Ross Perot returns to TV in 'town hall meeting' Billionaire paid for 'referendum'

March 22, 1993|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The fact that he didn't win the presidency wasn't enough to stop Ross Perot from keeping a campaign pledge.

Last night, the Texas billionaire held his first "electronic town hall meeting" on network TV, railing against government waste and mismanagement and asking viewers to express their views on such issues by mailing in a ballot he designed.

In what he called "The First National Referendum -- Government Reform," Mr. Perot pulled out the familiar pointer and flip charts -- and $500,000 for the prime time spot on NBC -- and gave rapid-fire lectures on 16 points, all of them refrains from his deficit- and reform-minded campaign.

Ballot questions, clearly worded to reflect the Perot point of view, were interspersed throughout his call for such reforms as a presidential line-item veto, a balanced budget amendment, a ban on foreign lobbyists, replacement of the Electoral College with a popular vote and the elimination of perks for Congress and the White House.

"We must eliminate the wasteful perks Congress receives now," Mr. Perot urged, looking squarely and sternly at the camera throughout the broadcast, "such as subsidized haircuts, subsidized food, free parking at National Airport, limousines and chauffeurs for a few and vacation retreats paid for by the American people, but only available to our servants in Washington. What do you think?"

A voice-over followed with Question 8: "Should Congress and officials in the White House set the example for sacrifice by eliminating all perks and special privileges currently paid by taxpayers? Yes or no?"

Launching into an attack on foreign lobbyists, Mr. Perot called their work "economic treason" that resulted in bad trade deals and the loss of "2 million high-paying factory jobs [that] were shipped to Asia during the 1980s."

Then came Question 9: "Do you feel past international trade agreements have caused loss of jobs in this country? Yes or no?"

Along with paying a half-million dollars for last night's spot, reminiscent of his campaign infomercials, the always-ready-for-prime-time Perot spent $190,000 for ad space in this week's TV Guide that included two of his postcard-like ballots in each of its 15 million copies.

He asked viewers without a ballot to mark their responses on a sheet of paper, include name, address and phone number, and mail it in.

Mr. Perot, who captured 19 percent of the vote in last year's presidential race, also used the format to urge viewers to send in $15 for membership to his political organization, United We Stand America, and to pitch his anticipated book.

The plain-talking businessman also told viewers to turn on their bTC headlights on their way into work this morning "to let Washington see the light" on government reform. With a touch of the humor that has endeared him to so many voters, he warned drivers to remember to turn their headlights off when they got to work, "or you're gonna be mad at me when your battery runs down,"

Pollsters and political observers cautioned against seeing last night's "referendum" as a measure of his influence or support, or, in fact, as anything more than a device for energizing his followers.

Not only were the questions worded to elicit a certain response, last night's audience, they say, was likely skewed toward Perot supporters. And mail-in polls in general, pollsters note, are unscientific.

"I can save him the money and the time," said Larry Sabato, a professor of political science at the University of Virginia. "He'll get between 80 and 95 percent 'yes' votes considering how he worded the questions."

Mr. Sabato, who praised Mr. Perot's campaign infomercials -- and in fact has used them in his classes -- said this kind of TV poll taking, or teledemocracy, however, "is debilitating to democracy" since it removes reflection, oversimplifies issues and attempts to override the country's representative government.

The New York-based National Council on Public Polls said last night's Perot referendum "could be the biggest polling hoax since the 'Literary Digest' declared Alf Landon the winner over Franklin Roosevelt in 1936."

Mr. Perot, in response to critics, said last week he had hired a professional pollster to conduct a more scientific survey.

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