Forget his politics -- it's the principles Perot taps a yearning for honesty at the top

May 22, 1992|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The more reporters grill Ross Perot about specifics and the more the likely presidential contender snaps back with retorts like "I haven't spent a minute thinking about that," the more enamored Perot supporters like Jayne Rountree become.

"How many politicians do you know who would say, 'I don't know'?" said the 54-year-old real estate broker from Sacramento, Calif. "I appreciate that. I see it as integrity. I appreciate the fact that he doesn't dazzle me with bull. I'm tired of the razzle-dazzle, the minutiae. And I'm tired of the rhetoric."

Ms. Rountree may have been precisely the type of voter Mr. Perot had in mind when, after declaring timeout to develop specific position papers, the Texas billionaire jumped right back into circulation, having concluded that voters aren't much interested in his particulars.

"The phone banks are going crazy with working folks saying, 'Why are you wasting your time on this? We're not interested in your damn positions, Perot. We're interested in your principles,' " Mr. Perot told Time magazine.

Interviews with those who have signed Perot petitions around the country suggest that, in this season of anti-Washingtonism and discontent with politics-as-usual, he may be right.

That the plain-spoken, crackerjack businessman is an agent of change is enough for some people. And while other petitioners say they'd welcome more specifics on his positions -- and expect more -- they also say such details take a back seat to issues of character, integrity and style. In these departments, many say they already know all they need to know.

"Even if I don't know what he stands for, I have enough of a grasp to know he impresses me more than either George Bush or Bill Clinton," said Rebecca Brinkley, 66, of Louisville, Ky. "I feel this man is not in it for the money or for ego purposes. He's in it for the sake of the American people. I trust his judgment."

Jeffrey Schwartz of Newton, Mass., said he's leaning toward Mr. Perot even though he'd still like to know how the independent candidate-to-be plans to fix the economy, what he'll do to help the underclass and how he'll fare under the "glare of the campaign light."

"I guess I do want a little more specificity," said the 39-year-old financial analyst. "But I also know you don't come up with these answers in 30, 90 or 120 days. It's more important to me that when he does stake out a position, he believes in that position and will fight like hell to support it rather than do what's politically expedient. The integrity and independence from outside interests he brings is what's most important to me."

"His specifics may be rather vague," conceded Gerd Hasal, 52, a retired businessman in Frenchboro, Maine, where 37 of the 41 registered voters have signed a Perot petition. "But personally, I feel comfortable voting for him with what I know at this point. He seems straightforward, down to earth, right to the point. I feel comfortable with the man. I can relate to him."

Ironically for a $3.3 billion man, much of the Perot appeal seems to lie in his folksy, gritty, down-home personality -- especially when juxtaposed with Mr. Clinton, who has been unable to shake the "slick Willie" sobriquet, and Mr. Bush, who has been charged with being "out of touch" with the common man. But again, part of the Perot persona may be built more on myth or general perception than on specific facts.

"He's not all high-gloss," said 18-year-old Jeremy Goldberg, a student in Troy, Mich. "I like the fact that he doesn't take the limo and that his kids all went to public schools."

Mr. Goldberg seems unfazed when told that, in fact, Mr. Perotrents a car and driver when traveling out of town, and that all five Perot children went to exclusive private schools.

For many supporters, the computer giant's business success and self-made fortune -- about which there is no confusion -- are reason enough to slap a Perot bumper sticker on the family car. "The man has made a lot of money. If he knows how to handle his own money, I feel confident he'll know what to do with ours," said Ms. Brinkley, a retired home economics teacher and registered Democrat. "It's his experience I'm trusting."

Mr. Perot's support is slightly stronger among men, among whites, among people over 30, among Democrats and especially independents, and among the college-educated and those in upper income brackets, according to a recent survey by the Times Mirror Center for The People & The Press.

But the most salient feature of his support is that it cuts across the board to include "all sorts of people with a variety of backgrounds, attitudes and inclinations," said Andrew Kohut, the center's director of surveys. "All sorts of people are dissatisfied with the choices available to them. Perot's support reflects that more than broad-based appeal."

And for this large chunk of Perot supporters disenchanted with the traditional party candidates, specifics on issues play a particularly minor role.

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