Threat or Menace?
Ross Perot is a candidate for president because a lot of people want him to be. He has acted in a very clever, innovative way to arouse and build that support, but the support truly did arise and grow. That means that Perot’s campaign is a pure expression of democracy. But the press is treating Perot with contempt. It describes his campaign not as a legitimate popular cause but as a threat to everything that is good in American democracy. He is, according to the New Republic, “worse than a disgrace to the American system. He is a danger to it.”
The press hates Perot. In particular, those working for national media located on the eastern seaboard hate Perot. Those who work for the national media covering government and politics hate him most of all. They are indignant that he even presumes to run. When his campaign did not fizzle but instead grew stronger, the press grew to hate him all the more. Not every story reveals this hatred, nor indeed does every writer and reporter feel it. John Taylor in New York magazine has taken pains to point out exactly this bias against Perot. So has, of all people, Abe Rosenthal of the New York Times. Otherwise the attacks are singular in their superiority, disdain, and consistency.
To start with the least consequential, reporters can’t resist condemning Perot for his appearance. Garry Wills, writing in the New York Review of Books, says, “Up close, his face is larger and more interesting than it looks floating a foot or so below other heads when he moves about in public.” Translated, that means Perot is uninteresting-looking because he’s short. So much for his height; what about his ears? Michael Kelly, in the New York Times, says Perot has “great out-sticking ears that frame his face like cartilaginous quotation marks.” Great out-sticking? Cartilaginous quotation marks? Whenever a writer strains to use two such awkward but sneering phrases in the same sentence, you know he has drawn both guns and is blazing away from the hip.
Far more serious is the suddenness and completeness with which the representatives of the eastern press have decided that Perot is a fascist. This notion first appeared in a responsible publication last May 18. Elizabeth Drew wrote in the New Yorker: “One is reluctant to use inflammatory words, but Perot’s concept has the aura of quasi-fascism: Perón-style, or Mussolini-style fascism, with the hero-leader, backed by ‘the people,’ breaking down impediments to having his way—all, of course, in their name.”
Also on May 18 Michael Kinsley expressed similar sentiments in his column in the New Republic, which was soon reprinted in the New York Post: “Indeed, if the Perot phenomenon has any recognizable political flavor, it’s fascism. He was a tough but loving paterfamilias in his company, and he’ll do the same for his country. He will sweep aside the dithering politicians to carry out the true will of the people. He will make the trains run on time.”
Since then Perot has been called a fascist often enough in the work of otherwise unconnected journalists that the observation now seems to be the accepted wisdom in that world. Here is Michael Tomasky, writing in the Village Voice on May 26: “Without saying that Ross Perot is Adolf Hitler, and without asserting that his supporters are the moral equivalents of good Germans, it is perfectly reasonable to point out that the types of people who are expressing support for Perot in America in 1992 reflect in many ways the types of people who supported Hitler in Germany in 1932 … Perot is opposed by most of the ruling class, as was A.H. And EDS was run in a rather fascistic manner … in which Perot was the corporation’s father-leader.”
Shortly afterward, in early June, Anna Quindlen sounded the fascism theme somewhat more subtly in the New York Times: “Isn’t it understandable that occasionally America just wants to be led? It’s not that we know we’re yearning for a despot. Instead people say they want a guy who will make things work. A businessman … The refrain makes me nervous: second cousin to making the trains run on time.” This is inadvertently revealing because it assumes that successful businessmen who get things done are fascists.
Finally, the New Republic seems unable to put out an issue without calling Perot a fascist. “Perot is the closest American approximation of fascism ever to have a real shot at the Oval Office,” they said on June 29. Then their cover on July 6 was a caricature of Perot in a uniform with the epaulets and gold braid of a tin- horn military dictator under the headline Springtime for Perot. This takes a moment to explain. In The Producers, a movie written and directed by Mel Brooks in 1968, two unscrupulous theatrical producers want to stage a flop. They choose the script of a musical named Springtime for Hitler. Thus, the magazine’s cover equates Perot with Hitler and at the same time makes him the butt of an inside joke.
When in recent history has a reasonable candidate been met with such bile? And even supposing the worst stories about Perot’s probing into another person’s private life are true, what has he done to deserve it? Although Perot is not the candidate of the Democratic or the Republican party, he is not an extremist candidate. Unlike Strom Thurmond in 1948, George Wallace in 1968, or David Duke in 1991, Perot does not arrive onstage with a legacy of hate behind him. Neither is he dependent on hate for his appeal. Instead, the essence of his message can be reduced to seven words—“I can get America back to work.”
In that short agenda, there is nothing hidden and no ulterior motive that is credible. On the contrary, getting back to work appeals to the best part of our individual characters, the part that makes us want to do something decent and worthy with our lives, and therefore Perot’s agenda goes right down the center of the road. Whatever else this may be, it ain’t fascism. Nothing Perot has said or done during the campaign, even at his most peevish, resembles fascism or even flirts with it. The pundits claim that his notion of regular televised town hall meetings is the prelude to authoritarianism. I don’t see it. Why are they any different from Roosevelt’s fireside chats?
Perot has inspired such hatred and such hyperventilated rhetoric for several reasons, none of which speak well for the press. He is a man who does not like the press himself. It is natural to distrust someone who doesn’t like you and doesn’t mind showing it. Perot is a rich Texan with a fascination for the military and some of the loopier areas of international intrigue. He doesn’t read good books. He has corny taste in art. The press on the whole thinks of itself as intellectual and likes people who are conversant with the right books and paintings. And, heaven knows, Perot can be an annoying S.O.B. If he were not a Texan or not rich or if he had better taste or weren’t infatuated with the military or weren’t quite so edgy—if just one of these were different—he might have a chance in the media. As it is, he doesn’t. Journalists should rise above these prejudices, but they seldom do.
Unfortunately for Perot, he is a businessman, and the national political press does not understand business. In fact, it mistrusts business and for the most part believes that no rich person got that way for a good reason. The notion that an enterprise that profits its owner might also be good for society is foreign to the press. There is little understanding that building a large organization that provides a needed product or service is a difficult task and not always pretty in every detail. The important question about EDS is not whether employees were allowed to wear beards. The important question is, Did EDS earn its success by doing good work and treating its employees well? The answer is yes in the overwhelming number of cases, but not in every case. The press, especially the political press, will focus on the few cases in which the company and Perot can be made to look bad.
Perot is not a politician, and politicians, after all, are the people whom national political journalists have dedicated their careers to covering. They like, are interested in, and understand politicians—not every one, but as a group. Perot wants to join the fraternity without entering rush, getting a bid, or going through initiation. And he says that if he gets in, he’s going to change the rules. The press recoils at this effrontery. “His candidacy has no frame of reference, no grounding, other than Perot’s drive and money—and his public appeal,” writes Elizabeth Drew in the New Yorker. You can almost see her stamping her foot as she scolds him. “What are the weaknesses in our system that make it vulnerable to an upstart runt like Ross Perot?” asks Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield in the New Republic. “We need to know because the ‘system,’ as the experts call it, is actually our Constitution, and our Constitution is our way of life.”
The press regards Perot as anathema for the simple reason that he threatens the established powers—the press included. In presidential elections the press sees itself as providing a screening process in which the candidates’ fitness for office and strength of character are examined to the last detail. This is the high-minded—though ultimately self-serving—argument for looking into a candidate’s private life. With his rapid and dramatic entrance on the stage, Perot has simply sidestepped the press and made it look irrelevant. No wonder the press hates him for it.