As Ross Perot's mating dance with candidacy heads from flirtation toward consummation, campaign consultants are even more befuddled than the press by the phenomenon. Mr. Perot dumps on political handlers as pernicious polluters of the system. At the same time, his footwork follows the most intricate choreography they sell to paying clients.
Very frightening to the already endangered species of strategists for hire. I know, because I commune with a phantom source, Old Pro, an amalgam of the best spinners who have worked on my head. Usually Pro speaks with total confidence. In our last talk, he sought rather than provided guidance.
He confided that he had composed a memorandum to Perot -- a gambit of handlers in search of business. Could he send me a copy by telepathy? Of course. Here's his message:
Dear New Pro,
I wonder whether you realize how good you've been in the preliminaries. On the possibility that we've been seeing a lot of beginner's luck, I'll parse some of your best ploys.
In most of your many TV appearances, you condemn sound-bite politics. Great move; the sound bite symbolizes schlock campaigning. Then, in the same breath, you deliver really neat audio nibbles of your own. Like when you said on "Larry King Live" that you'd demolish Washington gridlock instantly ("Build a consensus, and move, move, move, act, act act.")
Also nifty is the way you stomp on the idea that you're eager to occupy the White House, as you did on "60 Minutes." ("No, no, no, no. Absolutely not. I wouldn't give you 3 cents to go up there.") Of course in March alone you spent $394,803 on your presidential venture.
You've been masterful in creating the illusion that getting your name on ballots as an independent is a large feat. ("A very complex process," you said on "American Interests." "Both parties have placed a lot of obstacles in the road.") This reinforces the underdog image. So does your frequent mention of the "Republican Party dirty tricks committee," which you said on "CBS This Morning" "has thrown every rock at me you can throw at anybody in Texas."
Your interviewers somehow fail to remind you that just four years ago the marginal New Alliance Party got Lenora Fulani on all the ballots. Or that there's next to no visible evidence of rocks or dirty tricks worthy of either term. The clients who deliver big bucks to my fraternity are demanding to know why they can't get by with such fluff.
What really impresses us at Handlers Central is how you've seduced the press into benign lethargy even as you twit reporters for being boorish nags. The "60 Minutes" folks usually rake their guests over; Morley Safer said of you: "Above all, Perot is a superpatriot." Of course you've been very wise to spend most of your time with TV talk types rather than with the pencil press. Maybe the networks realize that the $100 million or so you'll spend in the summer and fall will do wonders for their collective bottom line. But even the scribblers have been easy on you -- so far.
Talking about bottom lines, let me suggest, respectfully, that you're going to need professional help as the novelty value you bring to the festivities wears thin. Larry King let you get away with the assertion that you can dream up a comprehensive, equitable new tax system "oh, in a month or two." But tap dancing like that around serious questions tires once people begin to take your candidacy seriously. So you'll require elaborate, opaque evasions to mask the fact that you haven't a clue about how to deal with these complicated issues.
Policy advisers affiliated with our enterprise will cheerfully supply appropriate rhetoric. Our spin division will help you explain the disconnect between your criticism of the campaign finance system and your family's generous donations to the same system. Our media department will supply fresh sound bites daily; it's only May and you're already repeating your cutest lines.
Retaining us, however distasteful you find it, will help you deliver on one of your vague promises: the one about making restoration of the job base your top priority. What with Campaign late start and the shortage of durable runners, our business is in sad shape. If ordinary politicians become infected with your notion that a candidate can get far without our services, we're totally kaput. To save us and the unemployment rate from that calamity, give us a call.
Your obedient would-be servant,
The Old Pro
Laurence Barrett, national political correspondent for Time magazine, covered his first presidential election in 1964. He wrote this commentary for Newsday.