H. Ross Perot issued colorful and sweeping statements, including the claim that a ‘giant sucking sound’ of jobs whooshing abroad would occur after passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement. He promised that he, and he alone, could fix what ailed America. He promised that as an outsider, he could clean out the Washington establishment and set wrong aright in both political parties. The fiery and paranoid Texan embodied American exceptionalism.
Perot, who died on Tuesday, never reached the White House. But the Texan businessman and presidential candidate left a lasting mark on American politics. He paved the way for the presidency of another brash business tycoon, Donald Trump.
A shrewd businessman, he evinced an interest in politics early on. He worked to ease the plight of American POWs in Vietnam, traveling to Laos in 1974 to meet with the ambassadors of North Vietnam and Russia. In 1979 he oversaw a daring raid that he called Operation Hotfoot to extricate two of his employees from revolutionary Iran.
He pursued his 1992 presidential run with similar avidity. It didn’t always go smoothly. At times, he came across as a nutjob. Much like Trump, he happily waded around in a burgeoning pool of conspiracy theories. He quit campaigning briefly in July, claiming in October that the George H.W. Bush campaign was conspiring to disrupt his daughter’s wedding. ‘I can’t prove any of it today,’ he said on the CBS show 60 Minutes. ‘But it was a risk I did not have to take, and a risk I would not take where my daughter is concerned.’ He also claimed that the Bush administration was directing the CIA to disrupt his computerized stock trading program in order to starve him of the financial resources he needed to campaign. He also said that Bush tried to wiretap his office. According to the New York Times, ‘The only source that Mr Perot would identify for his accusations was Scott Barnes, a former Inglewood, Cali., police officer who for years has been accused of fabricating stories about undercover plots and dirty tricks.’
At the time, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater told reporters, ‘It’s all nonsense. There’s nothing to it. I don’t want to attack Perot, but I don’t know where he’s getting it from. I mean, fantastic stories about his daughter and disrupting her wedding and the CIA – it’s all loony.’ Loony or not, he garnered some 19 percent of the vote. Whether or not he administered the kibosh to George H.W. Bush’s candidacy, he was Tea Party before it was cool to be Tea Party. Perot’s fixation was with the American national debt. He would haul out chart’s pointing to a soaring debt and called the issue ‘the crazy aunt in the basement’ that not enough Americans wanted to confront.
With his farrago of nonsense and stern admonitions, Perot can be safely seen as a precursor of the zaniness that has overtaken contemporary American politics. He was the man on horseback. Trump is a famously uncharitable kind of guy. But Perot deserves at least a tweet in remembrance from his spiritual successor.