Why H. Ross Perot didn't become President

On July 9, 2019, H. Ross Perot died.  For those too young to have vivid memories of the 1992 election, the news accounts of his biography may seem familiar.  This is because he had lots in common with Donald Trump.  Both men were blunt-talking billionaire tycoons with devoted fan bases.  Both men had exotic biographies.  And both men ran for President, without ever having held elective office or even ever having run for one.  H. Ross Perot was Donald Trump before there was Donald Trump.

So why didn't Perot win the 1992 election, the way Trump won in 2016?  It was because of his own character flaws.  Unlike Trump, Perot was never serious about winning.

It seems that the reason for Perot’s candidacy came down to one thing: intense personal dislike for George H. W. Bush amounting to contempt and even hatred.  The animosity between the two men went back to at least 1986, when Perot became convinced that there were living MIA's from the Vietnam War still being held in Southeast Asia, whom the US government had written off and abandoned.  Perot became involved in the movement to locate them and force Vietnam to return them.  He requested and received a meeting with then-Vice President Bush, who tried to dissuade Perot of this view and to talk him out of any further efforts to find MIA's.  Bush did this by showing Perot intelligence files on the subject.

Instead, Perot became more inflamed.  He became convinced that Richard Armitage, the Defense Department's point man for discussions with Vietnam, was abandoning his fellow Americans, because Armitage had supposedly been compromised and corrupted by the Vietnamese.  Bush Adviser Mary Matalin and Clinton Adviser James Carville, on page 218 of their book All's Fair: Love, War, and the Politics of Running for President, wrote that Perot took his disgust directly to Bush, saying to him, "The world is full of lions and tigers and rabbits.  And you're a rabbit."  Matalin and Carville (who later married each other) cited a front-page New York Times article of October 26, 1992 to this effect.

More fundamentally, perhaps the real reason for this feud is that it was a personality conflict.  Although both Bush and Perot called Texas home, the similarity ended there.  Bush and Perot were each everything that the other was not: Andover Prep and Yale University as opposed to Texarkana High School and the Naval Academy; old money as opposed to a Texas self-made man; and New England third-generation blue-blood patrician as opposed to Texas-born and bred his entire life.  Where Bush's inner circles were Ivy League and Establishment, Perot's were graduates of public universities or military veterans.

Whatever Perot's ultimate reason, in February 1992, he announced his candidacy, on Larry King Live.  Immediately, he shot to the top of the polls, topping out at 39%.  He recruited Hamilton Jordan and Ed Rollins to run his campaign.  Jordan had run Jimmy Carter's 1976 campaign and then had served as Chief of Staff in the Carter White House, while Rollins had run the Reagan-Bush campaign in 1984. Both men were eminently qualified to run Perot's campaign.  Although they resigned a couple of months later over differences in opinion over Perot's hands-on management style, Perot remained at the top of the polls.  He seemed to be on his way.

And then, abruptly, Perot dropped out of the race.  His stated reason for this was weird, to put it mildly.  He claimed that he had had no choice, because he was being blackmailed by the Bush campaign, in the form of a threat to... ruin the wedding of Perot's daughter, Carolyn.  The "plot" consisted of threats to use computer graphics to graft images of her head onto photos of pornography.

This accusation was absurd.  Perot was one of the richest men in the world.  He could afford to hire the best security this side of the federal government.  What could Bush possibly do to ruin the happiest day of Carolyn's life?

Furthermore, memories of Watergate were still green to everybody in the Bush campaign.  Many members of the Bush administration and his campaign had personally known the Nixon men who had fallen into so much trouble.  There is no way any of them would ever have obeyed an order to commit Watergate-style offenses this soon after the Watergate scandal.  They would have resigned first, on the grounds that nothing is worth risking Watergate II.  And, knowing that, there is no way anybody in the Bush Administration or the campaign would ever have issued such an order.  People whom they had once known had gone to jail over this.

Furthermore, if Perot had actually had evidence for this accusation, then why did he not roar his defiance from the rooftops?  Why did he meekly knuckle under to someone whom he so despised?  If Perot had had this evidence and had shown it, then wouldn't this have guaranteed his victory? 

Perot's accusation of Bush conduct was so absurd, so specious, so patently ridiculous, it cannot have been genuine or sincere.  Perot must have had another reason for dropping out.  Carolyn's wedding was merely the convenient pretext that he used.  But what could his real reason have been?

This writer believes that Perot never wanted to become President at all.  This writer believes that Perot entered the campaign for one reason and one reason only: to bring down the Bush Presidency.  But when Perot surged to the top of the polls, he realized that he actually had a chance of winning this thing -- and the prospect terrified him.  It freaked him out.  The last thing Perot wanted was to actually become President.  All he wanted to do was draw off enough votes from Bush to throw the election to Clinton.

Which Perot accomplished.  He did this by re-entering the race.  In the election of 1992, he received 19% of the popular vote.  It was the largest third-party showing since Theodore Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party of 1912.  And it had the same effect: throwing the election to the Democrat.

In the news obituaries of Perot's life and candidacy, much is made of this 19% and of the fact that it was the best showing since Theodore Roosevelt.  Such commentary misses the point.  Perot scored that highly, only after he had disillusioned millions of his supporters and broken their hearts, by dropping out and then dropping back in.  Many of them never re-joined his campaign.  How much better would he have performed if he had not withdrawn and re-entered in the first place?  Well enough to have won?  Evidently, he thought so, because no other reason for his behavior makes sense. 

The late, great Pat Caddell put it well in 2016, when he said that "Perot would have won in 1992 if he hadn't proven himself to be insane."  Exactly so.  Perot, by his behavior, showed himself to be unstable, a crank, a crackpot.  Such people should not be trusted to have their fingers on nuclear buttons, and the American people will not trust such people with that kind of power.  And that is why H. Ross Perot never became President of the United States and why Donald Trump did.

Photo credit: Allan Warren under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

The author is an Iowa truck driver known to some AT  readers as Kzintosh.

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