WASHINGTON -- Ross Perot, who talks like a man who thinks he knows everything, has got it right about the Republicans' determination to destroy his presidential candidacy -- and wrong about how they're going about trying to do it.
Perot's notion that the GOP strategists are involved in a carefully laid-out conspiracy of "dirty tricks" with the nation's news media, feeding pliant reporters with damaging information and timing it to break just as Perot has started to make public appearances, is a gross misunderstanding of how the attempted unmasking of the real Ross Perot is proceeding.
Rather, the Republican political operatives have seized on the several stories developed by investigative reporters raising questions about Perot's seeming zest for investigating others, and have made public-relations hay with them.
This is a far cry from past Republican "dirty tricks" of the Watergate era, when the 1972 Ed Muskie campaign was infiltrated and the Democratic National Committee headquarters was broken into. What Perot calls "dirty tricks" is a commonplace and entirely legal practice of both parties -- collecting information about the opposition that can be profitably used against it.
Republican National Chairman Rich Bond openly acknowledges that the GOP national committee has an "opposition research" arm that sets out to dig up damaging material on both Perot and Gov. Bill Clinton, and the Bush-Quayle re-election committee has the same. So do the Democrats, looking for ammunition to use against President Bush and Perot.
In the most effective recent example of opposition research, the 1988 Bush campaign first heard of the Massachusetts prison furlough program that let Willie Horton loose when it was mentioned by Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore during the New York primary. Earlier, however, the Lawrence, Mass., Eagle-Tribune had printed stories about it that won a Pulitzer Prize.
No "dirty tricks" were involved in the Bush campaign getting the information. It can be debated whether use of the material, including pamphlets and ads picturing Horton, a black man, that were officially disowned by the Bush national campaign, would qualify. But clearly there was no conspiracy between the Bush campaign and the press that produced that major campaign weapon against Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis.
Perot, in complaining at his Annapolis press conference that the Bush "dirty tricks crowd" had gone too far in trying to locate his mother's will, made it sound as if he were being singled out for scrutiny. He should ask Clinton about the reporters who have been sniffing around Little Rock all year.
Bond has been quoted as acknowledging that damaging information on Perot has been passed on to the press, but the Bush-Quayle political director, Mary Matalin, says such information has not been peddled to the press, but rather only in response to press inquiries. Few folks in politics would be shocked, however, to learn that an anti-Perot tidbit or two has found its way into reporters' hands unsolicitedly from either Republican or Democratic sources. One prominent Republican operative is notorious for mailing negative information about an opponent to reporters in the time-honored plain manila envelope.
What has been carefully orchestrated has been the drumbeat of Republican characterizations of Perot as "scary" or worse in the wake of the reports of his investigatory bent, neatly ridiculed by the title "Inspector Perot" after either the Peter Sellers movie bumbler, Clouseau, or Agatha Christie's detective hero, Poirot.
White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater is part of the chorus in commenting that Perot's "paranoia knows no bounds." While Fitzwater may be right in that Perot sees a GOP-press conspiracy that doesn't exist, Perot is well aware of public hostility toward the news media and he isn't above playing on it by suggesting that he's being ganged up on.
One thing the exchange has established -- Ross Perot is not going to roll over and play dead in the face of what he accurately calls a Republican effort to "redefine my personality," or at least the public perception of it. This first political firestorm should tell a lot about Perot's political durability.