Six weeks ago, one of the most knowledgeable Washington operatives bet me a dinner that Ross Perot would achieve more than 20 percent of the popular vote in November.
My friend thought that was a generous offer, since I had stated confidently that Mr. Perot would have shrunk as a presidential candidate to the point where he could get no more than the low teens in the popular percentages.
Washington's reasoning: ''Ross Perot has found a way to say just what the people of this country are thinking. They like it, and they are going to respond to it. These other guys (President Bush and Gov. Bill Clinton) don't know how to shell down the corn the way Perot does.''
The counter-arugment: Ross Perot did, indeed, speak the minds of many Americans. The people who were responding to him had waited a long time to have a bona fide outsider say he could change things -- and back it up with his own money.
But . . . he would go much too far, offend too many groups, be found lacking in a program. In short, he didn't have the patience to make a presidential campaign.
So now Mr. Perot has withdrawn from the race after getting on the ballot in 24 states and exciting some people who really care about this country. My Washington friend is going to argue that the bet is off because nobody will know what could have happened in November.
On the other hand, I am going to try to collect a crab feast precisely because Mr. Perot did make the effort and got himself tangled up in that awful thing called a political campaign -- and decided he didn't like it worth a computer chip.
He fired his advertising agency. He lost his campaign director. He read about his squabbling staff. He managed to offend minorities attending the NAACP convention. He wouldn't tell his advance staff where he was headed.
He found people asking rude questions. He heard people talk about how he hired private investigators. None of that was what he had in mind when he told Larry King he might be interested in being president.
His patience exhausted, he declared his ideas had been adopted by the major political parties, and he left.
Ross Perot learned what every seasoned politician has had to learn. To raise the campaign staff, get the white papers written, make the same speech a hundred times, answer the same questions endlessly . . . all that takes a thick hide and a mind that can stand repetitive actions. Those things are acquired through the hard work of running for office.
Both President Bush and Governor Clinton could have told him so.
It is true that President Bush plays golf like a man stepping on fire ants. It is true that he likes to move about the country as only a man with access to a jet plane can move. But he also was patient enough to sit around Washington for eight years as the vice president waiting for his chance. Imagine Mr. Perot trying that.
Governor Clinton talked himself hoarse last spring telling everybody within earshot that he really did have character. His impatience occasionally slipped through the cracks of the dam he built to keep it inside himself.
But for the most part, he remained calm. Imagine Mr. Perot being asked to defend himself (on anything) in public.
Patience is not what American voters say right now that they want. Change, they cry. Fix it, they demand. New strategies, they say. That seems right.
More than anything else, they want the economy to expand, for jobs to feel secure again, for the endless round of cuts in government programs to get off the front page, for the talk of tax increases to stop.
When things like that are going bad, people want immediate action. Fix things so the Los Angeles riots won't be repeated. Add job programs, even when the federal government is running a $400-billion deficit. Rebuild the roads and bridges and schools. Do something!
And then when things get a little better, the very same voters want to eliminate the government programs, stay with the status quo.
Political parties serve the purpose of flattening out the peaks and valleys of voter emotions. We all have read in the past few weeks how the American political party is as outdated as a desktop calculator.
Since we know who is going to be the nominee, what is the purpose of holding a political convention? Why not just let the victors be certified and give them a little television time to make their acceptance speeches?
The answer, of course, is in the almost-candidacy of Ross Perot.
He and his followers came into this extraordinary effort, pouring their hearts into something they believed was good for America, because it seemed feasible. They wanted to work for change in a system which felt corrupt to them. They despaired of the two major parties ever getting along well enough to renew old programs, never mind creating new ones.
But they had no mechanism. There was no convention to which they could point. There was no nominating speech, like the masterful one from Gov. Mario Cuomo for Bill Clinton, which could unify those who had differing agendas. They couldn't muster the patience to put such a nationwide movement together.
Even if they had succeeded in getting together, there were no traditions, no guidelines, no ancient agreements, not even any hoary and unforgotten arguments.
The political parties in America have been weakened, indeed. But the events of the past few days prove just how valuable they are.
Ask Ross Perot whether he would have liked to have had an organization in place which he could begin to command. The very fact that he didn't have one, and didn't have the patience to build one, was what kept him from running for president.
Reg Murphy is former publisher of The Baltimore Sun.