Perot's manner masks his complexity

May 10, 1992|By Bob Drummond | Bob Drummond,Contributing Writer

WASHINGTON -- Starting from scratch, a hard-charging Texas supersalesman built one of the world's great fortunes on a bold yet simple premise: You can have your cake and eat it, too -- as long as Ross Perot is in the kitchen.

Prospering in a cutthroat computer industry because of uncanny success at selling one thing above all else -- the can-do reputation of Henry Ross Perot -- the crew-cut kid with the Texarkana twang rocketed to riches by promising clients that he could produce more, better and faster -- all at no extra cost.

Three decades after quitting IBM to set out on his own, the data-processing billionaire seems ready to launch the biggest sales pitch of a legendary career: selling himself to frustrated voters as the man who can use common-sense savvy and high-tech vision to make Washington work again.

In a little more than two months since Mr. Perot first broached a possible independent candidacy for the White House, he has skyrocketed in the polls. Echoing the promises that made him rich, he has pledged to give government back to the people through modern technology, in the form of "electronic town halls," and vowed he can apply hard-headed business sense to balance the budget without breaking a sweat.

But those who have watched him for decades say the uncomplicated candor that voters find so appealing obscures a more complex reality that reveals much about his potential as a politician. The history of his rise to renown shows that, with Ross Perot, what you see may indeed be what you get, but what you get often is more than you bargained for.

Considered a determined scrapper, who says his disdain for red tape can make America competitive again, Mr. Perot also has been accused of seeking sweetheart deals on secret, no-bid federal contracts.

The iconoclastic political outsider who attacks special interests also has been described as a canny inside operator who has mounted fearsome lobbying campaigns to protect his interests. Mr. Perot's image is a highly charged mixture of opposites: practical visionary, populist tycoon, welfare billionaire, cowboy of the computer age.

Like opposite sides of a coin, the qualities that recommend him to many as a breath of fresh air also have produced controversy through the years, and prompted even Mr. Perot himself to wonder about his suitability for politics.

"I'd be terrible in public office," he told an interviewer in 1969. "I'm too action-oriented." Twenty years later, he similarly dismissed his political prospects, saying: "I don't see myself as someone who can save the United States."

'I can make this work better'

For many who see Mr. Perot as a political savior, however, his appeal lies in the legendary business success that began in 1962, when he quit as one of International Business Machines' top salesmen to found Electronic Data Systems Corp. Incorporated on his 32nd birthday, EDS would make Mr. Perot a billionaire before he was 40 and provide the foundation for a fortune estimated today at more than $2.2 billion.

With EDS, Mr. Perot set out to convince businesses that, for no more than they were already spending, they could improve productivity through his savvy and computer wizardry; his profit would come from the money saved by greater efficiency.

"His pitch is, 'I can make this work better without costing you any more.' That's his governmental philosophy, too," said Texas Democratic consultant George Christian.

The break that made Mr. Perot a billionaire came three years after EDS was started, when Texas Blue Cross/Blue Shield was chosen to administer the new Medicare program in his home state.

At the time, Mr. Perot worked for Blue Cross as a data processing manager while he tried to establish EDS. With no competitive bidding and no government approval, and while he still was on the payroll, Blue Cross gave EDS a contract in 1966 to process Texas Medicare claims. Federal officials raised questions about a sweetheart deal.

But in keeping with his image as a man who rides to the rescue, and who is only reluctantly offering himself as a presidential contender, associates say Mr. Perot took the job because Blue Cross desperately asked for help.

"With the volume of claims in Texas, they had a tremendous problem handling it. They asked Ross to come in and fix it," said Thomas J. Marquez, one of Mr. Perot's first hires at EDS.

In late 1967, officials at the Social Security Administration, which ran the Medicare program, demanded competitive bidding and advance approval of Texas contracts. But within days of the demand, Mr. Perot's firm had another no-bid contract, setting off a five-year wrangle with Social Security officials, government auditors and congressional investigators.

Defying the government

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