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Column

Perot pioneered the insurgent trail that Trump rode to victory

Jon Talton
Jon Talton

Both men would resent the comparison, but before Donald Trump’s run for the White House came the candidacy of Ross Perot, who has died this week at age 89.

Both ran as outsiders, brash insurgents and “populists,” promising to restore America to a supposedly better past.

Trump vowed to “drain the swamp” in Washington, D.C.

Perot, running in 1992, said the nation’s capital “has become a town with sound bites, shell games, handlers, media stuntmen who posture, create images, talk, shoot off Roman candles, but don’t ever accomplish anything. We need deeds, not words, in this city.”

Importantly, both men convinced large numbers of Americans that it was better to have a successful business executive to solve the nation’s problems. Their pitch was that experience in the law, statecraft, diplomacy and government were irrelevant to seeking the highest office in the land – indeed such qualifications were corrupting.

The only major-party precedent in American history was Wendell Willkie, who ran as the GOP nominee against Franklin Roosevelt in 1940. Willkie was a lawyer and utility executive who had never held office. He lost badly.

Perot won 19% of the popular vote in 1992, the best showing of a third-party candidate since 1912, when former President Theodore Roosevelt ran as a Progressive (Bull Moose). Perot might have done even better if he hadn’t dropped out, then re-entered the race.

Trump, sweeping established Republican opponents in the primaries, won the nomination. Thanks to 78,000 votes in three critical states, he won the presidency in the Electoral College.

The differences between the two are also important.

Trump plays on reality television a character that Ross Perot embodied in real life: The self-made tycoon who created a successful company and earned his billions by pluck and hard work.

A New York Times investigation showed how Donald Trump’s wealth was seeded by his father. The president was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and with bone spurs that kept him out of the military. Trump presided over a string of business failures.

Perot was born amid relatively modest means in Texarkana, Texas. His entrepreneurial spirit came early, selling garden seeds door-to-door at age 7, then building a successful newspaper route in the poor part of town.

Unlike Trump, Perot was in the military, graduating from the Naval Academy in 1953 and serving aboard an aircraft carrier and destroyer. (Perot was also a prude; Trump, no).

Back in civilian life, Perot became a top salesman for IBM in Dallas. When the company showed little interest in his ideas, he left and founded Electronic Data Systems in 1962. EDS, which pioneered computer services to businesses and government, made Perot a billionaire.

He also gained public attention in 1969 by attempting to send 30 tons of food and medicine to American POWs in Vietnam (rebuffed by Hanoi). Then, a decade later, he paid for a commando raid to spirit two EDS employees out of an Iranian prison.

Whether any of this made him qualified to be president is a different matter. (At the Rocky Mountain News in 1992, I covered the business side of the election and met both Perot and his running mate, James Stockdale, a Navy rear admiral, former POW and Medal of Honor recipient).

At first, Perot was popular with his folksy charm and outspokenness, charts about the deficit and government, and his penchant for equating citizens of the United States to shareholders in a company.

Perot’s appeal was less when he re-entered the race. (Perot claimed he dropped out because of Republican dirty tricks). He didn’t cost George H.W. Bush re-election – blame that on the savings and loan collapse and the lingering effects of the 1990-91 recession.

The problem, of course, is that being chief executive of the federal government has little in common with the business world.

Citizens are not shareholders, the latter too often being invested for a quick buck in recent decades. The former are stuck with this national enterprise no matter what (unless they emigrate). They expect a host of public goods and services that wouldn’t pencil out in a successful company. Success in government isn’t the same as that in business.

Separation of powers, the courts, professional civil servants and the rule of law prevent any president from acting as an authoritarian CEO (so far), as Trump has discovered to his twittering frustration.

Perot misunderstood the federal deficit, one of his chief bugaboos. With the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, America has the equivalent of a gold card with unlimited balance. We might wish the deficit was the result of other causes (say, advanced federal infrastructure investments rather than tax cuts), but it was hardly an emergency as he painted it.

In any event, President Bill Clinton’s tax increases erased the red ink and provided a federal surplus by the end of the 1990s.

Likewise, Trump misunderstands trade. He famously tweeted that “trade wars are good, and easy to win.” Neither has turned out to be true.

We will never know how a Perot presidency would have turned out. With the Cold War over, many Americans seemed willing to throw the dice, especially during Perot’s most popular months before he dropped out. By the time he returned to the campaign, he came off to many as a crank and gadfly, hardly presidential material.

At least that was how a majority thought a quarter-century ago. A majority felt the same in 2016, but presidential elections are not settled by the popular vote. Indeed, Trump might win re-election, if the economy remains strong and the Democrats form a circular firing squad.

But the idea of business executive as magical president of the United States – first burnished by Perot – will surely be tarnished. And rightly so.

Jon Talton is a columnist for The Seattle Times. He can be reached at jtalton@seattletimes.com.

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