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Von Drehle: Before Donald Trump, there was Ross Perot

Obit Perot

In this Oct. 16, 1992, file photo, Texas billionaire Ross Perot is shown on a screen in a paid 30-minute television commercial, during a media preview in Dallas. (AP Photo, File)

Let’s stipulate that President Donald Trump is one of a kind. But even the most imposing statue needs its pedestal. Trump stands on the shoulders of the celebrity billionaire who came before him, offering similar promises: to shake up American politics, to cut through the blather and drain the swamp, to lead a populist uprising from the comfort of a personal jet.

H. Ross Perot, who died Tuesday at 89, was one of a kind himself, a rat-a-tat talking super-salesman from the Texas side of Texarkana. He was small in stature but larger than life. In 1992, he offered himself as an alternative to the traditional political parties that were, in his estimation, corrupt, unresponsive and out of touch. In those pre-Twitter, pre-Fox News days, Perot used frequent appearances on the nightly talk show hosted by CNN’s Larry King to take his message to the public. Nearly 20 percent of American voters bought what Perot was offering, making him the most successful outsider candidate since Teddy Roosevelt in 1912.

To repeat: Perot and Trump cut very different figures. An Eagle Scout and Navy veteran, and married to his first and only wife for more than 60 years, Perot made his fortune in the decidedly unglitzy field of data processing. He noticed, while working for IBM, that companies made inefficient use of the computers he sold to them. When company higher-ups failed to heed his advice to offer software and services along with the mainframes, Perot left the company to launch that business himself in 1962.

Electronic Data Systems was a tape-measure home run; in 1984, Perot sold the company to General Motors for $2.5 billion and a seat on the carmaker’s board of directors.

It soon became evident, first to the management of GM and then to America at large, that Perot could be a handful without his own empire to distract him. The company ultimately paid him to go away, but the nation was more ambivalent. A lot of people liked his folksy confidence, his knack for simplifying complex issues, his breezy promise to “take out the trash and clean out the barn.” When he announced on King’s show in February 1992 that he would run for president if enough people pitched in to get him on the ballot in all 50 states, the public raced to comply.

By June, just five months out from Election Day, Perot had a clear lead in the polls over incumbent President George H.W. Bush, with Democrat Bill Clinton a distant third.

President Perot was not to be. But he may well have been the decisive factor in the race. When he temporarily suspended his campaign and praised the Democrats, Perot delivered a boost to Clinton that endured even after he reentered the fray in time to join the debates.

Now let’s draw the lines that connect this harbinger to the man in the White House today.

Perot decided to create a third party to carry his themes into local and state elections. As head of the Reform Party, he ran again for president in 1996, but declined to run a third time in 2000. Among the figures who stepped up to take his place was one Donald Trump.

The Reform Party donnybrook of 2000 left the fledgling operation in tatters; it featured, as Trump put it on his way out of the race, “a Klansman, Mr. [David] Duke, a neo-Nazi, Mr. [Patrick] Buchanan, and a communist, Ms. [Lenora] Fulani.” Buchanan won the nomination, fizzled in November and left Perot’s creation a spent force.

Yet much of Trump’s 2016 future was cobbled from Reform Party pieces. Start with Perot’s strong aversion to free trade. The Texan’s signature issue was opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement, which, Perot contended, would drain so many jobs from America’s manufacturing heartland that the whole world would hear the “giant sucking sound.”

On top of that, Trump would layer the “America First” attitudes and rhetoric that Buchanan brought to the Perot party. Trump would add the aroma of paranoia that made Perot and company prone to conspiracy theories. He’d do enough dog whistling to attract Duke’s endorsement — though he would pretend not to know who Duke was.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party of the Bushes was morphing into something closer to Perot’s populism. The first time I saw people dressing in powdered wigs to attend a campaign rally, it was 1992 and the candidate was Ross Perot. The next time was 2010, during the GOP’s tea party uprising. By 2016, the wigs had become red ball caps, and Trump was third party no more.

Ross Perot was the better businessman. After his GM payday, he created Perot Systems to compete with EDS and it, too, was a fantastic success. But Trump proved the superior demagogue. That’s the difference between a chapter and a footnote in our history.

— David Von Drehle writes for The Washington Post.

Today's Bible verse

“This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”

Deuteronomy 30:19

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