Citizen Perot

For a guy who said he'd fight this battle fair and square-campaign solely on the issues, talk about what matters to the voters and the country-Ross Perot made a passable attempt at kicking George Bush in the political groin last week. The vehicle was "60 Minutes," that bastion of establishment journalism, and the subject was dirty tricks. Now it can be told: Perot dropped out of the presidential race last July to protect his daughter Carolyn from a nefarious plot to disrupt her wedding. Then there was the plot to defame her with a lewdly doctored photograph, and the plot to tap his office telephone. Proof? Perot had no proof, and he admitted it. He had only the word of a notoriously flaky character named Scott Barnes, and warnings from two unnamed but allegedly well-connected friends in politics. End of subject: how dare you question my integrity?

This, of course, is the oldest trick in the book-make a red-meat allegation to get the press slavering for more details, then dance away from it. You want me to prove it? I told you all you need to know, so go find the evidence-I'm trying to run a serious campaign here. There were, however, two small glitches in this familiar scenario. First, Citizen Perot seems not to have learned Rule One of negative campaigning, which is to leave no fingerprints when transmitting nasty rumors to the press. This small omission-an amateur's mistake-led directly to the second problem, which was that the allegations blew up instantly in his face. Perot looked grandiose and paranoid-like something of a kook. His momentum toward quasi-respectability in the national polls, which began with his unlikely re-entry in the race on Oct. 1, suddenly collapsed, probably irreversibly. By NEWSWEEK'S latest national survey, Perot's support dropped from 22 percent to 14 percent between Oct. 23 and Oct. 28, a devastating loss so close to Election Day. More than half of NEWSWEEK'S sample said there had been no Republican plot to smear his daughter, and a large plurality of the voters-48 percent-thought Perot "relies too much on stories that are not backed up by hard evidence."

So this, in all probability, signaled the end of the Perot presidential bubble-one of the more bizarre episodes in modern politics, the story of a surpassingly strange romance between a bigmouth billionaire and a frustrated, disillusioned electorate. Who is this guy, and how did he wind up getting so much attention in a pivotal election year? How has he changed the process, and what is he likely to do next? What does his early success and ultimate failure tell us about Ross Perot, about American politics and ourselves? There can be no Perot came very close to upsetting the rickety apple cart we call the two-party system: possibly-just possibly-he could have gone all the way. Ed Rollins and Hamilton Jordan, the two political pros who briefly enlisted to run the Perot-for-president campaign, certainly thought he could, and no one can say that Rollins and Jordan are dumb.

Put it another way. At his apogee, in early June, Perot enjoyed the support of about 35 percent of the voting-age population, or about 65 million Americans. True, this support was fragile and highly conditional: roughly three quarters of all those who backed his candidacy said they would switch to another candidate if it appeared Perot could not win. But these numbers by themselves made plain fools of the pundits and analysts who dominate political journalism, and they scared the living daylights out of the Bush and Clinton campaigns-to say nothing of the hundreds of incumbent congresspersons now running for their political lives. The voters were speaking loudly, and they were mad as hell. Perot, part Daddy Warbucks and part John Q. Public, was well positioned to harness that anger and ride it, if he could, all the way to the White House.

The fact is he couldn't-but that is only hindsight, a verdict that rests in part on intuitive suspicions of Perot's rough-as-cob persona and even more on the post-July recognition that he did not really have what it takes to run for president. Shaken by the hard-nosed inquisitions of a national press corps that had finally recognized his potential, Perot pulled the spectacular bugout that left his followers in the lurch. To judge by the whispers from within his down-sized and deprofessionalized organization, he regretted it instantly and almost as quickly began plotting some sort of comeback. What we now see-and arguably could have seen all along-is that this second effort would eventually be undone by Perot's inclination to depict the motives of his rivals in the darkest possible terms. This is intemperate and a sign of questionable judgment. But it is not evidence, in any specific medical sense, that Perot is nuts.

Still, if character is destiny, it was inevitable that Perot would sooner or later give voice to the conspiratorial cast of mind that seems to have governed his adult life. He has always been a driven man--a boat-rocker and a maverick who is determined to prove that he is smarter and more nobly motivated than anyone around him. That is the theme of his short career in the U.S. Navy, his upstart success in the computer-services industry and his much-publicized feud with General Motors. I'm right and they're wrong: the system is not only bloated and inefficient, it is corrupt. That is the theme of his one-man assault on American polities this year: the system is broke, hopelessly compromised by its own shabby accommodations and terminally incapable of producing results. Millions of Americans essentially agree with this diagnosis, if not necessarily with Perot's prescriptions or his claims to high-minded competence. But for a few brief weeks in early summer, Perot looked like the answer to a disgruntled voter's prayer-the gritty, homely personification of the Horatio Alger myth come to polities, a megabucks Mr. Fixit with a Boy Scout sense of ethics and a penchant for putting things right.

This is straight out of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," the 1939 Frank Capra classic about the struggle of an ordinary citizen (Jimmy Stewart) to rescue government from a claque of venal politicians. It is a theme that has a long and honorable history in American polities-it was the driving impulse for the Progresssive Movement, to cite just one pertinent example-and it is a role that Perot would dearly love to have scripted for himself. But now, with the darker side of his personality emerging, Perot seems less like Jimmy Stewart and more like Hal Phillip Walker, the mysterious third-party presidential candidate in Robert Altman's brooding 1975 film, "Nashville." Hal Phillip Walker is never seen on camera, though his voice is heard proclaiming that "what this country needs is some one-syllable answers." Sound like Ross ("It's just that simple") Perot? "Nashville" is all about the slick illusions of politics; Perot, with his tightly controlled, lavishly bankrolled, pseudo-grass-roots campaign, knows something about illusion making, too. And "Nashville," in the end, evokes the sense of dark forces at work behind the scenes-which is precisely the message that Perot, in his fumbling attempt to stick it to the Republicans last week, is now sending to his followers.

But the notion that Perot's appeal fundamentally depended on Americans' willingness to accept conspiracy theories of politics is elitist nonsense. His poll numbers at their June zenith were simply too high for that. The available demographic data suggest Perot scored best with registered independents with incomes of more than $50,000 a year and with voters in their 30s and 40s the upper-middle segment of white-collar, suburban America, and people in their most productive years. This is hardly a profile of true-believing zanies-and these are not people who, as some have suggested, can rightly be seen as proto-fascists yearning for a dictator. Further, the decline in Perot's poll numbers after his July 16 withdrawal-he plummeted from 28 percent in mid-July to a mere 9 percent in early October-suggests that the bulk of his support came from swing voters who were searching for a presidential alternative in flexible, pragmatic ways.

What Perot did, in the view of many analysts, was act as a conveyor belt for swing voters and Reagan Democrats who had grown disillusioned with the Republican Party and George Bush. Like Jerry Brown, Perot catalyzed their anger at the special interests and the partisan games in Washington. Like Paul Tsongas, but more forcefully, he articulated the fear that America is in decline. And like no one since Jimmy Stewart's Mr. Smith, he evoked the dream of government without polities. That hope may be naive and even self-contradictory-true governance means making tough choices, and politics is the way democratic societies balance the demands of competing interest groups. But if anti-politics is ultimately illusory, it is a quintessentially American illusion. Perot not only voiced it passionately, he apparently believed it. And the immediate beneficiary was Bill Clinton, who jumped into the lead in this year's presidential race as soon as Perot pulled out.

His larger contribution may well have been to reinvigorate the election-year debate. With his paperback best seller and his twangy one-liners, Perot almost single-handedly forced the twin issues of deficit control and generational fairness onto the national agenda. This was wildly reckless by the prevailing canons of Dr. Feelgood politics, and it may be one reason Perot, with his blunt call for raising taxes on affluent retirees, had relatively lower support among over-65 voters. His concern for the national debt, similarly, may overstated: while most economists agree that the deficit will require firm action in the next year or so, few would go so far as to say that the budget must be balanced at all costs by 1998. But credit where credit is due: there was little or no sign that George Bush and Bill Clinton were prepared to discuss these primal issues before Perot re-entered the race.

Then there is the matter of Perot and the national news media. Most politicians have a love-hate relationship with reporters; Perot's relationship with the press, despite the media's love for good copy, was even less positive than that. Reporters detest a phony, and Perot has a touch of that: his self-deprecating humor and homespun zingers are part of his salesmans repertoire. Underneath, he's egotistical, imperious and thin-skinned. He could not stand the press corps's skepticism, its relentless search for critics from his business years and, most of all, its interest in his family. He probably never understood that reporters are paid to ask impertinent questions and that somewhere in the hazing process a truer portrait of the candidate can emerge. The newsies, on the other hand, were mostly uninterested in the issues Perot was trying to promote and almost obsessive in their conviction that a major character flaw was lurking somewhere in his past. What they found, for the most part, was a culture clash-the conflict between Perot's straitlaced, military style and their own irreverent disregard for Norman Rockwell pieties.

The latest knock is that Perot, with his pie charts and paid political monologues, is both sloppy with the facts and wedded to an economic program that would punish low-income Americans. Both criticisms are arguably true, and they suggest that Perot, had he not dropped out of the race, might well have seen his positions on the issues carved up by the media and the opposition. Then again, maybe not: Ronald Reagan, who never mastered the details of his own programs and who was assuredly no champion of the poor, ran and won twice on the strength of his promise to straighten out the mess in Washington. The parallel runs further. Like Reagan and Jimmy Carter (though not George Bush), Perot appears to have gotten much of his strength from Middle America's simmering discontent with Beltway polities-its insularity, its arrogance and its failure to offer meaningful solutions to the nation's problems. Those problems-the federal debt, the health-care crisis, the decay of the cities-have only gotten worse through three successive administrations, and most Americans are well aware of that.

The message, which Perot deserves at least some credit for delivering one more time, is do something, even if it's wrong. Act like leaders; act as if the national interest mattered. Most voters know little about the ideological tong wars that have paralyzed Washington for the past 12 years, and only a minority of true believers on either side actually cares about them. Perot, with his hokey, transparently unworkable nonsense about electronic town meetings and restoring government to the people, was just as likely as Bush or Clinton to be stymied by this impasse and perhaps consumed by it. Our chance to find out what he would do, for better or worse, disappeared when he flamed out in last July-and given what we now know about his penchant for seeing political goblins under the national bed, that's probably just as well. But he remains one of the more fascinating and unpredictable figures of a wild election year, and he may well haunt the next president, and Congress, for years. Did Perot change U.S. polities in some important or lasting way? Probably not-but he is a true American original, and he has surely been fun to watch.

Do you think there really was a plot by Republicans to smear Perot's daughter? All voters 26% Yes 53% No Perot Voters 50% Yes 20% No For this NEWSWEEK Poll, The Gallup Organization telephoned 808 likely voters Oct. 28-29. Margin of error +/- 4 percentage points. "Don't know" and other responses not shown. The NEWSWEEK Poll copyright 1992 by NEWSWEEK, Inc. From all you have learned about Perot, do you think better or worse of him now than when he first put himself forward for president? 39% Better 42% worse 15% No change NEWSWEEK Poll, Oct. 28-29, 1992