The Complicated Political Legacy of H. Ross Perot

Former presidential candidate Ross Perot gestures during the presidential debate at Michigan State University, October 19, 1992. (Andy Clark/Reuters)

A long, long time ago — so long ago, I can’t find it in the NR archives — our old friend Jonah Goldberg wrote that someone could write a good book on how in the short span from 1988 to 1992, Ronald Reagan’s America became Bill Clinton’s America.

At least one chapter in that book would have to cover H. Ross Perot, who passed away today.

If you haven’t read On Wings of Eagles, do so. A lot of businessmen talk about valuing their employees and tout themselves as tough guys and problem-solvers. Faced with an epic problem — two of his employees being held hostage in a heavily guarded prison fortress in Iran as the Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution raged — Perot basically set up a private-sector team of commandos to go into the country and rescue his imprisoned employees. The effort was unbelievably risky . . . and yet, it worked.

But most Americans will remember him from his presidential campaigns, and perhaps Dana Carvey’s hilarious impersonation. (“Now here’s the deal, see . . . Larry? Can I finish? Can I finish?”)

Perot’s 19 percent of the vote nationwide in 1992 looks amazing in retrospect, and his 9 percent four years later is almost as impressive. No one had achieved a bigger share of the vote as a third-party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt. Pat Buchanan, Ralph Nader, Jill Stein, Gary Johnson . . . nobody’s even come close to Perot’s performance since 1996. Perot dispelled any notion that a major presidential candidate had to come out of central casting. Perot was short, looked like Frank Perdue, and sounded like Colonel Sanders. But the American electorate, for the most part, took him seriously.

From the perspective of 2019, H. Ross Perot looks like a key precursor to Trump: the billionaire political outsider who popped up on Larry King Live, opposed free trade deals, and who spoke bluntly and simply and promised to just roll up his sleeves and look under the hood. But there were some key differences. Perot worried about the deficit — “the crazy aunt in the basement” and about the debt — back when it was a “mere” $5 trillion. He supported means-testing Social Security. His policy interests were not wide but he knew enough about them to give lectures with charts. Perot was feisty but rarely obnoxious.

Back to Jonah’s point, you might think that the time with the biggest interest in candidates outside the major parties would be a time of major crises and national instability. And yet . . . the United States of America in 1992 doesn’t look all that bad at all from the perspective of today. Yes, the country was emerging from a recession, but unemployment peaked at 7.8 percent in June, which looks pretty modest by the standards of the Great Recession. The tech and dot-com booms were just around the corner. The Cold War was over, Kuwait had been liberated from Saddam Hussein, and the United Nations had rarely looked more effective. The worst horrors of the Balkans still lay ahead. Al-Qaeda was just a bunch of unknown guys. North Korea had no nuclear weapons, nor did Iran — nor did India or Pakistan yet. Perot and Bill Clinton lamented that Washington was allegedly paralyzed by gridlock, but the partisanship of that era looks mild compared to today. The legislation passed during Bush’s presidency was pretty substantive.

Depending upon your point of view, Perot and Clinton either tapped into latent American anxiety in the early 1990s, or they convinced Americans that things had gone terribly wrong when in fact things were going okay. As I noted when George H.W. Bush passed away, on the campaign trail, Bill Clinton described a struggling, desperate America:

Unemployed workers who’ve lost not only their jobs but their pensions, their health care, and even their homes. Laid-off defense workers who now make their living driving cabs. Elderly couples whose refrigerators are bare because so much of their monthly Social Security check has to go for prescription drugs. Middle-class families everywhere who’ve taken second jobs to make ends meet.

H. Ross Perot declared in his book, “Unless we take action now, our nation may confront a situation similar to the Great Depression — and maybe even worse.” That looks pretty hyperbolic, considering how the 1990s turned out.

But whatever his flaws, H. Ross Perot ran and ran again because he loved his country dearly. He was an American original in every sense of the term, generous to veterans and many other good causes. R.I.P.

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