Why I Thought Perot Would Win
Watching him on television, I never much liked Ross Perot. He always impressed me as one of those arrogant businessmen I have run into from time to time who have a philistine scorn for the skills required in fields other than their own and no respect for the constraints under which people in different enterprises are forced to work if they are to get anything done. Nor was I charmed by his manner, having as a result of overexposure lost the delight I once took in the Southern type known in his native habitat as a “good ol’ boy.”
And yet I became convinced very early on that Perot would win, and I went around saying so long before he started being taken seriously; I even made a few bets. In this way I found myself acquiring a stake in his campaign. I followed his progress very carefully, and even though I had no intention of voting for him, I greeted each new poll measuring his ascent with quiet satisfaction.
The reason I thought Perot would win was that, whether inadvertently (as I was inclined to believe) or by shrewd design, he had hit upon what struck me as exactly the right note for appealing to the electorate of 1992.
This electorate was by all accounts disgusted with the entire political process—a process that embraced not only the two major parties and the governmental system they controlled but also the mainstream media. Above all, however, the electorate was disgusted with politicians. The general feeling in 1992 might not have been as extreme as the one expressed many years ago by the poet E.E. Cummings, who once wrote: “A politician is an arse upon / which everyone has sat except a man.” But it was not too far short.
Perhaps the most telling symptom of this phenomenon was the amazing public uproar over the check-kiting scandal in the House of Representatives. After all, no laws had been broken and no public funds stolen or misappropriated by the Congressmen whose bad checks had been covered by one another’s deposits in the House bank. Nevertheless, the news had set off an explosion of outrage that had registered even higher on the political Richter scale than the reaction some years back to the pay raise Congress had tried to vote itself.
Much as it appalled me to find myself drawing such a comparison, I simply could not help being reminded of the resentment felt by ordinary citizens against the party officials (the nomenklatura) in the old Communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe. The nomenklatura, they used to complain, was supposed to be working for the good of the people, but it cared only for its own special privileges (such as being able to shop in hard-currency stores where scarce goods were always available which ordinary people either could never get or had to wait in endless lines to buy). Just so, the check-kiting scandal came to stand in for the special privileges enjoyed by members of Congress, including the ability to get away with things that would land anyone else in trouble; and it led to bitter reflections on their failure to do anything in return about the terrible problems they were presumably there to solve.
But of course Congressmen were not the only politicians being scorched by the heat of public contempt. According to all the polls, the negative ratings of the two main presidential candidates, the President himself and his likely Democratic challenger, Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas, were at record highs and in those days showed no sign of improving.
George Bush’s spectacular fall from popularity in the short time since the end of the Gulf War was due to many things: the fact that our victory in that war had turned out to be inconclusive; the fact that the economy was not emerging from the recession quickly or vigorously enough; the fact that he had violated his pledge not to raise taxes. It all added up to a kind of coitus interruptus, with nothing completed, nothing consummated. No wonder, then, that the whole country was in a state of anxiety.
As for Clinton, he was plagued by the “character” question: his extramarital activity; his avoidance of service in Vietnam; his reputation for deviousness as encapsulated in the sobriquet “slick Willie.” This tag had been affixed to him in Arkansas, but it was reinforced by his performance in the primaries—first moving to the Right in trying to present himself as a moderate, and then, when Paul Tsongas preempted that position, tacking sharply to the Left. Besides, he was glib and he talked too much, with twenty answers to every question. As Charles Kuralt of CBS put it, “If you ask him what he thinks, he tells you everything he thinks.”
It was this context that explained how and why a relative unknown like H. Ross Perot had been able to break through into political viability. As everyone recognized, he was a protest candidate—None of the Above. But just as clearly his support was not merely negative. How could it have been, when one comment from him (“If voters in all 50 states put me on the ballot—not 48 or 49 states, but all 50—I will agree to run”) on Larry King Live, a not very widely watched cable-TV talk show, and an army of volunteers had immediately materialized all over the country to do just that?
Nothing quite like this had ever happened before, and as against most of the friends and acquaintances I discussed it with, and most of the commentators who wrote about it, I thought that past experience would be of no help in forecasting its course. They all said that Perot, like Henry Wallace and George Wallace and John Anderson before him, would fade; I said that both the circumstances and the candidate were radically different this year and that Perot would go from strength to strength. Barring some unforeseen scandalous revelation about his past, he could, and probably would, wind up with about 40 percent of the popular vote and a majority of the electoral college.
On one point especially we disagreed. They all said that Perot would have to come up with specific proposals on all the issues; when he did, the emptiness and incoherence of his ideas would become apparent and would gradually do him in. To my mind, however, Perot was dead right in his frequently stated belief that most voters had no interest in the policy papers and the detailed programs that were the food and drink of the Sunday-morning talk shows on network television and the editorialists and columnists in papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Why indeed, I argued, should the voters care about such things? Could they (could we?) really tell whether Bill Clinton’s 22-point health-care plan (or was it 42 points?) was better or worse than George Bush’s minus-4-point plan? And even if they could, what reason did they have for expecting that the plan they favored would be enacted either by President “Read My Lips” or by “Slick Willie”?
This did not mean, I would hasten to add, that the voters were indifferent to the ideas of the candidates soliciting their support. But it was the general ideas that mattered and not the details so beloved of “policy wonks” and media pundits. And here, of course, the locus classicus was Ronald Reagan’s campaign for the presidency in 1980.
In my judgment, both at the time and in retrospect, Reagan’s victory in 1980 had to be understood in terms of the debate over whether the United States was in a condition of inevitable decline. President Jimmy Carter, without quite saying so explicitly, suggested that it was, and that the “mature” response was to accept and adjust to a historical process about which nothing could be done. Reagan totally rejected this position. There was, he insisted, nothing inevitable about our troubles; they stemmed not from history but from bad policies based on misleading ideas and mistaken values; and we could again become “number one” by returning to the right ideas and the solid values that had made us great in the past.
In this sense—if not in any other—Perot’s appeal bore a fascinating resemblance to Reagan’s. At a moment when the anxiety over national decline was even greater than it had been in 1980, neither of the two main candidates seemed likely in the eyes of most voters to lead the country back to its former greatness. True, neither one of them aped Jimmy Carter in seeing our decline as inevitable and virtually welcoming it. However, on the one side, Bush notoriously had no idea of what to do about it, and, on the other, Clinton had too many, which amounted to the same thing: it was the black hole against the motor mouth. Perot, by dramatic contrast, exuded a simple Reagan-like confidence in the possibility of renewal and recovery.
To be sure, even within this resemblance between Perot and Reagan, there was a sharp difference. If Reagan’s answer to the fear of decline had essentially been spiritual, involving a return to traditional moral, political, and social values, Perot’s was basically technocratic, involving an all-out effort to fix a system that had broken down. Indeed, his most striking and most effective image was the one about putting the car up on the rack, working on the engine all night, and getting that car back on the road first thing in the morning.
It was when I first heard him use this image that I really began taking the chances of a Perot victory seriously. For it seemed to me that in comparing the country to a car which had broken down and in promising to fix it without delay, he was showing great political brilliance. To begin with, he was plugging into a deep strain in the American character—the strain that believes there are no insoluble problems, that all problems can be solved by effort and ingenuity. Secondly, to a people whose worries over national economic decline were perhaps best symbolized by the fact that the Japanese were making better cars than we were—not to mention how hard it had become to get the defective American cars repaired—his message was that the situation could and would be reversed.1
Moreover, Perot’s technocratic appeal seemed perfectly attuned to a climate in which politicians were widely despised. Since the politicians had already shown that they were unable, and even unwilling, to make the system go, why not try a nonpolitician, a businessman with a spectacular record of success in the computer industry, the very industry that looked to and spoke of the future? Under those circumstances, Perot’s response to the question of whether he was qualified to be President—“compared to whom?”—was devastating.
As I saw it, then, Perot in all these ways had hit upon the winning appeal for 1992. But what was equally important, he had the means to make it stick and see it through. And here we come to the $100 million of his own money that he declared himself willing to spend on “a world-class campaign.”
The point about this money was not only that it gave him viability as an independent candidate, but that it also liberated him from dependence on the mainstream media. Already, by choosing to publicize his candidacy mainly on cable television and on offbeat talk shows, he had bypassed the self-appointed and self-important tribunes of the people who ran the Sunday-morning interview programs. And even when he subjected himself to questioning by those tribunes, he treated them as no better than politicians, part of the very system he was out to fix.
Far from hurting him, Perot’s testy exchanges with the television inquisitors only increased his popularity with all the millions out there who saw them in the same light as he did and whose resentment of them exceeded, if anything, their contempt for the politicians. (I confess to enough sympathy with this attitude toward the major media to have felt that the best single feature of Perot’s campaign was the degree to which he was shaking the complacency of the inquisitors. They simply could not figure out how to handle this character who refused to accept their ground rules and who came at them simultaneously from the Left and the Right. It was a pleasure to watch.)
In the end, to everyone’s surprise, Perot was unwilling to spend the fabled hundred million that would have bought him enough time on television to appeal over the heads of the tribunes and directly to the voters. In consequence, he had no effective means to answer back when, as was bound to happen, the system began chopping him up.
At first an effort was made to cast various kinds of doubt on him as a businessman and also to show that he was not really the outsider he claimed to be. None of these complicated reports made any impression. But then came a second wave of stories—about his habit of spying and digging up dirt on anyone who had the temerity to cross him, and this time blood was drawn, especially among his more liberal supporters. (Between one set of polls and the next, he lost eight points, all of them to Clinton.)
Possibly Perot would have failed to undo the damage caused by this second wave of stories even if he had made good on his pledge to spend all that money. Possibly the zigging and zagging he had already begun to engage in on issues like homosexuality—taking a position and then retreating from it under pressure—would have done him in, money or no money. Possibly it was not only because of the stories about spying that his support had begun to decline so steeply in the two weeks or so before he withdrew, but also because he was already acting like any other politician.
But if, in this respect, Perot was revealing himself to be just another politician, his sudden withdrawal from the race showed just the opposite. A politician is a person whose ruling passion is to win—not to be right, not to serve some higher cause or ideal, but to win. No true politician could say, “I’d rather be right than President”—and if he did say it, it would be out of tactical considerations and he would know in his heart that he was lying.
In order to win, the true politician will go to almost unimaginable lengths. (A good recent example was the appalling exploitation of his own little boy’s near-fatal accident by Al Gore in his speech accepting the Democratic nomination for Vice President.2) The true politician will also tell every group what it wants to hear, and when he fails to do this, it will either be because he has miscalculated or because he thinks there are more votes to gain by it than to lose. (A case in point here was Clinton’s attack, thoroughly justified though it was, on the black rap singer Sister Souljah’s advocacy of anti-white violence when he spoke before Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition.)
In our system, this person whose ruling passion is to win must submit to a punishing process which is diabolically designed to exact a price that no one but a true politician would be willing to pay. It is a process that is costly enough even at the lowest electoral levels, but it becomes truly prohibitive in a presidential campaign.
The question is, mused a memorable editorial in the Wall Street Journal when the going got rough for the Democratic Vice-Presidential candidate in 1984, “can Gerry Ferraro hit major-league pitching?” Begging for money, alternately bragging and abasing oneself, repressing anger with a smile (and not too tight a smile, at that), tolerating impertinence, biting one’s tongue, shaving the truth without being caught in a lie, giving up any semblance of privacy: the ability to do all this—while traveling nonstop, eating bad food, and getting no sleep—is what is required to hit major-league pitching in the political game.
And there is more: there is the fortitude to carry on when the prospects look bad, to get up every morning and drag oneself through the grueling day even if at that moment winning seems an impossible dream. This fortitude is the great virtue that compensates for the characteristic vices of the true politician, and while Perot demonstrated that he was no stranger to some of those vices, his withdrawal from the race proved that (unlike both Clinton and Bush) he entirely lacked the balancing virtue.
Perot’s own explanation of his decision to get out was that the “revitalization” of the Democratic party had convinced him that the best he could now hope to do was throw the race into the House of Representatives, and that this would be bad for the country. Others—among them his campaign manager, Edward J. Rollins—thought that he had been shaken by the attacks on his character. Still others speculated that he feared the effect of new scandals up ahead. And still others said (according to a report in the New York Times) that
he lost heart when he began to realize what his advisers told him might be necessary to address the country’s economic difficulties, especially the federal budget deficit, something he once said he could solve “without breaking a sweat.”
But whatever the real reason, the fact remained that this man, who had a habit of quoting a stirring admonition by Winston Churchill (“Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never”), finally acted on the basis of a very different admonition by Harry Truman (“If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen”).
Obviously, if I had had any inkling of the kind of man Perot was, I would never have predicted that he could beat George Bush and Bill Clinton (although if he had possessed the fortitude to slog through the bumpy patch he had hit, he might still have wound up the winner). Nor in my chastened condition am I prepared to predict which of those two will be our next President.
To me, and to millions of other Americans, both Bush and Clinton are still unsatisfactory, and neither one inspires much confidence. But thanks to the negative model of Perot, I for one am now prepared to say with genuine approval and appreciation that at least they are both true politicians. For so far as I am concerned, Ross Perot has inadvertently accomplished what he may least have intended: he has given politicians a good name.
1 When a group of lawyers and businessmen to whom I was lecturing one morning expressed incredulity over my prediction that Perot would win, and when I countered with, “But this guy says that he'll fix your car,” they all laughingly declared that in that case they would vote for him.
2 To make matters worse, after describing in graphic detail how his son had almost died as a result of being hit by a car, Gore declared that the great lesson he had learned from the experience was that “some things matter a lot more than winning”! He later also indignantly denied the suggestion that he had been exploitative and manipulative, counterattacking with the charge that anyone who could question his motives must be guilty of “a kind of special quality of cynicism that stands as a barrier to the way we communicate with each other.” Happily for him, such cynicism was rarely on display in the published comment about his speech, which drew praise from all sides. Democrats saw in it a new Al Gore, less wooden, more touchingly human, and even Peggy Noonan, the famous Republican speechwriter, saluted it as the best speech of the convention. Thus do standards of taste and decency in our public discourse continue on their sickening descent.