WASHINGTON -- Has he used drugs, had an extramarital affair or cheated the IRS? No, no, no, an exasperated H. Ross Perot said yesterday, experiencing the kind of scrutiny he would face if he runs for president.
The might-be candidate ran a gantlet of questions during and after a meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. He survived, entertaining many with his folksy humor, but the experience didn't whet his appetite for a campaign.
"I'm not driven to do it," he said. "As a matter of fact, the more I'm in it, the less interested I become."
His supporters shouldn't be alarmed. The Texas billionaire affirmed that he would run as an independent if the volunteer effort to put him on the ballot in all 50 states succeeds. "It's going very well so far.I think it will probably be done in June," he said.
Mr. Perot made an opening statement, stressing the need to reduce the budget deficit and create jobs, then took questions from a panel of editors and from audience members.
He said the $400 billion deficit could be erased by eliminating $180 billion in fraud, waste and inefficiency; saving $100 billion by installing new computers at the Internal Revenue Service; cutting $100 billion in defense spending abroad; and reducing Social Security and Medicare costs by $20 billion by cutting benefits to the rich.
Pressed to explain how the deficit could be eliminated without cutting programs, he deferred a specific response, saying, "I would explain these issues at length to the American people."
Panel member Acel Moore, associate editor of the Philadelphia In
quirer, admonished him for "avoiding" questions, but Mr. Perot won applause from some in the audience when he retorted: "Do we have to be rude, adversarial? Can't we just talk?"
Later, mobbed by reporters outside the meeting room at the J. W. Marriott Hotel, he engaged in a mostly good-natured exchange that covered topics from drug use to his wealth. But he became exasperated when a reporter, ostensibly giving him an example of the kind of questioning he'd face as a candidate, mentioned marital infidelity and tax cheating.
"Look, anybody want to know if I use fingernail polish?" he said. "Does anybody have any serious questions?"
He added: "All you guys are doing is tending to weed out the people who would do the job for this country. It's tabloid stuff."