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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,305

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This is the grave of Ross Perot.

Born in 1930 in Texarkana, Texas, Perot grew up there, pretty well off. He went to whatever passed for fancy private schools in Texarkana at that time and then was off to the Naval Academy. While there, he was involved in shaping the school’s honor code. He was a junior office on submarines in the mid 50s. He was also a cheap bastard. He was outraged that the Navy would give him two pairs of shoes. He thought he needed only one. He later claimed that this was when he started thinking about government waste. What an asshole.

Anyway, Perot left the Navy as soon as he could and took a job with IBM. He was a go-getter and had lots of ideas and annoyed all his supervisors at the company who just wanted to do his job. So he left in 1962 and started his own company, Electronic Data Systems. He got the contract to computerize Medicare records in the late 60s and he was off, just raking in the money. He was good at this, no doubt about that. He finally sold EDS to General Motors in 1984 for a mere $2.4 billion. He became the idealized Rich Texan, a show off personally with a huge ego and conservative politics. In 1979, the Shah imprisoned two of his workers over a contract dispute. With the Iranian Revolution happening, Perot organized a rescue operation that used the cover of the huge protesting crowds to get them out. Worked better than Carter’s plan for the hostages a year later!

Perot had a weird thing for buying historical documents. That included one of the original copies of the Magna Carta, which he bought in 1984 and put on display at the National Archives. I saw it once. I had no idea what I was supposed to do with seeing that. Believe in English democracy? I don’t know. Seeing old documents isn’t that exciting. Same with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Wat am I supposed to get out of this?

Perot also volunteered himself to get POWs out of Vietnam and Nixon was happy to use him. As early as 1969, Perot thought he could go to Nam and just do this out of his bluster. After the war, he believed that the government was covering up the fact that there were hundreds if not thousands of POWs still in Vietnam because the government was also involved in drug smuggling operations over there. Hoo boy. But he was rich and he had the ear of powerful officials, as the rich often do. For example, what the hell did Mark Zuckerberg know about education? But based on his wealth, Cory Booker was happy to invite him into Newark to fix the schools, which of course did not work at all.

Perot’s closeness with Republican leaders broke in the late 80s when Reagan administration officials realized he was conducting his own back-channel diplomacy with the Vietnamese government. George Bush was outraged–it was his job to be in charge of sketchy overseas operations! The two men grew to hate each other. Moreover, none of this stopped Perot, who got the Vietnamese to agree that if relations between the two nations normalized, he would become the business agent of the Vietnamese government in the U.S.

This was laying the groundwork for Perot’s 1992 third party presidential run. Perot was disgusted by the U.S. invading Kuwait to save it from Saddam Hussein and that put him over the top to decide to run. By this time, Perot was basically an isolationist. He thought the government wasted a ton of money, especially on foreign aid. He hated the idea of free trade, which to be fair, was a position that needed to be heard in 1992. Bill Clinton’s complete indifference to the fate of unions and industrial communities in the U.S. did not really hurt him politically, but it was a betrayal of the American working class. And of course George Bush sure didn’t care about those people.

When Perot decided to run, he had some serious winds at his back. He was able to channel populist outrage at both parties and for awhile, he looked like he could actually compete. But he was a clown. Calling for cuts to Social Security was as politically unpopular as it always is. The more Perot talked, the more people hated him. He had hired that hack Ed Rollins to run the campaign, but he had no intention of listening to him or anyone else. Like a lot of these types of political figures, Donald Trump being an enormous exception, his initial political boom faded when people realized that he was an idiot.

Then Perot, sick of being criticized by the media, dropped out of the race. Oh, and then he came back on October 1. He was included in the debates, despite this. He did well in the debates. He combined a hatred of Congress, hatred of free trade, and hatred of government to appeal to cranky white men especially.

When Clinton won that election, Bush’s people blamed Perot, claiming that he took more of their voters than Clinton’s. That’s become something like conventional wisdom. But it really isn’t true. First, the data demonstrates that it’s not true. Exit polls showed that the second choice of Perot voters was 38-38 between Bush and Clinton. But also, we are looking back at Perot from our present position as the Republican Party being the home of angry white men. That was a process though. In 1992, this was not yet set. Ever since the 70s, party identification had been shifting and this had led to strange candidates left and right. I mean, just look at western governors of the 70s–Tom McCall, Dixy Lee Ray, Jerry Brown, Dick Lamm. These people shared little except for being weirdos with shifting political ideologies that each appealed to an almost incomprehensible political alliance at the state level, at least from our perspective. There were tons of people disgusted that Bill Clinton was a hippie and weren’t going to vote for him but couldn’t vote for a Republican. And then there were tons of people who wanted to vote for George Bush because they had supported liberal Republicans in the past but just couldn’t do it anymore because of what the party had become but couldn’t vote for a Democrat. Perot became the choice for a variety of people. At a later time, Perot would have had less traction. He just would have been a Republican. But in 1992? It’s still a pretty weird time in American politics and in fact, is really the end of that era. The success of Newt Gingrich in 1994 and the radicalization of the Republican Party established a new era in American politics and there was less room for weirdos, unless they were right-wing extremists running for the Republican nomination.

Perot was going softly into the night though. He became the anti-NAFTA voice in American life, with his “giant sucking sound” quote and his debate with Al Gore over the issue. Gore destroyed him in that debate and that hurt Perot’s credibility with many. He ran again in 1996 under his Reform Party platform, but did nowhere near as well as in 92. After this, he mostly stayed out of the spotlight. He never could deal with the press criticizing him. He had a very thin skin and just thought he was smarter than everyone else. As a rich guy, how could I be criticized! He occasionally showed up, but mostly avoided involvement even in the Reform Party battle between Pat Buchanan and John Hagelin in 2000.

Perot died in 2019. He was 89 years old.

Ross Perot is buried in Sparkman-Hillcrest Memorial Park Cemetery, Dallas, Texas.

If you would like this series to visit other third party candidates, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. That giant sucking sound is the cash leaving your bank account to fund this series. Robert La Follette is in Madison, Wisconsin and George Wallace is in Montgomery, Alabama. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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