The insider who plays outsider Behind Perot's pose is a sharp insinct for money and power

Campaign 1996

September 22, 1996|By Charles Lewis

HENRY ROSS PEROT, this year's Reform Party candidate for U.S. president, perceives himself as a great American hero.

Perot says it's his personal mission to ensure that anyone can achieve the American Dream.

Now receiving $32 million in public funds to run his campaign, Perot's party is on the ballot in enough states to give him a stab at carrying the electoral vote.

When he ran for president in 1992, the Texas candidate spent $65 billion of his own money. After that he vowed to do it again, grudgingly, only if President Clinton and the Congress failed to meet the needs of America.

"I've got to honestly believe that's the only reason I would want to go serve a hitch in hell. And that's, you know, the kindest word you could put on it in terms of being in public life," Perot said, in his familiar style of language.

By 1992 Perot was estimated to be the 13th wealthiest man in America, with a net worth of $3 billion.

What is little known is that for his '92 campaign Perot received more than $190,000 in contributions from individual donors. He also violated Federal Election Commission rules by misreporting 12 contributions totaling more than $10,000. Perot paid a $65,000 penalty for this infraction.

The most enduring tangible legacy of Perot's 1992 run was the creation of United We Stand America, a political movement whose agenda closely echoed Perot's major concerns: the deficit, term limits and tax reform. Perot has spent at least $10 million on the group and his picture appears in every issue of its newsletter above his column.

The group has had its ups and downs with Perot. At United We Stand's Dallas convention in August 1995, Perot urged his supporters to "get to work" within the system. Yet surveys had shown that most of his followers thought he could do more by NOT running for president.

The Washington Times reported Perot saying: "If the Republicans and Democrats do what ordinary citizens want done in this country, there will be no need for a third party and no political future for me."

Then on Sept. 25, apparently less than satisfied with the performance of Republicans in Congress and the Democrat in the White House, Perot announced an effort to get a new party onto the ballot in all 50 states, at the same time saying on CNN's "Larry King Live," "It's nothing to do with me."

Of course, this came from a shrewd, unpredictable man who keeps a copy of a favorite book -- for which he wrote the foreword -- on a shelf in his office: "Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun."

Perot has a unique perspective on public life. This "outsider" actually has been a Washington player dating back to the Nixon White House. In many cases Perot's business dealings have been the special interests that influence the Washington game.

Despite Perot's populist rhetoric against Washington, he has long been a part of the money-and-politics mercenary culture that is now in its glory.

Back in 1974 -- when campaign-finance reforms inspired by the Watergate scandal were adopted -- Perot contributed $90,000 to both major political parties. Between 1979 and 1991 he contributed $51,000 to the Republican Party.

Perot has sailed on the presidential yacht, eaten dinner at the White House and lobbied both the president and Congress. As Time magazine reported, "He has backslapped and arm-twisted with the best of them."

From his persistent search for missing MIA/POWs in Vietnam to the 1993 NAFTA debates, Perot has cast himself in the role of America's savior. And he has been able to use his vast fortune to do so.

True, Perot didn't always have a lot of money. In 1956 he married Margot Birmingham and became a salesman for IBM. As the now-famous story goes, he borrowed $1,000 from Margot in 1962 to start a one-man data-processing company, Electronic Data Systems. Six years later Perot was a multimillionaire.

EDS' first big contract was with the federal government. In 1965, when the United States began providing Medicare and Medicaid, EDS marketed a computerized system for paying the claims. Perot's profits soared for the first time that year.

The Nixon White House furthered the company's success by securing Perot a $62,500 contract, without competitive bidding, even though Perot's price was $10,000 over the spending limit.

President Richard M. Nixon helped Perot escape bothersome accusations by the Social Security Administration that EDS had actually overcharged for its processing of Medicare claims. And Perot was equally generous to Nixon.

In 1968, while 10 EDS employees worked on Nixon's campaign, Perot continued to pay their salaries. In 1969 Perot spent $1 million on newspaper ads and a 30-minute TV program to generate support for Nixon's Vietnam policy. In 1972 Perot gave $200,000 to Nixon's reelection campaign.

Nixon is not the only politician with whom Perot has worked in an attempt to benefit his own interests.

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