The next time Ross Perot appears on a TV talk show, try this experiment: Turn off the sound, take a good look at him, and try to remember when you last saw someone who looks so downright ordinary on television. When he listens to a question, his eyes glint warily and his forehead arches with suspicion, as if he were a character actor undergoing cross-examination on an old episode of Perry Mason. And then there are those ears. By all the conventions of the sound-bite era, it is impossible that Ross Perot could be elected president of the United States.
Yet it is precisely because Perot stands so directly in opposition to the conventional wisdom—not just about television but about all of modern American politics—that he has a realistic chance to win. Perot is the candidate of the disaffected, the disenchanted, the fed up: the people whose contempt for politics has passed beyond cynicism to despair. They instinctively understand that campaigning has supplanted governing as the primary focus of contemporary politics. They know that for today’s officeholders, polling has replaced judgment, pandering has replaced policy, and attacking the opposition has replaced debate. The Perot ground swell is a revolution against the way politics is practiced.
That is why Perot’s quirky television personality actually works in his favor. The adage “the medium is the message” does not apply to Ross Perot. He is the message. Now the question is, How many voters will decide to deliver it?
Spirit of the Times
All through the spring, polls and presidential primaries documented the dissatisfaction of the American people. Was the country headed in the right direction? In an NBC—Wall Street Journal poll, 70 percent said no; just 17 percent said yes. How interested are elected officials in solving the nation’s problems? Not very interested, said 64 percent of those surveyed by ABC News. Is the presidential campaign mainly about the nation’s biggest problems? No, said 71 percent of the voters in the same poll.
But it takes more than voter disgruntlement for an independent candidate to have a plausible chance to win. John Anderson—remember him?—stood at 24 percent in national polls in the spring of 1980, about where Perot stands now. On election day he had just 6 percent and zero electoral votes. Perot, however, has three advantages that Anderson lacked. First, he is not a politician; therefore he is a more credible insurgent. Second, he can finance a $100 million campaign personally, out of petty cash—a few months’ interest on his $3 billion fortune. Third, his personality fits the mood of the times. At a time of government gridlock, he projects an image of action. You can bet that Perot’s TV ads will recount how he led a mercy mission to North Vietnam to aid American prisoners of war, how he arranged to rescue two employees of his company from an Iranian prison, and how he spearheaded a reform of Texas education. “If the people don’t want action,” he told David Frost in a PBS interview, “if they don’t want these problems solved, if they don’t want aggressive programs to get rid of the violence in the communities, to rebuild the cities, to get this country back on track, to stop the deterioration of the job base and the tax base, they don’t want me.”
A pro—Bill Clinton political consultant was deeply impressed by that brief speech. “Notice how he puts the burden on the voter,” he said. “It’s just like his petition drive. The press makes fun of it, but Perot is saying, ‘I want you to decide if I should run. I am empowering you to decide.’ He makes voters feel that they are important to him.”
“Empowerment” is the fashionable word of the moment. It refers to the decentralization of authority: letting the people on the front lines participate in decisions. (Site-based management for public schools is an example of empowerment that is much in vogue.) Throughout his career, Ross Perot has always been ahead of the pack in deciphering the spirit of the times—the potential of computers, the danger of drugs, the failure of education—and empowerment is no exception. It was the root of his celebrated fight with General Motors in the mid-eighties. As a member of GM’s board, Perot came to the conclusion that executives paid no attention to what kind of cars customers wanted. When he kept making the point publicly, GM got rid of him by buying his stock for $700 million.
Few things are more powerful in politics than the sense that a candidate is right for the moment. Jimmy Carter went from being a former governor of Georgia to president of the United States mainly because the public wanted an honorable man (“I’ll never lie to you”) to erase the memory of Watergate. Ronald Reagan made the leap from actor to governor to president because the public wanted less government in their lives.