In plain Texas talk, as Ross Perot might have put it, the whole thing might never have happened if he hadn't returned a phone call from a total stranger named John Jay Hooker one November morning in 1991. Hooker was just one more in a long line of good people who had been after Perot for years to run for public office-people who had fallen hard for him or, more often, his legend as the last of the great cowboy capitalists. There had been so many of them for so long that his assistant Sally Bell usually spared him the trouble of saying no. Mr. Perot had heard it all before, she would advise callers to his corporate tower in Dallas, and had never been remotely tempted.
But neither she nor her boss had ever run into anybody quite so persistent as Hooker, or so persuasive when in the throes of one of his visions. Hooker, at 61, was a large, idiosyncratic man with a shock of white hair usually crowned by a Panama hat. The day he punched up Perot's number from his sixth-floor apartment in midtown Nashville, Tenn., he had a mission as well: to save America from impending ruin. Hooker, a liberal Democrat, had himself failed in three tries at elective office; he had done better in business, from fried-chicken franchising to newspaper publishing, but had not given up his dreams of changing the world. He had a knack for putting rich men next to big ideas, and this idea was his biggest ever. He had decided that Ross Perot should be the next president of the United States.
"Oh, he's not going to do that," Bell told him, laughing.
"Just get him to call me," he said.
Within a half hour, his phone rang. "Hello,John," a reedy voice said. "This is Ross. How you doing?"
The introduction began a yearlong conversation between the two men-a dialogue that began as a game of catch, Hooker thought, and ended in a messianic challenge to the entire American political system. Hooker was not the first of the rainmakers to find his way to Dallas in the drought season of 1991-92, or even the most exigent; a retired Florida financial planner named Jack Gargan, who had become a full-time agitator against incumbent politicians, was already at work on his own draft-Perot movement. But for a critical time, Hooker was to Perot what Falstaff had been to Prince Hal: a man of spirit and appetite whose lot was to help prepare his charge for a larger destiny and then to recede from view.
"Let me ask you a couple of questions," Hooker said when Perot called back. "Number one, do you think the nation is governable? Here we've got all this $4 trillion in debt, got all this racism in this country-is there anything anybody can do?"
"Yeah," Perot said. "I think it's governable."
"That's very encouraging," Hooker said."Let me ask you another question: if you were president, what would you do?"
He had, as he sensed, said the magic words-the open-sesame to thoughts Perot quite obviously had been thinking on his own. "The first thing I'd do is get at this economy," Perot said. You had to grow it-use the resources at hand to increase sales, expand trade, make and market the goods the rest of the world hungered for. The soliloquy ran on for 20 minutes, a good sign.
"I'll call you back tomorrow," Hooker said.
They spoke the next day and again a few days later; by December they were talking three or four times a week. The courtship, Hooker thought, was a bit like dating a shy, somewhat bookish girl: Perot kept saying no to The Question, but obviously liked being pursued for his mind.
Hooker had tapped into the Myth of Ross Perot, a work as carefully cultivated by its proprietor as the formal gardens at Versailles. He was the ultimate self-made Self-Made Man-the tough, determined and often lonely warrior willing to take on politicians, bureaucrats, industrialists, financiers, Third World dictators or anybody else who got in his way.
People encountering him for the first time were often surprised by the person inside the persona. There was nothing particularly heroic about him to look at or listen to; he was, at 61, a banty rooster of a man with question-mark ears, a mangled nose, a barber-college haircut and an east Texas drawl as thin and sharp as wine gone to vinegar. His real trade was not hero but salesman, Willie Loman with a hundred-megahertz product line and an imperial fortune; there were, in his portfolio, two or three billion reasons why attention had to be paid to such a man.
He had got in on the ground floor of the computer-systems business when it was new and hot and, even by sun-belt standards, had become one of the superrich in record time. His success was built on other people's ideas, young people, usually, with white shirts required and military backgrounds preferred. His gift was merchandising their work. His secrets of salesmanship ran far beyond a shoeshine and a smile; he could be rough, even cutthroat in competition for a big job.
But the Myth of Ross Perot was of more epic dimension, in large part because so many strands of the American Myth had gone into its weave. The parts that didn't fit got left out; his life as presented in his official self-portrait was, as he often said with unconscious irony, too good to be true. He was the Horatio Alger hero who had earned his first dollars riding a paper route on horseback on the wrong side of Texarkana. He was Jack Armstrong the All-American Boy-the Eagle Scout, the Annapolis middy, the young officer who had joined the navy and seen the world, the family man who got all misty when he said he had married way above himself and fathered the best kids in the world. He was the most romanticized American businessman south of Lee Iacocca-the object of our recurring longing for a can-do chief executive who knew how to make a decision, meet a payroll and close a deal.
The Perot of the Myth was Huck Finn as entrepreneur-a simple country soul who started his company with $1,000 of his wife's rainy-day money and his own American know-how. He was the wildcatter who found his black gold in software instead of oil and got richer quicker than any Texan ever. He was Rambo in a business suit, whether sending in his private commandos to get two of his employees out of jail in Iran or fighting for 20 years to bring the last missing boys home from Southeast Asia. He was the Little Guy who took on General Motors, Wall Street and the United States government, and if Goliath kept winning the battles, it didn't matter in the Myth; what counted was that Perot, as David, had dared to stand up and fight. Practically the only part of the larger myth he hadn't played was "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," which was exactly what the Hookers and the Gargans, the ex-military friends and business admirers, had in mind for him.
Hooker was a lawyer and a litigator's son; he knew all the organ stops of argument, and the next one he hit was shame.
"You know, Ross," he said one day, "I got a postcard one time. It said, 'Greetings. You have been selected to serve in the United States Army'." The card hadn't asked whether it suited him or his family or his business; it had simply commanded him, along with millions of other young men, to report for duty. "Now I'm giving you one," he said. "I'm telling you, Ross, 'Greetings. I'm drafting you on behalf of the American people to run for president of the United States'."
Perot didn't bite.
Hooker tried guilt. He was conversant enough with the Myth to know that Perot thanked his mother for his own sense of civic obligation. Hooker said he hoped he and Ross would meet her in heaven one day.
"Oh, she'll be there," Perot said quickly.
"Well," Hooker said, "I want to sit around and listen to you explain to your mother why in this time of great need, you turned your back on your country and didn't run for president."
"You know how to put it on a fellow, don't you?" Perot said, laughing.
"I'm just warming up," Hooker said.
For Hooker, the first sure sign that Perot was warming to the idea came in February, when Perot flew to Nashville for a radio call-in show he could have as easily done by phone from his desk in Dallas. Hooker, elated, put it on him in earnest, starting at the airport and continuing for four solid hours in Perot's rooms downtown. It was Perot's duty to run, he said, just as it had been Dwight Eisenhower's 40 years before; the old soldier hadn't wanted to be president, either, but the country needed him to clean up the mess in Washington, and he had answered the r-all. This time, Hooker said, the mess wasn't just one party's doing; this time, half the country hated both parties and their candidates, and once you had that anti vote on you, there was no way to get it off. People wanted a third choice, and if Perot would only say yes to a draft, he could be the next president.
Nobody's drafting me, Perot said.
You haven't let folks know you're available, Hooker replied.
Well, Perot said, finally relenting, he'd do it-but only if the people put him on the ballot in all 50 states. It wasn't going to happen, he was pretty certain of that, but if it did, he would run.
Hooker was ecstatic, but he was an audience of one; he had to figure out a way to get Perot to tell all America the same thing. The local call-in show the next morning was one blown opportunity, and the declaration at an impromptu news conference went nowhere. With Hooker's further prodding, Perot accepted a date on "Larry King Live," prepared to offer himself again.
His timing was fortuitously perfect, two days after New Hampshire. Bush and Clinton had limped off the battlefield bleeding; together, they were what the old politics had come to, and what Perot was at last poised to challenge. But would he say so? Hooker was taking no chances on another misfire; he called King before the show to prime him on what questions to ask and on the need to keep asking them.
His counsel was right: it took King five tries over 50 minutes to extract a s from Perot or more accurately, a yes-if, festooned with what sounded like impossible conditions for his running.
His wife, Margot, was more than moderately surprised when he got back to their hotel in Washington that night; he hadn't told her anything about running.
"Don't worry," he said. "It'll never happen."
But when they got back to Dallas the next morning, the phone lines were flooded with calls from well-wishers. By the close of business, his assistants had signed up virtual strangers to chair petition drives in 28 states.
For an intoxicating time, it was as if a cult had been born-a back-to-the-future movement that, to its leader and its followers alike, seemed to promise the restoration of a lost innocence to American public life. Never mind that the innocence had never really existed; never mind either that the gnomish man offering himself as redeemer was utterly unprepared for what he had got himself into. Ross Perot had been transformed overnight into a kind of shaman for the television age, a faith healer who proposed to cure the ills of a nation with sound business sense and plain Texas talk. His magic was that he appeared to believe it himself-to imagine, until events taught him otherwise, that innocence not only could compete with experience in the fallen state of our politics but could finally prevail.
PEROT AND HIS SHAPELESS POPULISM had tapped into a vein of history literally as old as the American nation, the revolt of the burghers against a distant and unfeeling crown. He had been driven in part by his disdain for the leadership style of George Bush; he spoke of him privately as a hand-wringer and a whiner and, by published account, had once called him a rabbit to his face. But Perot's larger complaint was with the shallowness and venality of a process that could produce a $4 trillion debt and such candidates as Bush and Clinton-a conviction he shared, if the polls were to be believed, with a mad-as-hell majority of his countrymen.
The response to his tease was a measure of their alienation. Far from blowing over, the storm of calls kept growing; Perot's offices were a bedlam of ringing phones and backed-up messages from people wanting to help. He got that new appurtenance of politics, an 800 number, and set up a phone bank on a rented floor in his tower on Merit Drive. Within the month it grew from 30 lines to 96, which still wasn't enough; the Perot Petition Committee, as the noncampaign soon dubbed itself, had to do a deal with the Home Shopping Network for 1,200 lines more. Every line was needed: there were a quarter-million calls in a single day, a million in one 10-day stretch in March.
With his name in play, the turnout in the party primaries kept shrinking, and among those who did vote, the percentage who wished there were somebody new on the ballot grew from a third to a half. By the grand finale in California, that somebody was unmistakably Perot: he stole the show from the nominal winners, Bush and Clinton, by winning the exit polls in both parties.
For a time that spring, it was all grand fun for Perot, a warm bath of adulation from The Volunteers and a bounteous feast of attention from the talk shows. It was, as he might have said, just beautiful. He took calls on the phone bank himself. He spoke of spending $100 million or more, enjoying the tremors he caused the major-party candidates; his stake would be as big 'as their two put together. He traveled the landscape alone in his corporate jet, almost always to rallies celebrating his having got on the ballot in yet another state; the events reinforced the irresistible view that The Volunteers were America and that he was the sole embodiment of the national will.
But his real milieu was what would become the first electronic front-porch campaign, a media-age throwback to a time when it was considered vulgar for candidates for president to go out on the road begging for votes. Perot despised polities as he saw it on the newscasts, a five-a-day aerial circus of photo ops, tarmac touchdowns and empty one-liners. He refused upfront to play that game even to spend more than one night per trip away from home. His preference instead was for talk radio and TV, especially call-in shows; the inconvenience was minimal, the questioning usually friendly and the demand for specificity low.
He was, moreover, a master at the game-as folksy as Will Rogers and as cocky as a riverboat gambler with the biggest stack on the table. His ease at the medium was such that he spoke seriously of running the government by electronic town meeting, confident that Washington's gifts at obstruction were no match for his at salesmanship. "I won't sound-bite it," he would protest when an interviewer pressed him on a complicated issue. But his offering was in fact a montage of sound bites, including that one. He had no defined public philosophy, no studied positions on the issues, not even the usual retinue of experts. Most of what he knew about policy and politics was what he didn't like; his believers otherwise had to invent Perot for themselves.
The problem was that Perot was riding a homemade rocket ship without a captain or a crew-with nobody on the flight deck, indeed, except him. It was in the nature of the man and the enterprise that he would resist a traditional campaign, with handlers, spinners, leakers and, as he called them, cosmetologists; that was what he was running against. But what he had wrought, with The Volunteers, was an unruly army put together in the manner of a garage sale; its field officers were mostly self-selected, people who had got to the phones fastest and had been awarded state and local chairmanships on a first-come, first-served basis.
In that age of innocence, the me-and-The-Volunteers arrangement seemed to suit Perot just fine. He didn't need or want outside professionals telling him where to go or what to do; he preferred building his campaign as he had his businesses, on a light-infantry model, with people he knew at the top and SWAT teams of buttoned-down young men borrowed from Perot companies to execute their orders. The man he ultimately asked to oversee the enterprise was Tom Luce, his lawyer and friend of 20 years, who had run for governor of Texas two years before.
LUCE WAS A BRIGHT and thoughtful soul, but his single season in the triple-A leagues of politics had not prepared him for the challenge he had been handed: reshaping the unmanaged energies of an all-volunteer petition drive into something resembling a real presidential campaign. As Perot kept rising in the polls, Luce and his team found themselves up against what would become the central paradox of his campaign: the wide and finally unbridgeable divide between the innocence of its beginnings and the experience required if it were to go all the way.
As it happened, political pros were beginning to feel the gravitational tug of Perot's rising star. Hamilton Jordan, who had been political guru and White House chief of staff to Jimmy Carter, was out of politics and working for Whittle Communications in Knoxville, Tenn., when Perot first popped onto the radar screen. He found himself drawn to Perot and to the explosion of citizen energy he had loosed on a stagnating political system.
In March, Jordan called Luce and offered to help out in a background kind of way. He became a periodic weekend commuter to Dallas, an unpaid counselor without portfolio to the campaign-in-waiting.
Jordan showed up at a meeting in late March with a good news/bad news chart on a two-by-two square of poster board. The chart was as neutral in tone as a spreadsheet, but its implicit message was that the good news was mainly history and the bad still over the horizon.
Under POSITIVE, Jordan had written:
And finally, under POSITIVE:
The questions were the heart of the matter, and the short answer was that nobody knew.
It was Perot's CEO Mort Meyerson, enlisted to make some organizational sense of the campaign, who came up with the design that finally prevailed, a bipartisan structure with matched pairs of Republicans and Democrats in each major occupational specialty. They called the vessel Noah's Ark, but to the true believers, Ross Perot among them, there was the smell of a Faustian bargain about it-trading innocence for knowledge and, ultimately, the doom of the campaign.
Late in May, when he and his prospective shipmates on the ark met in Dallas, Ed Rollins wondered why he had come-why, indeed, he had been invited in the first place. After a month's agonizing-his wife had just taken a job at the White House, which she would have to give up-he had decided to sign on with Hamilton Jordan as full-time cochairman of the campaign-to-be and had flown in for the final dealmaking, first with Tom Luce and Mort Meyerson, then with Perot himself. Jordan would do the big-picture stuff-strategy, message and media-while Rollins managed the day-today operations. But the jobs hadn't been offered or accepted, and at the Saturday preliminaries in Meyerson's office, everything Rollins threw at Perot's two men about what needed doing seemed to make them nervous, even suspicious. They complained he'd leaked the plan to the press. A Rollins aide named Charlie Leonard, an early arrival, had nearly gotten fired for throwing his weight around. Their partnership hadn't even begun, and Rollins was already feeling as welcome as an atheist in a convent garden.
At 49, he already had a secure plaque in the handlers' hall of fame, for having lasted 25 years in the business and having managed Ronald Reagan's postcard-pretty landslide in 1984. He even looked different from the smooth, cleanshaven corporate men Perot favored; he was a taut, thick-chested ex-college prizefighter with a beard, a fringe of receding gray hair and an air of contained, almost dangerous energy. Like others in his trade, he was fed up with the aridity of American polities and had found himself powerfully drawn to the raw, up-from-under energy of the Perot movement; he had never seen anything quite like it.
Meyerson had assured Rollins during the courtship period that Ross, like any Texan, knew what happened if you swam halfway across a river and stopped; once in, he would do whatever was needed and spend whatever it took to be viable. Now, in Dallas, as Rollins began talking particulars-an early and expensive ad campaign, for example-Perot's men seemed less sure. They didn't know if Ross would go for anything that traditional. They would carry Rollins's arguments to Ross, they said, but this wouldn't be like working for Reagan. Perot would be the final arbiter in his own campaign.
Rollins left the meeting worried. He met Leonard at his hotel, and as the men walked down the street in search of a drink, they talked over Rollins's angst. On top of everything else, Rollins was spooked by a question Meyerson had asked about his health and his second marriage. How did Perot's men know about those things? Inside a bar, they got drinks and wondered aloud whether Perot had ordered up a background investigation. Maybe, Leonard half-joked, they were being followed now. Leonard scanned the bar's clientele for the first time, then laughed. "Well, if he is checking us out," Leonard said, "his first report is 'Rollins and Leonard meet and go to a gay bar'."
The worries evaporated the next day when he and Jordan met with Perot. Rollins found himself charmed, even smitten. The Perot he saw wasn't the little autocrat you read about in the papers but an American original, a political naif who clearly believed in what he was doing and seemed wide open to professional advice. Jordan did one of his chart sentations, a time line of what had to be done when. Perot agreed with it all. The TV show and the 10,000 house parties? He adored it. The two-headed organizational structure they had agreed on? Fine. The need to work on some ads, define himself and his positions? No problem.
The guy could flat-out communicate, Rollins was thinking; he reminded you of Reagan with his gift of gab and Nixon with his quick, reductionist mind. But did he know what he was letting himself in for? The question troubled Rollins, and he found himself delivering a cautionary homily on what lay ahead. "Ross, this is like war," he began. It wasn't going to be a cakewalk, Perot and The Volunteers marching arm in arm to victory. Nobody would get killed, but the weapons of modern politics were lethal in their own way, and it would take more than plain talk to win-it would take the organization and discipline of an army in combat. Amateurs in politics tend to be true believers, in themselves or their heroes. Professionals are agnostics; you start a race by figuring out how you would run against your own guy, and Rollins knew exactly what he would do to Perot-paint him as some kind of nutty little billionaire with paranoid delusions.
"Ross," he said, "there's two words I want you to write on your mirror every morning. One is KOOK and one is HOPE. Every single day, your opponents are going to make you into a kook. If they make you into a kook, or if anything you do makes you into a kook, you lose. The second thing is, every single day, you've got to go out and be the candidate of hope-the person who can change the direction of this country. If you can keep focusing on hope and not let them drive you the other way, you can win this thing."
Perot nodded; he still wasn't going to be handled, but he seemed willing to entrust his campaign to people who knew how to run one. "This is the team," he said.
By mid-June, 40 pros, mostly Rollins's draft picks, had occupied the empty warrens at headquarters on the LBJ Freeway. They had all accepted upfront that it wouldn't be the kind of campaign they were used to, with press planes, spin doctors and empty media events. What they weren't prepared for was their own reduction from court magicians to office help in what amounted to one more Perot Group company-a 50-state chain-store operation in which The Volunteers owned the franchises and Ross Perot was not merely the product but the CEO.
The war of the worlds began with their arrival and would not end till they had all been sacked and sent home. Perot and his circle never stopped regarding their coming as a contamination, like introducing some kind of bacteria into a system, Jim Squires, the press secretary, thought; once inside, they started devouring their host. Antibodies formed almost immediately, to a point where it was hard getting anything done. Days started routinely with what was called a management-group meeting but was more nearly a tutorial, Jordan and Rollins explaining the ABC needs of a campaign to Meyerson and Luce and waiting while they consulted Perot. The wait was often a long one, and the reward was seldom a go-ahead. Perot's normal mode seemed to be to resist or postpone; in time, Luce and Meyerson had become the tutors, instructing Rollins and Jordan in what their candidate wouldn't do.
Perot, when he was around, was a constant and sometimes invasive presence, on matters ranging from the most trivial-a plan to move a minor functionary's office was put on hold till Luce could clear it with Ross-to the most important. The latter often had to do with how money would be spent, a zone of natural interest for the man writing the checks without always understanding what they were buying him.
"You keep building the Pentagon here," he told Rollins one day, complaining about the scale of the headquarters operation. Why did he need so many desk officers when he had The Volunteers?
"Ross," Rollins said, "there are fewer people here than in the Clinton or the Bush campaign-probably a third ofthe people they have. You've got some of the best professionals in the country."
"Well, they ought to be," Perot said sourly. "I'm paying them enough."
When his team sent forward a $147 million budget, it bounced within an hour; the accompanying word from Perot was that he was never going to give Rollins's guys license to spend that kind of money. New drafts were done. Bar graphs and footnotes were added. Euphemisms were coined; the two polltakers already on the payroll were hidden under "market research"-Perot didn't see why you should pay for polls when you got so many free in the papers-and voter contact became "Volunteer activities." A $2 million line item for issues research had to be disappeared where no one could find it; all it produced, so far as Perot could see, was a bunch of big, fat briefing books when a couple of pages would do.
The campaign, viewed from within, was something less than an advertisement for a Perot presidency. The candidate did his own scheduling, not bothering to tell Rollins where he would be. His appearances were amateurishly advanced, without regard to camera angles; at a stop in Hartford, Conn., he was posed facing the state capitol so that he, not his audience, would have something nice to look at while he was speaking.
Decisions piled up in Perot's in basket; Mr. Can-Do had somehow become Mr. Can't-Say on when and how to declare his candidacy, what to do to match or top the major-party conventions, how to go about finding a plausible running mate and what kind of media campaign to put on. Dates shifted. Deadlines slid. Memos went unread, or at least unanswered. John White, a former Carter-administration official assigned to work up Perot's plan for America, could barely get in to see him, let alone trade ideas; in White's first month in Dallas, they met twice.
The bottleneck owed partly to the resolve of the amateurs to be untraditional-Rollins was trying to rebuild the 1984 Reagan campaign around Ross Perot, and it didn't fit. But the slowdown was the product of a kind of vanity as well, the hubris of having soared too high in the polls too soon.
IN FACT, THE HONEYMOON even then was ending. The media were beginning to get on Perot, first for the gaps in his knowledge of the issues, then for his apparently regular resort to private eyes to spy on people-even, in one report, his own children. The Myth was in danger of coming unraveled; the little giant from Texarkana was beginning to look more like a petty tyrant, the scourge of striped shirts, bearded jaws, over-the-collar haircuts and two-timing husbands.
Denials did nothing. Perot seemed bewildered by the barrage, his pride wounded, his sense of betrayal inflamed.
"You know, I never got bad press until I hired you and Jordan," he told Rollins one day.
His pique was sharpened by the pros' entreaties to spell out what he stood for, beyond his homely one-liners. "The American people don't care about issues," he said. "I've talked to my people, and they don't care." In fact, they did; Jordan confronted him one day with yet another visual aid, a blowup of a NEWSWEEK Poll graphic showing that not even his supporters felt they knew enough about him. It was, in Jordan's view, an open invitation to his enemies to define him their way, and events bore out his concern. The stories that did make the papers and the newscasts usually had to do with Inspector Perot defending himself against yet another I-Spy charge.
The pros were frantic to get some ads on the air, if only to stop the bleeding. What Jordan preferred was a bio reintroducing Ross the Good to America; the more people got to know him, their focus groups suggested, the better they liked him, no matter what nasty things anybody said about him. But the air war never got off the ground. Perot had finally signed off on a short-term budget including $7.5 million for advertising through July. But he resisted everything his people put in front of him. His ardor for Jordan's brainstorm-the paid TV special and the 10,000 Volunteer house parties-had cooled when he figured that he could get the same bounce free.
"Why do I want to pay for this," he asked, "when I can go on Larry King?"
Rollins pushed to hire Hal Riney, the auteur of Reagan's high-gloss Morning Again in America ads in 1984, but the relationship never had a chance. On the last morning in June, Jordan and Meyerson set out for Perot's office to show him what they had: the rough cuts of 11 Riney ads and a five-minute bio produced by a young Dallas filmmaker, Andrew Wilson, on Luce and Jordan's unilateral say-so. Meyerson and Luce had warned Jordan by then that Perot had good days when he was approachable and bad days when he was not-when it was useless trying to get him to decide anything. "That's crazy," Jordan had said. "If he gets to be president, that won't work." But that was Perot, and when they arrived at his aerie on Merit Drive, they found him at the bottom of a bad day.
Nobody was pleased with the Riney ads, not even Riney. The bio was in better shape, and they screened it first.
"This is crap," Perot said, his voice rising. He didn't like the way they had lit his wife, or interviewed his sister, or left out whole chapters of his story, or added banjo music in the background. "You're supposed to be a pro," he told Jordan. He was almost shouting. "You tell me this is supposed to be world class, like you know what you're doing."
"What the hell do I need you for?" Perot was yelling when Rollins and Luce slipped into the room, arriving late from another meeting.
Jordan looked shaken. Rollins tried to explain that the ads were only rough cuts, that they could be edited into shape.
Perot didn't care. "Who authorized spending this money on this crap?" he demanded. "On this crap! You've just wasted my money. My money! On this crap! Who authorized it?"
"Well, I guess I did," Luce said.
"Goddammit, I never authorized you to spend that money." Perot said. In fact, he had, but it was no good saying so. The four men packed up their reels and their arguments and left.
Jordan was shaking as they walked out, and by the time they got back to headquarters, he looked ghastly-ashy pale and gasping for air. Nobody had ever talked to him that way before. He had given up a lot to come to Dallas; his friends, even his wife, wondered what the hell he was doing there. He was humiliated. They were all humiliated.
"This is horseshit," he said. "I'm getting out of here."
That day, he wrote a letter of resignation, then disappeared for a couple of days. When he got back, he talked first to Luce and Meyerson, then to Perot. He was looking for an honorable way out, a way to leave quietly without damaging the campaign.
"Ross, this thing is not working," he said. "Nothing's getting done. I'm not sure why you brought us here. I don't wish you any harm, but I really want to go back to Tennessee."
In fact, Perot had come to like Jordan, in his fashion, and hoped he would stay. It was Rollins who had come to symbolize his larger doubts about having gone pro. Ed had the Washington disease, he told Jordan; his only loyalty was to himself, not to Perot or to his cause. Perot didn't trust him or like the kind of politics he stood for.
"You might be right," he told Jordan. "It might have been a mistake to bring you guys in."
In the end, Jordan hung around, for want of a graceful line of retreat; he continued showing up at morning staff meetings, and he told Rollins he would do what he could to help, on the fringes. But he was a shadow presence, and Rollins was living on borrowed time. With not much more than a huff and a puff from the Bush campaign, the improbable House That Ross Built was about to come tumbling down.
One day near the end of his first campaign, Perot sat talking with Ed Rollins across the vast canyon of misunderstanding and mistrust that had opened between them. His tone was almost wistful.
"Is this ever gonna get fun again?" he asked.
"Fun?" Rollins repeated. The word was not in his working vocabulary, not during a campaign.
"Yeah," Perot said. "When I started, this thing was fun."
"Campaigns are never fun," Rollins said. "It's like war. It's miserable. Running for office isn't fun. Winning is fun."
"What about the presidency?" Perot asked. "Is that fun?"
"The only time the presidency is fun," Rollins said "is the day you get inaugurated and the day you dedicate your library. If you're going to do what you're setting out to do, it isn't going to be fun."
In fact, by early summer, it had long since stopped being fun for Perot, his organization and his public. His numbers were crumbling, his negatives rising. He had slipped back to second in the polls, with Clinton, in third, on his heels. His campaign was at war with itself and, increasingly, with him. His plan to save America was late coming together, in part because of his now bored, now fussy attention to it. His press had turned brutal, a daily battering for his business practices and his gum-shoeing. Even his jealously guarded family life was under scrutiny; the media were chasing a report, spread by Bush's men, that he had sicked a private eye on a man one of his daughters had dated in college-a literature professor whose offenses were alleged to be that he was older and a Jew. The Inspector, it turned out, could not abide inspection.
Plans kept going forward, on the announcement, the TV ads, the Volunteer effort, the vice presidential selection; at one point, Rollins's men seemed on the verge of a deal for Gov. Doug Wilder of Virginia, who loathed Clinton, to bolt the Democratic convention and run with Perot. The answer to that scheme, as to nearly everything else, was no. Perot wouldn't commit to anything that mattered; the increasingly worried table talk at staff lunches was whether they had a candidate or not.
"Tom, what do you think Ross really thinks?" Jordan asked Luce in a moment's frustration.
"Goddammit, Hamilton, I don't know," Luce said, and he had been Perot's friend for 20 years.
The issue that finally brought matters to critical mass was, fittingly, the media campaign. Perot was even more a creature of television than his major-party rivals; he had once been romanticized in a mini-series about his commando raid in Iran, and he had waged his candidacy almost entirely on talk TV. But he dragged his feet when his war counselors, by now united, kept pressing him to put up a first flight of ads before the Democratic convention. Hal Riney had recut his first rough spots of Volunteers talking about Perot. Everybody liked them, even, to the astonishment of the campaign command, Perot. "These are first-class commercials," he said; he seemed ready to put them on the air, and, in a suddenly mellowed mood, he agreed to a new try at a bio ad as well.
But his resolve melted when he met with his state chairpeople in Dallas the next day. By the time he screened the ads for them, his own mood appeared to have shifted. Most of the chairpeople liked them. A few objected that they looked like the kind of stuff you might expect from Clinton and Bush.
Perot didn't defend them; instead, he listened in moody silence. The ads didn't look so first-class anymore. Afterward, he sent for Riney. It was too late, he was told; Hal was on a plane home to San Francisco. Perot, by now boiling, ordered him back-and, when he returned two days later, fired him.
Perot's air war remained as invisible as Saddam Hussein's. Clinton, going into the convention, had the screen practically to himself. There were no spots challenging him; America's principal glimpse of Perot over that last weekend was a misbegotten speech to the national NAACP convention in Nashville-an improvised stew of paternalistic stories from his boyhood days garnished with repeated references to blacks as "you-your people." He didn't realize how insulting he had sounded until reporters chased him to his car and told him so.
It was his maiden speech to any constituent group except The Volunteers, and it had been a disaster. He seemed aggrieved-who were those people, he wanted to know-and finally depressed. "I live in a world of setups," he said on the flight home.
HIS PEOPLE WOULD WONDER LATER Why they hadn't seen the end coming-why they hadn't added up all the funks, the quibbles, the tantrums and the stalled plans and figured out that the captain would sooner or later scuttle the ship. The loss of his and his family's privacy obviously troubled him. So did the cost, in money as well as purity, of having rung in the pros.
Two days after the NAACP fiasco, Meyerson and Luce told Rollins that Ross wanted him and Jordan to stay, but on his terms, not theirs; from now on, he was going to do it his way.
"He's not going to quit," Meyerson said. "He's not going to abandon The Volunteers. But he's not going to do what you want. There has to be some in between."
Rollins was adamant. Perot would sink like a stone if he didn't entrust the campaign to people who knew how to run one. "There's no in between," he said.
They fenced some more, getting nowhere; their two worlds were galaxies apart.
"So what you're telling us," Meyerson said at length, "is that there are only two ways. We do it your way, or we quit."
"Yeah," Rollins said.
Luce and Meyerson went off to see Perot-the campaign had long since been reduced to shuttle diplomacy-and came back with what Rollins mistook for a hopeful response. If they were going to go his way, they asked over lunch, what would it take?
Rollins started punching buttons, and by the end of the day, a plan had been flung together to something like Perot's specifications. Ads would go up by the weekend, after the Democrats struck their tent in New York. Perot would declare his candidacy the following Monday and, 10 days later, would follow up with a filmed prime-time speech disclosing his economic plan. His answer to the conventions would be a late-summer unconvention, a giant red, white and blue picnic, maybe in the Rose Bowl, maybe on the Mall in Washington; it would be a Norman Rockwell painting come to life.
The proposal went up the chain of command. Rollins sat in his office the next day, waiting for a response; there was nothing else to do. The Tuesday-morning command meeting had been canceled. Perot was at 20 percent and sinking fast.
The next morning, Charlie Leonard picked up Rollins at his apartment.
"I think this is our last day," Rollins said.
"If not today, this week," Leonard replied.
"No, it's today," Rollins said.
It was. Perot's demeanor was conspicuously sunny that morning. His people presumed it was because his economic plan was finally ready. But he had come to a decision on the Rollins Question as well, and while he played happily with his pie charts, Luce and Meyerson were booking a lunch with Rollins to carry out his orders.
Ross had made up his mind, Luce and Meyerson said as the three sat down. He wanted Rollins and his guys out. Rollins said he didn't want to stay anyway. They blamed him, as Perot did, for the latest leaks-especially the embarrassing story about how Jordan had almost quit. To Luce and Meyerson, it looked like a power play.
"Wait a minute," Rollins said. "I didn't want Hamilton to quit. He's my only backup. I don't want him out."
"Ross hears that when you go back home on weekends, you go to dinner parties with these reporters, and you're bad-mouthing the campaign," Meyerson said.
"I've been home two goddam nights since I got here," Rollins retorted, "and neither night did my wife and I go out to dinner parties. It's just bleeping absurd."
Rollins exploded. "There's not a day I have been here that I haven't been trying to win this thing. I just resent this horseshit."
They went back to headquarters. Luce retreated to his own office to organize a press conference and start calling in the Rollins people on his hit list. Perot was there with him when Jordan walked in.
"Rollins is gone," Perot said. "I know you want to go, too. I hope you won't."
"Will the next four months be like the last three?" Jordan asked.
"I'm not going to let y'all handle me," Perot said.
Jordan asked for time to think.
"I hope you'll stay," Perot said again. "But in fairness to you, I want you to know I may pull the plug on the whole thing."
Afterward, Rollins found Jordan. "I'm outta here," he said. "Are you ready to go now?"
"I don't know," Jordan said. The economic plan was coming along-a tough package of the sort that had drawn Jordan to Dallas in the first place. Perot had agreed to ads promoting it. He seemed serious about running the stripped-down, no-bull candidacy he and the purists had been talking about-a campaign not just to elect a president but to cleanse the process. Jordan felt torn.
"Hamilton," Rollins said, "for three goddam weeks you've wanted to get out of here. I'm going. Everybody's going. What better time is there?"
Just about any time, Jordan thought. He wasn't about to join the discredited crowd leaving with Rollins.
Rollins moved through headquarters, thanking Volunteers and counseling his own men. The corridors were aswarm with security guards, shutting down offices, unplugging computers and cutting off phones. "What is this, Nazi Germany?" Joe Canzeri, Rollins's talented chief advance man, was yelling. "The train for Buchenwald leaves at 5." Outside, TV crews found parking tickets on their vans; somebody inside had called the cops.
Perot went home to his compound on Strait Lane. Luce and Meyerson came by at 9 that night.
I'm getting out, Perot told them. He had already canceled appearances in Minnesota and Virginia in the next two days.
Luce argued for staying in, but he had used up his chits by It was Meyerson instead who more nearly matched Perot's own size-up of the situation. Meyerson had lost heart for the race; he no longer thought it was winnable.
I think we need to cut this thing off, Perot said finally. Luce had scheduled a press conference for 10 the next morning. Perot would take his place and drop out of a race he had never quite declared himself in.
The word was already buzzing around headquarters when, a few minutes after 10, Perot appeared in the pressroom. He looked tired and gray. He praised The Volunteers for having reawakened both parties to reality, but, as he spun out his rationale, they had done their work all too well. "The overriding change was the revitalization of the Democratic Party," he said. Their resuscitation made it all but certain that the race would be deadlocked and the next president chosen by the House, Perot said. That would be disruptive for the country and impossible for him; he had known from the beginning, he said, that he would have to win a clean electoral-vote majority or not win at all.
The explication came as news to Rollins, watching the valedictory on TV in his apartment. There was Ross up on the screen, a wounded man cutting his losses and wrapping the decision in civics-book reasons. His troops, his friends, even his family knew his real reasons were mostly personal, some mix of discouragement with his progress and concern for his wife and children; he never cited as the chief reason a fear of deranging the country or its institutions.
The announcement done, Perot walked away, to go back to work, he said. He left Luce behind to thank The Volunteers at headquarters; Perot didn't want to face them or their disappointment in him. His fear was well grounded. His switchboard was alight again, some callers begging him to get back in, some suggesting various anatomical impossibilities. At Boston headquarters, a local leader fed Perot petitions into a paper shredder. "I feel like I've been stood up by a hooker," he said. In Ventura County, Calif., Volunteers pulled down an eight-foot statue of the Plain Texas Talker, draped a noose around its neck and forklifted it into a Dumpster. In East Los Angeles, a 23-year-old campaigner faxed Perot a note. "My parents taught me respect for my elders," it said, "but under this situation, if I was in a room with you, I would kick your ass."
Yet there were those who wondered even then whether Perot had really quit or had just taken a furlough from the abuse that had become his daily lot. Hooker had phoned again that morning, and after the news conference, Perot, faithful as ever, called back.
"Is there any possibility you would get back into it?" Hooker asked.
"I'm still in the stadium," Perot said. "I'm on the sidelines, I'm not in the game, but I am still here."
"Are you going to continue to be registered in all 50 states?"
"Yes," Perot said.
"So if you're going to be registered in all 50 states, you're still in the stadium, then we'll see," Hooker said. He was smiling again as he rang off, promising to call back. The first Perot campaign was over, but the game of catch was on again, and Hooker was betting his right arm that Ross, having stayed in the stadium, would sooner or later be back in the game.