NEW YORK — H. Ross Perot, the wiry Texas gadfly who made a fortune in computer services, amazed the nation with audacious paramilitary missions to Vietnam and Iran, and ran for president in 1992 and 1996 with populist talk of restoring Norman Rockwell’s America, died Tuesday at his home in Dallas. He was 89.
The cause was leukemia, a spokesman, James Fuller, said.
They called him the man from Texarkana, but he really came out of an era — the Great Depression, World War II, and the exuberant postwar years — when boys had paper routes, folks tuned in to the radio, and patriots rolled up their sleeves for Uncle Sam and built companies and a powerful nation.
“Most people give up just when they’re about to achieve success,” Mr. Perot liked to say. “They quit on the 1-yard line.”
He was no quitter: an Eagle Scout, a Navy officer out of Annapolis, a top IBM salesman, the founder of wildly successful data processing enterprises, a crusader for education and against drugs, a billionaire philanthropist. In 1969, he became a kind of folk hero with a quixotic attempt to fly medicine and food to American prisoners of war in North Vietnam.
In 1979, he staged a commando raid that he asserted had freed two of his employees, and thousands of criminals, and political prisoners, from captivity in revolutionary Iran.
And in 1992, he became one of the most unlikely candidates ever to run for president. He had never held public office, and he seemed more like a cartoon character sprung to life: an elfin 5 feet 6 inches and 144 pounds, with a 1950s crew cut; a squeaky, nasal country-boy twang; and ears that stuck out like Alfred E. Neuman’s on a Mad magazine cover. Stiff-necked, cantankerous, often sentimental, he was given to homespun epigrams: “If you see a snake, just kill it. Don’t appoint a committee on snakes.”
Under the banner “United We Stand America,” he spent $65 million in a campaign that featured innovative half-hour infomercials about himself and his ideas. They were popular, with ratings that sometimes surpassed those of prime-time sitcoms. He laid siege to radio and TV talk shows. Switchboards lit up with calls from people wanting to volunteer.
Before long, millions were responding to his calls to cut federal deficits, red tape, and waste, to begin rebuilding crumbling cities and to restore his vision of America: the small-town life idealized in Rockwell’s homey portraits of ballpark patriotism, barbershop wisdom, and flag-draped Main Street, a world away from corrupt Washington.
Although Mr. Perot had done business with every administration since Lyndon B. Johnson’s, the federal government was one of his favorite targets. Washington, he told its own denizens, “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.”
Improbably, he surged in the polls while the Republican incumbent, George H.W. Bush, and the Democrat, Bill Clinton, trained their fire on each other. Polls showed Mr. Perot’s support came from across the spectrum, from Democrats and Republicans, mostly from the middle class. Citizen drives got him on the ballot in all 50 states. He was on the cover of Time magazine.
But at the peak of his popularity, he unexpectedly dropped out of the race. Months later, he jumped back in, saying his withdrawal had been prompted by Republican “dirty tricks” to sabotage his daughter’s wedding with faked compromising photographs.
He did surprisingly well in three presidential debates, often mocking the “gridlock” in Washington.
“It’s not the Republicans’ fault, of course, and it’s not the Democrats’ fault,” he said in the second round. “Somewhere out there there’s an extraterrestrial that’s doing this to us, I guess.”
On Election Day, Mr. Perot finished with 19 percent of the popular vote — almost 20 million ballots — compared with 38 percent for Bush and 43 percent for Clinton. It was the strongest third-party showing since Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose run in 1912.
In 1996, Mr. Perot ran again, this time on the new Reform Party ticket, but he fared poorly. By then, the epigrams had paled and voters suspected that his business strengths, the risk-taking, and stubborn autocratic personality might not serve a president constrained by Congress and public opinion. And by then, more was known of Mr. Perot, who was drawn to conspiracy theories and hired detectives to chase his suspicions.
He won only 8 percent of the vote. But, as he liked to say, “Failures are like skinned knees: painful but superficial.”
He was born Henry Ray Perot on June 27, 1930, in the East Texas border city of Texarkana to Gabriel and Lulu May Ray Perot. His father was a cotton broker and a horse trader.
He began working at 7, selling garden seeds door to door and later breaking horses (and his nose) for his father at a dollar a head. When he was 12, he began delivering The Texarkana Gazette on horseback, building his route from scratch for extra commissions. He did so well that his boss tried to cut his commissions, but he backed off when the boy went to the publisher.
He changed his name to Henry Ross Perot in honor of a brother, Gabriel Ross Perot Jr., who died as a toddler in 1927.
He joined the Boy Scouts at 12 and in little more than a year was an Eagle Scout, an extraordinary achievement that became part of his striver’s legend. After two years at Texarkana Junior College, he won appointment to the Naval Academy, where, despite academic mediocrity, he was elected class president and graduated in 1953.
He met Margot Birmingham, a student at Goucher College in Baltimore. They married in 1956. In addition to his wife, Mr. Perot leaves his son, Ross Jr.; four daughters, Nancy, Suzanne McGee, Carolyn Rathjen, and Katherine Reeves; 16 grandchildren; three step-grandchildren; and a sister, Bette.
He mustered out of the Navy in 1957 and joined IBM in Dallas, becoming an outstanding computer salesman, once fulfilling his annual quota in three weeks. Restless for new ventures, he urged the company to get into software and technical support, but his supervisors were uninterested. He quit, and in 1962 he founded Electronic Data Systems to sell computer services: billing and payrolls, insurance claims, check-clearing for banks, and eventually the paperwork for Medicare and state Medicaid systems.
The company went public in 1968 and its stock jumped to $162 a share from $16, making Mr. Perot one of America’s richest men.
His folk-patriot reputation stemmed from two adventures. In 1969, after months of speaking on the plight of 1,400 US prisoners of war in North Vietnam, he chartered two jetliners, filled them with 30 tons of food, medicine, and gifts and flew to Southeast Asia. Hanoi rejected the mission, but the spotlight on prisoners’ hardships embarrassed Hanoi and led to better treatment for some.
In 1979, as an Islamic revolution swept Iran, Mr. Perot mounted a commando raid on a prison in Tehran to free two employees being held for ransom. A riot was orchestrated at the gates, and in the chaos of an ensuing breakout 11,800 inmates escaped, including both employees. The episode was chronicled in Ken Follett’s best-selling book “On Wings of Eagles” and in a 1986 miniseries on NBC (in which Mr. Perot was played by Richard Crenna). But State Department officials in Tehran at the time questioned whether the Perot team had truly been responsible for the prisoners’ release.
In 1983, at Governor Mark White’s behest, he led an overhaul of the Texas public school system — raising taxes, increasing teacher salaries, cutting class sizes, and barring failing students from school sports.
In 1984, Mr. Perot sold Electronic Data Systems to General Motors for $2.5 billion in cash and stock that made him GM’s largest shareholder. He joined GM’s board and rankled the chairman, Roger Smith, with barbed demands.
“Revitalizing GM is like teaching an elephant to tap dance,” Mr. Perot said. He also said: “It takes five years to design a new car in this country. Heck, we won World War II in four years.”
In 1986, Mr. Perot accepted a $700 million GM buyout. Two years later, he founded Perot Systems and raided his old executive pool to staff his new company. In 2009, Dell, the computer-maker, agreed to acquire the firm for $3.9 billion.
Mr. Perot gave millions to schools, hospitals, and cultural groups. He wrote books on politics and economics, including, “United We Stand: How We Can Take Back the Country.”
Perot’s Reform Party faded in later years and he cut his ties with it. In 2000 he endorsed George W. Bush for president and in 2012 he backed Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor. He was publicly quiet about the 2016 race, but in early 2000, when Donald Trump was briefly exploring a presidential run on the Reform Party ticket, Perot backed a party faction that strongly opposed the prospect of a Trump candidacy.
Mr. Perot remained proud of his singular life.
“Eagles don’t flock,” he told visitors in Dallas. “You have to find them one at a time.”
It was his favorite saying, and he had it engraved on a plaque, displayed in his office with his bust of Teddy Roosevelt, his Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, and his collection of Norman Rockwell originals.