Texas billionaire poised to be election-year savior

April 05, 1992|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Fresh out of the Marine Corps in the late 1960s, Ron Benigo nabbed a job with H. Ross Perot's crackerjack computer business in Dallas and was awed by the pint-sized boss with the oversized ideas.

"When I went to work for him in '68, I thought, 'This is a guy who could be president!' " Mr. Benigo said.

"I'm not sure I thought he'd be a good president."

Today, that's precisely the question with which more and more voters are grappling. Mr. Perot, the enigmatic populist who rode the wave of the computer revolution all the way to the biggest fortune in Texas, is poised for another adventurous ride, this one on a wild political current that could carry him all the way to the November ballot.

In the few weeks since he let it be known that he might pursue, and finance, an independent run for the presidency, more than a 1.5 million people have called his 800 number -- many of them disillusioned voters who see the tough-talking cowboy, a man who surrounds himself with Norman Rockwell paintings (not prints), Frederic Remington bronzes and his old Boy Scout manual, as an election-year savior.

The hard-charging businessman maintained in a phone interview Friday that he doesn't really covet the job, "but if the American people want me to do it as their servant, I will. I'll give it everything I've got."

Recent national polls have the 61-year-old entrepreneur corralling as much as 24 percent of the vote in a three-way race with President Bush and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.

Not very long ago, few knew what the H. in H. Ross stood for -- if they knew the name at all.

Some who know Henry Ross Perot believe the Naval Academy graduate would bring to the nation the same leadership savvy and "can do" spirit he brought to his business enterprises, to the rescue of hostages in Iran, to drug and education reforms he spearheaded in Texas, and to the causes he's championed and bankrolled.

Indeed, he was so revered at Electronic Data Systems (EDS) -- the company he founded in 1962 after IBM, his employer at the time, rejected the young salesman's idea for custom-designed computer systems -- that employees once brought in a white horse and suit of armor for his birthday.

Imposed morals code

At the same time, he imposed on these workers a morals code and a dress code, banning anything but white shirts for males. When he didn't think a bouquet of balloons being delivered to an employee was businesslike, he banned balloons from the building.

To one former employee, such codes and edicts represent "a scary dimension to his character. The public, folksy image doesn't show the hard, tough man he is underneath. He's probably the toughest man I know."

In fact, both admirers and critics (often they are one and the same) question how Mr. Perot's fierce, some say autocratic, style and 10-gallon ego will translate to the political arena. Once he makes up his mind, most agree, he is not to be moved.

"If politics is the art of compromise, his is a doomed presidency," said Todd Mason, a Perot biographer. "He's never compromised once."

Perhaps his most celebrated clash was with General Motors. After selling his beloved company to GM in 1984 for $2.5 billion, but remaining as EDS chairman, Mr. Perot, himself, was later bought out for $750 million after a two-year showdown with GM brass marked by his railing about the auto giant's inefficiency.

"He went into GM and instead of saying, 'I'm going to persuade you to do it my way,' he went in like a bull in a china closet," said Karl Rove, a Republican consultant in Austin. "His idea of democracy is: I make the orders and you obey them."

EDS employees felt abandoned when their leader left in 1986, and then betrayed when he hired away top executives to start a competing company, Perot Systems, as soon as his contract would allow.

"I had the right to start a new company," Mr. Perot said. "That was the business agreement."

Jerry Welch, a former EDS executive, equates Mr. Perot's departure with "sending a kid off to college." Mr. Welch believes that the energetic computer magnate started a new company "because Ross Perot is always going to be doing something. He liked the idea of getting back to a slim, trim, mean and nasty, let's-take-on-the-world [outfit]. He likes to take on the world."

If critics question how such a dogmatic crusader could ever lead a smooth, political adagio with Congress, a Cabinet or foreign governments, supporters point to Mr. Perot's successes working with the government of his home state -- namely his shepherding of tougher drug penalty laws and, later, an education package.

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