Ross Perot — When ‘eccentric’ was a losing strategy
It was without a doubt the nuttiest four hours of my career. How else to describe being locked in a windowless room in Dallas as the unlikeliest presidential candidate in history (until 2016, that is), Ross Perot, wove a tale of political intrigue and dirty tricks for a literally captive audience.
Perot, the tycoon who would cost George H.W. Bush his bid for reelection, died Tuesday at the age of 89. His most lasting legacy was perhaps giving third-party bids for the presidency a bad name for decades to come.
But every time the current occupant of the Oval Office offers up one of those you-can’t-make this-stuff-up moments, I think back to that day in late October 1992 when, along with my then Boston Herald publisher and several colleagues, I day-tripped to Dallas for an on-the-road editorial board meeting with Perot at his corporate headquarters.
It was to be only an hour with this oh-so-busy man now back in the presidential fray after an unexplained three-month absence from the campaign trail. So we carefully prepared our line of questions to make use of every valuable minute.
But it was an incredibly chatty Perot who greeted us, first taking us on a tour of his offices — the Frederic Remington statues, the Norman Rockwell paintings were part of the show. This was what successful businessmen spent their money on — that and running for president.
So when he insisted, as he did in debate, that “We have got to stop sending jobs overseas” and predicted that “there will be a giant sucking sound going south” if the United States signed a trade agreement with Mexico, well, then people should listen, no?
Perot was, well, unique — and always a good story. But never more than on that day when, at long last, he ushered us into that huge windowless conference room where, like a Las Vegas casino, there is no day, no night and, in this case, just the constantly resonating Texas twang of a man whose ego knew no bounds.
The meeting went well beyond hour number one. Perot himself left from time to time and returned. We eventually ran out of our questions and then the fun began. It was a story he didn’t want to tell us, he insisted. Except he really did. We knew that much.
Turned out he didn’t want to scoop his own story — one he had already given in an interview to “60 Minutes.” But well, what was the harm in sharing the tale — the one that made us glance around the room at each other knowing that we had entered another dimension.
Perot proceeded to explain his three-month absence from the campaign (beginning in July 1992) by saying that he had left the race because dirty Republican tricksters had threatened to disrupt his daughter’s August wedding.
“They were going to smear her with a fake photograph that they had done with a computer where you put a head on another body and they were actually going to have people in the church disrupt the wedding,” he told us.
He offered no proof. Not of that or his other charges against the Bush campaign:
“Watch how they disrupt rallies; watch how they tried to disrupt the Democratic Convention.”
It was long about then that we started checking our watches, looking for an escape route. And looking to catch a plane back to Boston as soon as this guy would just let us out of there.
The publisher sprang for the chardonnay on the plane ride back. We had a great story — a nutty story, sure, but one that likely would assure Perot’s status as an eccentric also-ran.
It was another time, an era when eccentricity, crazy stories, and bad policies could doom a presidential campaign — not assure victory. I think I actually miss Ross Perot right now. Well, just a little.