NEW YORK -- If Ross Perot were Pinocchio, his nose would be growing all the way from Dallas to here after the whopper he unleashed on the country to explain why he was leaving millions of dedicated volunteers in the lurch.
The notion that he was quitting the presidential race -- because it was now clear that with him in it, the election would definitely wind up in the House of Representatives where he would lose -- is laughable. It would require a clairvoyance not given even to a Texas billionaire to say in mid-July with such certainty what will happen at the polls in November, or even in the House if the election ever got there.
The idea that a three-way race would prevent a majority winner in the Electoral College, and thus throw the choice of the next president into the House, had much more currency and potential before Perot started slipping in the polls. And at that time there was much discussion about whether House members would dare to vote against Perot if he won the popular vote in their districts or states.
While the election still could have wound up in the House, Perot, in certifying that it would, was reaching for a fig leaf behind which to hide his own political betrayal. In insisting that the last thing he wanted was to be "disruptive," did he think challenging the entrenched two-party system head-on was an act of harmony?
With that slippage in the polls, and with his campaign falling apart with the departure in frustration of one campaign manager and the reported dissatisfaction of another, tough-guy Perot clearly didn't have the stomach for hardball politics, of which he was now getting a bellyful.
After presumptuously asking volunteers to pledge that they wouldn't desert him once he was in the White House, he was saying it was OK for him to quit on them because the two major parties had now gotten their message of disillusionment and would start flying right.
Even more preposterous was Perot's urging of volunteers who had not yet gathered enough petitions to place him on the ballot in their states to continue to do so, so that the Republican and Democratic campaigns would know who the disenchanted voters were and how to reach them. And after shafting his supporters with his precipitous swan dive, he had the additional gall of saying that if they wanted to get together to decide whether to support Bill Clinton or George Bush, he'd be happy to "be a catalyst" for such a decision.
Perot was equally disingenuous in saying "it wouldn't be appropriate" for him to say he supported either major party candidate. Without kissing Bill Clinton on both cheeks or kicking George Bush in the slats, Perot made it abundantly clear, as he has all year, where his preference lies.
His observation that the "revitalization of the Democratic Party" he now sees has convinced him that his volunteers are now being listened to, coupled with his kiss-off of President Bush as a nice family man, is about as close to an endorsement without making one as is possible. It comes after months of bashing Bush and charging him and the Republicans with turning their "dirty tricks crowd" loose on him. Only days ago, he praised Clinton's choice of Sen. Al Gore as his running mate.
Perot's little lecture on the imperative of having the White House and Congress controlled by the same party if the gridlock in Washington is to be broken was another thinly- veiled boost for Clinton. The Arkansas governor has been making the same argument that "divided government" must end and only a Democratic president can work effectively with a Congress that is almost certain to remain in Democratic hands.
The country may never get the real reason Perot pulled the plug on his army of volunteers, at least not from his own mouth. But reports from hired professionals inside the campaign painted a picture in recent weeks of a man who refused to take advice and was irate at the effrontery of those who questioned his integrity, sincerity and ethics.
For all his bravado, Perot has had a track record of picking up his marbles and going home if things haven't gone his way. He did it at General Motors, in some other business enterprises, and in his support of the now-revered Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington when the design wasn't to his liking.
It is interesting to recall that Perot in his aborted candidacy was sometimes compared to Harry Truman, who said that if you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. Perot has shamelessly taken that advice.
One of the oldest axioms in politics instructs that a candidate should never "step on his own story." That was one reason the Clinton campaign decided to select its vice-presidential nominee advance of the convention -- to make certain the decision did not take play away from the desired focus on Mr. Clinton, who needed some image repair.
All was going famously until yesterday, when Ross Perot dropped his bombshell in Dallas.
The fallout of his decision not to run drifted quickly over Madison Square Garden, where television coverage and corridor talk turned on a dime away from Clinton's big night and anticipated acceptance speech to what Perot's decision meant for Clinton's chances, and for the Democratic Party.
Prior to the Perot announcement, Clinton's campaign chairman, Mickey Kantor, and Democratic National Chairman Ronald H. Brown were busy telling reporters that it made no difference to them whether Perot was in or out.
One Democrat who had reason to be happy that Perot didn't bail out a week earlier was Gore, who had to be wondering whether he would have been selected as Clinton's running mate if not for the prospect of a three-man race that seemed to offer special opportunity for the Democrats to crack the Republican South.