A populust billionaire for president?

PAUL BURKA

April 15, 1992|By Paul Burka

THE IDEA that H. Ross Perot should run for president is nothing new. It surfaced before the 1988 campaign in published reports that Katharine Graham, chairman of the board of the Washington Post, had urged him to seek the Democratic nomination. Perot's attitude at the time, was summed up in a speech he gave in 1986 after receiving the Winston Churchill Foundation's leadership award. He had once dreamed of being the beautiful pearl in an oyster, he said, but then decided instead that his destiny was to be the grain of sand that irritates the oyster into producing the pearl.

Now Perot has changed his mind -- or has he? So far most of the attention surrounding his quest has centered on what kind of candidate he would be. Can he get on the ballot in all 50 states? Would he take more votes away from President Bush or from Bill Clinton? What percentage of the popular vote would he receive? The focus, however, ought to be on what kind of president Ross Perot would be. Is he really a pearl, or just a bigger irritant than ever?

A Perot presidency would not be an imperial presidency. For someone of his immense wealth, estimated at $3 billion, Perot has always lived relatively simply. A veteran of the Nixon White House recalls going to see Perot about a campaign contribution, expecting to be wined and dined by a Texas billionaire. Perot bought sandwiches and sodas from a vending machine, then offered manpower from his company (instead of cash) for the campaign. He still would rather eat a barbecue sandwich than a fancy meal. He views cars and clothes as functional items rather than status symbols; he drives a 1984 Oldsmobile and wears store-bought suits.

The image of a populist billionaire is reinforced by Perot's combative attitude toward big business. If President Perot went to Japan to talk trade, he would not take along a planeload of high-salaried corporate executives, as Bush did. Perot believes in stockholder wealth, not salaried wealth. The basis of his own fortune was his stock in Electronic Data Systems, the company he founded when he left IBM in 1962. He took stock instead of a high salary and became immensely wealthy.

Perot would not hesitate to protect American companies against foreign competition that he regarded as unfair, but he would not lift a finger to save companies whose troubles he believed to be self-created. He was highly critical of General Motors' management after he sold EDS to the automaker in 1984 for $2.5 billion in GM stock and cash.

With Perot, rifts tend to widen into feuds. After the split with GM, Perot seemed almost obsessed with bringing down its new subsidiary, EDS. In 1988, he bid against his old company for the contract to administer Medicaid for the state of Texas, calling EDS's profits under the old contract -- negotiated when Perot ran the company -- "obscene." (EDS still won the contract.)

Perot can be just as confrontational with the media. Although he has not been tested during the current campaign, in the past he has been petulant or preachy when criticized. Angry over how he was depicted in books chronicling his fight with General Motors, Perot stopped giving interviews for months.

Nevertheless, Perot's skill in the political arena should not be sold short. Those who say that he cannot succeed as president because he is used to issuing orders rather than negotiating have not seen him in action in Texas. In 1981 he mounted a "war on drugs" (including hiring lobbyists) that resulted in increased criminal penalties for drug offenses; three years later he underwrote and personally spearheaded a successful crusade to reform the state's educational system. The legislation included smaller class sizes, a state Head Start program, extra state money for districts with disadvantaged students and a highly publicized "no-pass, no-play" rule that benched athletes who were not making passing grades in all courses. To win the education battle, he had to overcome the collective intransigence of teachers, administrators and school boards. Before the crucial votes, Perot went to the state capitol to lobby wavering legislators.

Perot's message then was very much like his message now: Sacrifice in the short term to succeed in the long term. But the price of the sacrifices keeps getting higher. The things that Perot wants to accomplish will not come cheap: retire the deficit, rescue the schools, train the work force, stabilize the old Soviet Union. Perot's $3 billion fortune makes him an easy target for opponents who would point out that most of the sacrificing would be done by average Americans.

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