Right ideas, wrong man

Jeffrey R. Welsh

October 21, 1992|By Jeffrey R. Welsh

AH, Ross, you're breaking my heart.

I watched the first debate and I remembered why I was so eager to sign a petition to put him on the ballot in Maryland. It was an act of faith: By doing so, I declared my belief that cynicism and self-interest have not weakened the underlying principles of this nation.

I am one of those 5 million-plus Americans who gave Mr. Perot his legitimacy, the voters he talks about when he says that the people asked him to run for of fice. I suspect that all of us who signed petitions share the same cockeyed optimism and the same conviction that what we learned in civics class was the truth, that the strength of the nation sprang from the people, and that the people can still exercise their power over its affairs.

But the man whose candidacy I endorsed last summer is no longer in the race. That man dropped out and hasn't returned; someone frightening has taken his place, and it breaks my heart to agree with him still about running government, but to disagree so strongly with his ideas about democracy. For I fear that Mr. Perot has little use for democracy.

At a time when America seems incapable of producing candidates who are willing to do what needs to be done about the terrible budget deficit, and when we, as voters, have little stomach for the kind of self-discipline needed to repair the damage being done by the huge national debt, Mr. Perot stands apart. Certainly his exploits -- whether building a business empire, or fighting to improve public education in Texas, or rescuing employees in Tehran, or speaking out against mismanagement in Detroit -- suggest that he possesses the toughness and strength of character to lead and serve as president.

I still believe that next president must resolve the nation's budget problems, no matter how unpopular that makes him. I believe that members of Congress must acquire the courage to do what is right and not simply what is expedient, and that the rest of us must learn to reward honesty and integrity in our elected officials, even if what they say and do discomfits us from time to time. I believe that the nation needs a leader in the White House.

But Mr. Perot is not that leader.

Why? First, because he quit. Whether he really quit or simply made a calculated political decision, he did not act like a leader. Will he quit again on Nov. 1 if scrutiny becomes too intense? If he were elected, would he stalk out of Washington if Congress overrode a veto? Would he refuse to talk to foreign leaders if he didn't get his way? We cannot afford a part-time president or one who threatens to quit when the pressure builds.

Second, because what I have seen of this revivified candidate in the last few weeks scares me. When I hear Mr. Perot talk about how the people have selected him, I hear echoes of Huey Long. When I think about interactive, televised town meetings that circumvent one-third of the constitutional government, I am reminded of the omnipresent TV eye of Orwell's "1984." When I see state "coordinators," some of whom are reportedly on Mr. Perot's payroll and all of whom are among the faithful, arriving in Texas to decide Mr. Perot's political fate, I cannot help but think of the "popular" support that is produced on command by dictators and totalitarian governments in other countries.

I do not believe that Mr. Perot is evil or that he would harm his fellow Americans. But I am deeply troubled by his willingness to ignore the flawed but durable political machinery that has preserved democracy for 200 years. If the American political process did not respond quickly enough to suit him, would he not be tempted to ignore it? Or dismantle it?

In 1992 candidate Ross Perot tells us that he is in direct contact with the people and will do their bidding. What is to stop President Perot from making that same claim in 1996, declaring then that the old way of doing things is unnecessary? If we combine the power of the presidency with the clout of billions of dollars, what reason do we have to believe that Congress (where political courage is in painfully short supply to begin with), and maybe even the courts, would dare to oppose him?

For all its flaws, our political process -- and the media are integral and valuable parts of the process -- serves us well. It is especially effective in winnowing out, over time, those who are not qualified or not to be trusted. The higher the office, the greater the scrutiny by public and press. Over time, too, the process teaches practitioners that they must accommodate the views of others. The higher the office, the more important for a candidate to have good "references" from those with whom he or she shares power. Those things are terribly important.

Mr. Perot is too impatient with the process, too eager to prescribe strong medicine, too hostile toward the kind of scrutiny that any county council member or state legislator routinely expects in his or her own community. Even as he stands for the most important office in the United States, he resorts to subterfuge in order to avoid that examination. He declares that he will not entertain questions or provide answers that he deems off the mark, and he hints darkly of dealing with the rascally press after the election.

All of this suggests that the man with the best ideas for restoring credibility and balance to our government is also the man least qualified to preside over it. We need Ross Perot's ideas and men of his integrity and character in Washington. But we cannot afford a president who cannot tolerate the process of democracy.

Jeffrey R. Welsh lives in Kent County.

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