The Man And The Myth

The great salesmen understand one thing above all: you sell yourself, not the product. Shoes, suits, data-management services: it doesn't matter. You make a sales call. You get in the door. You lend the customers your dreams, the myths of your own life, your belief in your wares. In the case of Ross Perot, candidate, the dictum is doubly apt. He's selling what he's always sold: a cocky faith in himself, in his ability to reach his goals. "This isn't about a guy with some 16-point plan on health insurance," says his top aide, Tom Luce. "This campaign is about Ross Perot's way of getting things done."

Perot is making the sales pitch of a lifetime to a customer called America. We've had farmers, lawyers, soldiers and engineers as presidents. We've had an actor, and even a failed haberdasher named Harry Truman. But we've never had a salesman, let alone one like Perot. In the 1992 presidential campaign he's offering a series of images of himself--each, at first glance, with its own appeal.

As president, he promises, he would be the national auto repairman "under the hood" of gridlocked government. Or the stern but golden-hearted dad, who will make the down payment to fix the family car we took on a joyride called the '80s. Or, even better, our answer to the Japanese corporate samurai, a tough little warrior who embodies American know-how at its aggressive, postindustrial best: sun belt, computers, action-oriented management. The location of his business office in north Dallas conveys the image, and the hope. It overlooks the corner of Merit Drive and Churchill Way.

But how much substance is there in all this sizzle? What is this salesman really selling? Examining the reality behind the images Perot already has marketed in his career, the answer that emerges is complex. Horatio Alger, Navy Man, Risk Taker, Patriot, Boy Scout, Mr. Smith: Perot is all these mythic characters. But also not quite any of them. His career is a trail of earnest pluck as well as rank opportunism, of genuine humanitarianism as well as self-promotion, of plain talk as well as half-truths. He's honored the teachings of the Boy Scout Manual, as well as those of another favorite book, "The Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun." He is, in short, both salesman and hustler. Or, as he has said half in jest, "P. T. Barnum without the elephants."

Perot doesn't wear cowboy boots, but he likes to say he grew up in the east Texas of the Depression, in what his official biography calls "modest circumstances." He's even noted that he broke his nose breaking horses. But Perot is not the product of a dusty country town. After it weathered the Depression, the Texarkana of his youth became a bustling little city, a trade center at the juncture of five railroad lines. Nor were Perot's own circumstances hardscrabble. His father was a successful cotton broker. He was close with a dollar-he drove the same Dodge for 20 years-but he bounced over the potholes of the Depression. His horses were Tennessee Walkers, the smooth-gaited choice of Southern farmers, kept in a field near the family's brick home in a tree-lined neighborhood.

Perot's earliest education was private, at an elementary school run by a disciple of Columbia University's progressive pedagogical thinkers. There was Bible reading and a much-used ruler for discipline, but also an emphasis on art, theatrics and music. Young Ross, barred by his stature from the football holy wars, learned tennis on a private court. He couldn't overpower anyone, but he developed a game of clever slice shots that unnerved his foes. By the 1940s, the family joined the local country club. His sister, Bette, held a debutante party there. As a teenager, Ross was a lifeguard at the club pool.

Perot's favorite boyhood tale of himself is a precursor of dozens to come: boy on horseback in dangerous territory, mixing commerce with good deeds. Perot says he pioneered a paper route in the city's black ghetto, where no one else had dared to make deliveries, but where he was able to demand a bigger cut from the company. A Perot biographer, Todd Mason, casts doubt on the story. Other boys had worked the route before, his sources said. Ross had two other routes as well. As Perot tells it, he usually rode horseback. One boyhood friend, however, says Ross rode a bicycle on his routes. The horseback tales "are bullshit," D. W. (Sonny) Atchley told The Dallas Morning News. "It's harmless. It makes good copy."

Perot thrived at the Naval Academy, where he was a midshipman from 1949 through 1953. But he's given no fewer than four explanations for why he asked to get out of active duty in 1955, only two years after graduation. One: he thought he had only a two-year obligation. A four-year hitch, he thought, was a wartime exigency that ended when the Korean conflict did. Navy officials can't locate administrative records that would support, or undermine, this explanation. Two: he was outraged by the navy's unmeritocratic promotion system. "The waiting in line concept," he said in 1971, "was just sort of incompatible with my desire to be measured and judged by what I could produce." Three: in a 1955 letter to his congressman, Perot said life aboard his ship-full of swearing and drunken tales of promiscuity-deeply offended him.

Perot recently offered a fourth explanation to NEWSWEEK: he wanted out of his assignment aboard the destroyer Sigourney because of what he said were the lax morals of the captain. According to Perot, the captain wanted him to spend money from the ship's recreation fund to redecorate his cabin, and he demanded liquor from the ship's medicinal stores. "If we were at sea any length of time, he wanted liquor," Perot said (NEWSWEEK, April 27). Interviewed last week by CBS, retired Capt. Gerald J. Scott called the charges "absolutely and unequivocally false." He added that he couldn't recall Perot ever being in control of the Sigourney's recreation fund or controlled substances. Ship records support Perot's contention that he was in control of the medicinal stores and list him as recreation-fund officer the year Scott took command of the ship. Two of Perot's shipmates confirm his view that Scott was a difficult, prickly captain willing to bend the rules. But another of Scott's junior officers last week defended the captain in an interview with NEWSWEEK. "I never knew our skipper to need a drink," said Rodion Cantacuzene, who was a lieutenant (j.g.) with Perot. "I never saw him drink to excess."

Perot didn't win early release. He was reassigned to another ship, where, ironically, he got the first business breaks: he was introduced to rudimentary computer technology, and he met a visiting IBM executive whom he later contacted for a job.

The story of the founding of Perot's Electronic Data Services (EDS) is wrapped in the aura of adventurous risk-taking. As the legend has it, he came up with a $1,000 check, written on his wife's account, to start the company in 1962. Perot saw an opportunity few others could even imagine: full-service, off-the-shelf data processing for big enterprises. But the fabled $1,000 was merely the filing fee for incorporating his new venture. In 1962 Perot evidently had a sizable grubstake from his years as a record-setting salesman for IBM. And he was working part-time as head of data processing for Texas Blue Cross.

In fact, the contract that made EDS was with Texas Blue Cross. There was no competitive bidding. Even after the contract was awarded in 1966 to handle Medicare claims, Perot stayed with Blue Cross for a year, in effect overseeing his own work. He resigned from Blue Cross nine days after the federal government, having investigated the situation, told the insurance company that all future Medicare contracts must be competitively bid. Even so, The New York Times reported recently, Texas Blue Cross signed another three-year contract with EDS in 1968-without informing the government and again without competitive bidding.

The Texas Blue Cross work helped catapult EDS from a tiny company, with $26,000 in profits in 1965, to an all-star growth company, with $2.4 million in profits in 1968. Perot took the company public that year, prompting Fortune magazine to call him the "fastest richest Texan ever."

Perot plunged into the Wall Street brokerage business in 1971, purchasing the floundering firm of duPont Glore Forgan. By Perot's account, it was a selfless act of financial patriotism in response to a Nixon administration distraught over a possible collapse of confidence in The Street. Indeed Perot lost $60 million trying to salvage the firm.

But Perot wasn't going in blind: EDS was already handling data processing at the firm, and Perot hoped not only to turn it around but win his way into other Wall Street back shops as well. It didn't work out. Before Perot bailed out, NEWSWEEK has learned, he made at least one attempt in 1974 to phone Richard Nixon and elicit government help-and thereby make his Wall Street adventure retroactively less risky. According to Nixon's chief of staff at the time, Alexander Haig, who took the call, Perot insisted that he had only taken over duPont Glore Forgan because Treasury Secretary John Connally and domestic counselor John Ehrlichman had begged him to do so. "He was losing his shirt, he told me, and wanted to talk to the president for his advice," Haig remembers Perot saying. "I told him it was his money, and it sounded to me like he should cut his losses." Haig says he never put Perot through to Nixon.

There's no gainsaying Ross Perot's patriotism. The bald eagle has been his personal and business symbol throughout his career. His dedication to the American military and to public service on his own terms is clear. But from the time of his first forays in private diplomacy and military adventure, in the view of some officials, his exploits have shown an admixture of self-promotion or a disregard for constitutional authority.

Perot used his initial patriotic exploits to gain access to the White House. In 1969 he spent nearly $1 million running a series of ads under the banner UNITED WE STAND in support of Nixon's Vietnam policy. A year later he made his Christmas flight to Southeast Asia with gifts for POWs, giving Nixon a huge PR boost when the North Vietnamese refused to let him fly to Hanoi. In return, Perot got the thanks of POWs who say his efforts made their lives easier-and White House entree: a court of last resort where he could get a hearing for EDS problems.

When he knows history is to be written about his exploits, Perot likes to be the first to see it. The mission he financed to rescue EDS employees from an Iranian jail in 1979 was memorialized in a best-selling book, "On Wings of Eagles," by popular thriller writer Ken Follett. Perot had editorial oversight on the project. According to Perot biographer Mason, Perot blue-penciled drafts and retained the right to buy out Follett's contract and kill the book. (Follett himself has said the editing was light.) It was a best seller, and Perot even made the rounds of talk-show promotions for the TV movie generated by the book.

Perot's 1987 trips to Vietnam in search of information about MIAs raised concerns in the Reagan State Department. Some officials complained that Perot might have been violating the 1799 Logan Act, which bars private citizens from conducting diplomacy. Perot has never shown much concern for the niceties of that law, and he found kindred spirits in the Reagan years. In 1981, Frank Snepp charged in The Village Voice last week, Perot dispatched one of his own employees, a former army commando, to help customs officials set up a "sting" operation to trap narcotics smugglers. Perot, who at the time headed the Texas Drug Commission, said that the man, Richard Meadows, was merely doing research for him. But Perot, other newspapers reported, even offered to buy a Caribbean island that could be used as a traffickers' refueling stop, as long as he got to keep the proceeds from the smugglers' seized assets to defray his costs. Frank Chadwick, a former customs chief in Houston who supported the "sting" project, told the Voice that the operation was an "unorthodox" attempt to circumvent international neutrality agreements by using private operatives to handle customs' overseas detective work.

The Scouts were a life-forming experience for Perot. His Eagle Scout merit badges are on display at the Perot Scout Center in Texarkana. But while he has been brave, clean and reverent, his accounts of key events in his career haven't always been as trustworthy as the Scout Law requires. The most vivid example is Perot's depiction of his role in the Alliance Airport project in Ft. Worth. The airport is a bold move: a freight-only shipping center that is seen as the first in a globe-girdling network. Perot bought the land, and a family partnership donated a middle section to the government, which built the airport. The family retained control of the surrounding land.

Perot told NEWSWEEK in April that he had nothing to do with the venture. "It's my son's project, ask him," he said when questioned about the airport. You don't know if you own any of it? he was asked. "I don't know, ask my son," he replied, adding that "My total contribution was I thought it was a bad idea." In a subsequent NEWSWEEK interview, Ross Perot Jr. said that his father bought the land originally and that Ross Sr. still owns a substantial share of the development. "The airport is a combined project," Ross Jr. said. Perot also said he has done nothing to promote the development. But city officials reportedly have said they met with Ross Sr. in his office to ensure that he was indeed involved.

In Perot's view of controversies, the other side always has the facts wrong, or quotes him out of context. A Ft. Worth publisher says Perot hinted that he had compromising pictures of one of the newspaper's reporters; Perot denies he said so. A Dallas newspaper reported that Perot had suggested cordoning off a ghetto and searching house to house for guns; Perot denies saying so, and casts personal aspersions on the reporter. Perot says it was a "goofy ...myth" that his company enforced a strict ban against facial hair; in 1983 a federal court ordered EDS to reinstate an employee who had been fired for wearing a beard.

Perot likes to portray himself as a political innocent, summoned, like Frank Capra's cinematic hero, to Washington by virtue of his own naivete and lack of ambition. But Perot's early gifts and interests were as much political as financial. In retrospect, it's possible to conclude that his business career was one long and lucrative detour around his main goal. As a youth Perot was a prize debater and later the president of his junior-college class in Texarkana. At the Naval Academy he again was an elected leader and was ticketed by his fellow midshipmen either for the admiralty or a career in politics. Several predicted at the time that he would be the academy's first gift to the White House. (Jimmy Carter was.)

At his north Dallas headquarters, Perot is now gearing up an unorthodox but decidedly "world-class" campaign. Perot told NEWSWEEK only six weeks ago that "there would not be a handler anywhere within a thousand miles of me."But even at the time, his aides were scouting professionals, and last week they hired two of the nation's ultimate "handlers"-Hamilton Jordan and Ed Rollins-to help run his campaign. A friend of Perot's suggested that he film a campaign biography; another friend suggested that David Wolper, the prize-winning documentary filmmaker, might provide some guidance. The idea was rejected, but, Luce says, "there will be ads."

Getting in the door, Perot knows, is a transaction of hope and myth. He's offering a tantalizing package to the American people. He's in the door. But he also knows that if you want to close the deal, you have to demonstrate how the product works. His sales pitch so far lacks specifies. Now Perot must offer up some convincing "plain Texas talk" about the sacrifice necessary to reach what he says is his main goal: erasing the debt that slows economic growth. And then, if he is elected president, Ross Perot will need all of his legendary salesmanship to persuade the nation to follow through on the deal

The Man And The Myth | News