got straight to the point.
"Remember what you wrote about John McCain in the March 13, 2000, NEWSWEEK?"
"Sure," I lied.
"When McCain called Perot 'nuttier than a fruitcake'?"
The Texas billionaire, now 77, still has some scores to settle from the Vietnam era, and his timing is exquisite. Just days before the South Carolina GOP primary, he wants me to know that McCain "is the classic opportunist--he's always reaching for attention and glory. Other POWs won't even sit at the same table with him."
Mark Salter, McCain's longtime top aide, says the Arizona senator has plenty of veteran support and many close friendships among other former POWs.
The Perot-McCain relationship goes back to McCain's five and a half years of captivity in Hanoi. When McCain's then-wife Carol was in a serious car accident, McCain's mother called Perot for help. "She asked me to send my people to Philadelphia to take care of the family," Perot says. Afterwards, McCain was grateful. "We loved him [Perot] for it," McCain told me in 2000.
Perot doesn't remember it that way. "After he came home, he walked with a limp, she [Carol McCain] walked with a limp. So he threw her over for a poster girl with big money from Arizona [Cindy McCain, his current wife] and the rest is history."
Perot's real problem with McCain is that he believes the senator hushed up evidence that live POWs were left behind in Vietnam and even transferred to the Soviet Union for human experimentation, a charge Perot says he heard from a senior Vietnamese official in the 1980s. "There's evidence, evidence, evidence," Perot claims. "McCain was adamant about shutting down anything to do with recovering POWs."
Not surprisingly, McCain sees it differently. He has told me several times over the years that the myth of live POWs was a cruel hoax on the families. He chaired hearings into the issue in the 1990s and found nothing. "The committee did an exhaustive job and pored over thousands of records and every claim of a sighting, no matter how outlandish," says Salter. "It was all untrue."
Perot says he intends to vote for Mitt Romney in the Texas Republican primary on March 4, citing Romney's experience in business and his family values. "When I went to the Naval Academy and met my first Mormons I asked why so many were excellent officers," Perot recalls. "I learned it was because of their strong family unit."
When I asked about Barack Obama, Perot said he admired his eloquence but thought it "a little odd that we would be less concerned about his background than being a Mormon." Perot was pleasantly surprised when I told him that Obama was a Christian, not a Muslim, and relieved when I informed him that the e-mail Perot (and untold others) received about Obama not respecting the Pledge of Allegiance was a fraud.
Perot isn't a Hillary hater, but he's not a fan either, relating the bumper sticker he received that reads: "Monica Lewinsky's Ex-Boyfriend's Wife for President."
The founder of a data-processing empire is still sharp in diagnosing what ails the United States. "The situation in 1992 was not nearly as bad as it is now," he says. "If ever there was a time when it was necessary to put our house in order, it's now.
"It's like having cancer and being in denial. The conduct of the House and Senate is an embarrassment to the nation." President Bush, Perot says, is a "decent person, but you can't say the same thing about the people around him."
Perot is appalled at the specter of big banks having to borrow from foreigners to stay afloat: "We have to go around the world with a tambourine and a tin cup."
He attributes the success of China to the fact that even uneducated Chinese must learn 3,000 characters early in life, compared to the 26 letters in the English alphabet. "Their hand-eye productivity is incredible because of drawing the symbols," Perot says, noting that most of today's Ph.D.s in engineering are from China and India, and only a small percentage from the United States.
Perot offers no easy solutions, instead emphasizing "a strong moral and ethical base, strong homes and the finest schools." He says he's disappointed that big textbook companies successfully lobbied in the Texas state legislature to reverse his landmark school reforms.
The pint-size Texan with the funny voice and the big ears isn't planning to run for president again, but says he will launch a Web site next month with plenty of the charts and graphs he made famous when explaining the deficit in 1992.
Before hanging up, Perot asked me to read the books he recommended on live POWs. I promised him I would.