Out of control

A.M.Rosenthal

July 20, 1992|By A. M. Rosenthal

THE FEELING of living in a world suddenly gone chaotic around him was too much for Ross Perot.

He talks publicly about the political reasons -- the revitalization of the Democratic Party and not wanting to throw the race into the House of Representatives. Privately close friends say there are other things involved but that he pledged them to secrecy.

But whatever any other reason, he could no longer live with the sense of being caught up in disorder that he felt distorted him as he saw himself.

I knew that after I spoke to him by phone about an hour before his public announcement. Although he said at that moment he would not give a flat answer to my question -- Are you out? -- neither did he pretend.

He said he was used to a life of order but was living in a chaotic world, a world of twisted mirrors, where he could not concentrate on things that seemed to him to be the "real" issues.

People often talk about chaos and disorder when one or more of these things happen: The present gets out of their control, the past becomes too menacing or the future seems suddenly very risky.

Mr. Perot was out of control of his present, maybe for the first time in his life. Day after day he was asked questions -- essential questions about his background and how he would solve problems facing this country. And he was asked about a lot of other things about which he had hardly thought. He discussed all these things with advisers and studied their reports. They say his fund of information was small but his mind was quick, and absorbed new ideas.

But in public any intellectual challenge like obvious questions about concrete domestic or foreign policy irritated him intensely. He refused to deal with them, despite his growing knowledge. Perhaps it was because the questions were not of his choosing, and perhaps because of an inability to defend an expert's thesis not of his own creation.

There is more to be told about why he quit. Policy specialists who worked long with him and admired him but are not among his most intimate friends are totally puzzled and shocked. On Tuesday they met with him, discussed their plans and reports. If he had any idea at all of quitting he concealed it from men who had committed themselves to him personally and professionally.

In any case the result was that he could no longer handle the pressures and gambles of political combat nor the dangers to reputation and psyche that go with it.

Whatever he tells the public, the political reasons he gives were obvious before he gathered his army of volunteers. To drop the burden, he let them down, hard.

Ross Perot just about wiped out the hope he had raised himself in those volunteers -- that the change they craved could come outside the turf of the two political parties.

Mr. Perot says that the parties are changing enough for him to get out. That comes as news to the volunteers who invested their time, their money and their emotions in him. It is painful to see their faces.

Democratic leaders had hoped he would stay through the election. Anything contrary they say now is pure 100 percent baloney. They figured he would lose the support of straying Democrats before the election and that the voters he would keep would come from President Bush.

One on one against George Bush will be tougher for Governor Clinton than a three-way race. But the governor shows more strength and skill every day. He and Senator Gore are resilient men with range and energy.

Although Ross Perot is gone, the question that sums up Mr. Bush's foreign policy and economic problems is still right there on the bumper sticker for Americans: "Saddam Hussein has job. Do you?"

It was worthwhile having Ross Perot around for a while. He shook up political life and made the parties understand how much they were mistrusted and had to pull themselves together.

One thing more. He makes us have a lot more respect for the professionals -- the Bushes, Clintons, Jacksons, Gores, Browns and Kemps. They keep staying right there in the kitchen that got so hot for Mr. Perot, so fast.

A.M. Rosenthal is a columnist for the New York Times.

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