The Quitter: Why Perot Bowed Out..Se.-Campaign

Looking back, Ross Perot's guerrilla presidential candidacy began to come unraveled the moment he addressed the assembled leaders of the NAACP about "your people." Actually, it was more than that: the real problem with Perot's speech to the NAACP convention on July 11 was that it so plainly marked him as a son of Depression-era Texas, when white folks could afford to be a little patronizing. But whatever the reason, Perot was stunned by the harsh reaction to his NAACP speech. "This sound bite has made me sound like David Duke," he complained to Tom Johnson, president of the Cable News Network. "I consider every person in this country my equal, and I have the scars to show for it ... This is the last straw. I'm living in a world of setups." To Johnson, Perot sounded "very upset. He was in anguish."

Five days later, the banty billionaire jilted millions of eager followers by abruptly abandoning his quest for the presidency. In fact, Perot's gaffe in Nashville, Tenn., was only the proximate cause of his withdrawal-for as insiders now tell it, the big wheels were about to come off his bandwagon anyway. Perot, they imply, was out of his depth in presidential politics. He was hurt and confused by the attacks on his credibility and character, and he was frightened by the possibility that his family would be sucked into the vortex of an increasingly mean-spirited campaign.

Further, they say, he was never comfortable with the apparatus of a modern presidential campaign-with the polls, the handlers, the slick advertising and the hardball stratagems. Perot seems to have thought he could schmooze his way to the White House without engaging any of the mediating institutions of American polities, especially the news media. When he saw this was not so--when he discovered in particular that the news media would not let him run without examining his beliefs, his character and his background in excruciating detail-he simply gave it up. The campaign has "reached the point where it was too big for him to handle," a family friend in Dallas said last week, noting that "it's not his style" to delegate the big decisions.

Despite repeated news leaks about turmoil within his Dallas headquarters, Perot managed to keep the lid on for nearly a month. He has long operated through a coterie of diehard loyalists--chiefly Mort Meyerson, chairman of Perot Systems Corp.; Tom Luce, his lawyer and corporate counsel, and his wife, Margot. Beyond this tight circle was a cadre of hired guns headed by Ed Rollins, the veteran GOP campaign consultant, and Hamilton Jordan, Jimmy Carter's former right-hand man. Beyond the pros stood legions of Perot volunteers busily organizing petition drives in the 50 states. What is now undeniable-and was increasingly obvious to insiders during the month of June-is that these disparate elements never meshed. The volunteers, many of them, disliked and distrusted the professionals in Dallas. The professionals, though convinced that Perot had a genuine opportunity to become president, never thought the Perot high command really understood the game. And the high command could only try to mediate between the volunteers and the professionals-and, as they always had, try to satisfy Ross the Boss.

You can complain, as Perot did last week, that "the political process ... has nothing to do with picking a good president." And you can speculate, as some of his supporters do, that there may be a more sinister explanation for his withdrawal from the race. But neither theory fits the anecdotal evidence now emerging from Perot headquarters--evidence that Perot and his inner circle simply did not understand that any presidential candidate has to define himself fully and forthrightly before the electorate. Rollins, Jordan and the other professionals surely knew this when they signed on for what Perot promised would be a "world class" campaign. They expected reversals, tough days and heavy hits from the opposition. They knew, in short, that Perot would have to fight.

Perot evidently didn't-and by the middle of June, the gap between his boy-scout preconceptions and the professionals' increasingly urgent advice was becoming obvious. What Perot liked to call "Republican dirty tricks"--the steady drizzle of negative stories in the press-were beginning to take their toll. Although he was still strong in the polls, Perot's negative rating was creeping upward, and in Annapolis, Md., on June 24 he was forced onto the defensive by a barrage of hostile questions from the press. "He found his integrity challenged everywhere he turned," one adviser says. "He handled the Maryland press conference very well-he didn't let these feelings show-but he was hurt by all these inquiries into his life and the stuff about his children. You can say he should have known what would happen. But if you've never run for county commissioner, mayor or governor, it's hard to know how tough it is."

Rollins and the others, meanwhile, were urging Perot to push ahead-to approve a go-for-broke campaign strategy, detail his positions on the issues and, most of all, take the offensive against George Bush and Bill Clinton. Rollins hired Hal Riney and Partners, a respected San Francisco advertising firm, to develop commercials for television. Jordan commissioned a writer to draft a campaign biography, and the pros ordered up a five-minute "this is Ross Perot" commercial. Perot hated it. He thought the biography missed the importance of his years at the U.S. Naval Academy, and he thought that the camera crew had photographed Margot in an unflattering light. He balked at the cost. "Like a lot of wealthy people," an adviser says, "he doesn't spend it easily." But the cost of the commercials, like Rollins's proposal for direct-mail advertising, probably only symbolized Perot's distaste for the creeping professionalization of the campaign. "Perot had problems with professionals of any kind," Rollins told NEWSWEEK. "The closer he got to them, the less he liked them."

Symbolic or not, money became the key issue of the campaign's breakdown. According to Rollins, he and Jordan proposed an overall campaign budget of $100 million; Perot chopped it by half. Rollins wanted to spend $1 million to produce 15 ads for national television; Perot said he could get them made for $1,500 apiece. "Hal, you're a Rolls-Royce," Perot told Riney. "I want a Volkswagen." Then he told Riney and Rollins to "tell me ... how we can do it without spending a lot of money." An hour later, according to Rollins, Tom Luce came to Rollins's office and said "he wants you to get rid of Riney. Now."

By this point-July 9--Perot's hired guns were close to giving up. The Hal Riney team headed back to San Francisco and the news media were reporting that Jordan was about to quit. Perot, furious, blamed Rollins for the leaks and cut him out of the loop; by one account, Jordan had essentially been sidelined weeks before. According to Rollins, Jordan and Jim Squires, the campaign's director of communications, had already decided "to do the big walk." "They had an exit strategy," Rollins said. "I didn't. For me, it was the Alamo. The only way I could go home was if I had pushed it all the way." Rollins and Jordan met with Luce and Meyerson. Perot had three options, Rollins and Jordan said: go all out, let the campaign die a lingering death, or quit. Rollins says Luce, who had previously run for governor of Texas, "was more aware of what to do," but Meyerson "didn't have a clue." The meeting ended inconclusively.

Perot meanwhile was hearing footsteps in the polls, according to other campaign sources. Perot had his own in-house polling operation headed by Frank Luntz-and Luntz's data, like other national surveys, showed Perot slipping badly as the Democratic National Convention opened. To the political pros, this was a predictable "bounce" in Clinton's favor. But Perot "really thought he was in trouble," one of the pros says. "And he was, but it was from inaction. It wasn't anything that couldn't be repaired." Rollins and the others tried to explain that the best way to counter Clinton's surge was to launch the media-and-issues campaign that they had all along expected would carry Perot to November. Among other ideas, Rollins suggested that Perot should upstage Clinton with his own event a day after the Democratic convention closed. Perot wouldn't do it. To one insider, Perot's hesitation was the final blunder of a month in which "nothing happened and nothing got done." Perot, he says, "saw himself slipping into a John Anderson kind of third-party candidacy. He wanted to get out, rather than get 10 or 12 [percent of the vote] in November."

On Sunday, the day after the NAACP speech, Luce and Meyerson met with Rollins and Jordan for three and a half hours. According to Rollins, Luce accused him of "taking sides against the boss" in a short interview with The Wall Street Journal, and Luce and Meyerson ordered him to work up a short action plan for the campaign. "I've already put together plans for the campaign and you guys haven't done anything about them," Rollins said. But he did it anyway. Other staffers were already sure the end was near. "I thought I was going to get fired Monday or Tuesday," one says. "There was a strong sense of estrangement [and] by Monday afternoon, we couldn't get in to see anybody. It was obvious some decision had been made." Rollins took his staff out to dinner on Tuesday night and, on Wednesday afternoon, after meeting with Luce and Meyerson, told them the high command "had decided to go in a different direction." In a way, he says, "we felt a sense of relief."

With Luce on hand to supervise, Rollins announced his resignation at a hastily called press conference later that afternoon. "I don't think Mr. Perot's plans have changed TV one iota," Luce said, answering the obvious question. "I think he's still planning to run for president of the United States." Assuming-charitably--that Luce actually believed this, he found out differently that evening. Assembling his family and the high command at his Dallas mansion, Perot announced that he was pulling the plug on the whole campaign. As Meyerson recounted it, Perot said, "This is what I'm going to do, and I think I should go to the news conference instead of you, Tom. I think we need to cut this thing off."

In the aftermath, it is easy to see the Perot-for-president boom as a strange, short-lived phenomenon--something like a quark, a charmed particle in the quantum mechanics of American politics. Perot became a blank screen on which millions of American voters could project their discontents, an empty vessel into which they could pour their hopes for a government that is free from partisan conflict and brokered compromise. But politics ain't beanbag, as Mr. Dooley said, and you cannot run for president without that fire in the belly. Perot never had it, and he seems to have suffered a catastrophic failure of nerve as well. In north Dallas last week, a group of angry Perot volunteers showed what they thought of his decision by massing in a formation that spelled "chicken" for airborne news photographers. It was funny, it was cruel-and it almost seemed fair.

..CN.-NEWSWEEK POLL

Did Perot do the right thing in deciding not to run for president?

59% Yes 26% No

Do Perot's supporters have a right to be angry with him?

71% Yes 24% No

For this NEWSWEEK POLL, The Gallup Organization interviewed 758 adults by phone July 17. Margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points. Don't know and other responses not shown. The NEWSWEEK Poll copyright 1992 by NEWSWEEK, Inc.