Ross Perot Dead at 89; Brash Billionaire Who Ran for President

Ross Perot, the wiry Texas gadfly who made a fortune in computer services, amazed the nation with audacious paramilitary missions to Vietnam and Iran, and ran for president in 1992 and 1996 with populist talk of restoring Norman Rockwell’s America, died on Tuesday at his home in Dallas. He was 89.

The cause was leukemia, a family spokesman, James Fuller, said.

They called him the man from Texarkana, but he really came out of an era — the Great Depression, World War II and the exuberant postwar years — when boys had paper routes, folks tuned in to the radio and patriots rolled up their sleeves for Uncle Sam and built innovative companies and a powerful nation.

“Most people give up just when they’re about to achieve success,” Mr. Perot liked to say. “They quit on the one-yard line. They give up at the last minute of the game one foot from a winning touchdown.”

He was no quitter: an Eagle Scout, a Navy officer out of Annapolis, a top I.B.M. salesman, the founder of wildly successful data processing enterprises, a crusader for education and against drugs, a billionaire philanthropist. In 1969, he became a kind of folk hero with a quixotic attempt to fly medicine and food to American prisoners of war in North Vietnam. In 1979 he staged a commando raid that freed two of his employees, and thousands of criminals and political prisoners, from captivity in revolutionary Iran.

And in 1992 he became one of the most unlikely candidates ever to run for president. He had never held public office, and he seemed all wrong, like a cartoon character sprung to life: an elfin 5 feet 6 inches and 144 pounds, with a 1950s crew cut; a squeaky, nasal country-boy twang; and ears that stuck out like Alfred E. Neuman’s on a Mad magazine cover. Stiff-necked, cantankerous, impetuous, often sentimental, he was given to homespun epigrams: “If you see a snake, just kill it. Don’t appoint a committee on snakes.”

Under the banner “United We Stand America,” he spent $65 million of his billions in a campaign that featured innovative half-hour infomercials about himself and his ideas. They were popular, with ratings that sometimes surpassed those of prime-time sitcoms. Ignoring negative newspaper and magazine articles, he laid siege to radio and television talk shows. Switchboards lit up with calls from people wanting to volunteer.

Before long, millions were responding to his calls to cut government deficits, red tape and waste, to begin rebuilding the crumbling cities and to restore his vision of America: the small-town life idealized in Rockwell’s homey portraits of ballpark patriotism, barbershop wisdom and flag-draped Main Street, a world away from corrupt Washington.

While Mr. Perot had done business with every administration since Lyndon B. Johnson’s, the federal government was one of his favorite targets. Washington, he told its own denizens, “has become a town with sound bites, shell games, handlers, media stuntmen who posture, create images, talk, shoot off Roman candles, but don’t ever accomplish anything. We need deeds, not words, in this city.”

Improbably, he surged in the polls while the Republican incumbent, George Bush, and the Democrat, Bill Clinton, trained their fire on each other. Polls showed that Mr. Perot’s support came from across the spectrum, from Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, mostly from the middle class. Citizen drives got him on the ballot in all 50 states. He was on the cover of Time magazine.

But at the peak of his popularity, he unexpectedly dropped out of the race. Months later, he jumped back in, saying his withdrawal had been prompted by Republican “dirty tricks” to sabotage his daughter’s wedding with faked compromising photographs.

He did surprisingly well in three presidential debates, often mocking the “gridlock” in Washington. “It’s not the Republicans’ fault, of course, and it’s not the Democrats’ fault,” he said in the second round. “Somewhere out there there’s an extraterrestrial that’s doing this to us, I guess.”

On Election Day, Mr. Perot finished with 19 percent of the popular vote — almost 20 million ballots — compared with 38 percent for Mr. Bush and 43 percent for Mr. Clinton. It was the strongest third-party showing since Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose run in 1912.

It also it led to claims by some Republicans, including the president’s son and future president George W. Bush, that Mr. Perot’s candidacy had cost President Bush a second term — a contention refuted by many political analysts, who pointed to, among other things, exit polls showing that Mr. Perot’s strength had not come disproportionately from defecting Republicans.

In 1996, Mr. Perot ran again, this time on a new Reform Party ticket, but he fared poorly. By then the epigrams had paled, and voters suspected that his business strengths, the risk-taking and stubborn autocratic personality, might not serve a president constrained by Congress and public opinion. And by then more was known of Mr. Perot, who could be thin-skinned and meanspirited, who had subjected employees to moral codes and lie detector tests, who was drawn to conspiracy theories and had hired private detectives to chase his suspicions.

His candidacy was crippled when a commission refused to let him join debates between President Clinton and the Republican nominee, Senator Bob Dole, on the grounds that he did not have a realistic chance of being elected. He won only 8 percent of the vote. But, as he liked to say, “Failures are like skinned knees: painful but superficial.”

He was born Henry Ray Perot on June 27, 1930, in the East Texas border city of Texarkana to Gabriel and Lulu May Ray Perot. His father was a cotton broker and a horse trader. The boy did well in local schools, but teachers said his good grades had more to do with persistence than with superior intelligence.

He began working at 7, selling garden seeds door to door and later breaking horses (and his nose) for his father at a dollar a head. When he was 12, he began delivering The Texarkana Gazette on horseback in poor neighborhoods, soliciting subscriptions and building his route from scratch for extra commissions. He did so well his boss tried to cut his commissions, but he backed off when the boy went to the publisher.

He changed his name to Henry Ross Perot in honor of a brother, Gabriel Ross Perot Jr., who died, just a toddler, in 1927. The family pronounced the surname PEE-roe, but in his 20s he changed that, too, making it puh-ROE, because, he said, he got tired of correcting people. He called himself Ross; years later, the news media added the initial “H” at the beginning of his name, but he never liked it.

He joined the Boy Scouts at 12 and in little more than a year was an Eagle Scout, an extraordinary achievement that became part of his striver’s legend. After two years at Texarkana Junior College, he won appointment to the United States Naval Academy, where, despite academic mediocrity, he was elected class president and graduated in 1953.

In his senior year, Mr. Perot met Margot Birmingham, a student at Goucher College in Baltimore. They married in 1956. She survives him, as do his son, Ross Jr.; four daughters, Nancy Perot, Suzanne McGee, Carolyn Rathjen and Katherine Reeves; 16 grandchildren; three step-grandchildren; and a sister, Bette Perot.

In the Navy for four years, Lieutenant (j.g.) Perot served aboard a destroyer and an aircraft carrier, sailing around the world, but he saw no combat. Military life chafed, especially the waiting in line for promotion.

He mustered out in 1957, joined I.B.M. in Dallas and became an outstanding computer salesman, once fulfilling his annual quota in three weeks. Restless for new ventures, he urged the company to get into software and technical support, but his supervisors were uninterested. He quit, and in 1962 he founded Electronic Data Systems to sell computer services: billing and payrolls, insurance claims, check-clearing for banks, eventually the paperwork for Medicare and state Medicaid systems.

The company struggled for a few years, but by the mid-1960s it was on its way. It went public in 1968, and its stock jumped to $162 a share from $16, making Mr. Perot one of America’s richest men. Many of his employees became millionaires, but all had to conform to his codes: conservative suits and short hair for the men, no slacks for women unless it was freezing. And no marital infidelities.

As he coasted to success, Mr. Perot tested his skills on Wall Street, but he was no wizard. His company lost $450 million on paper one day in a 1970 market swoon, and he later lost $65 million in a futile attempt to rescue duPont Glore Forgan, a major brokerage drowning in debts and paperwork.

His folk-patriot reputation stemmed from two adventures. In 1969, after months of speaking on the plight of 1,400 American prisoners of war in North Vietnam, he chartered two jetliners, filled them with 30 tons of food, medicines and gifts and flew to Southeast Asia. Hanoi rejected the mission, but it was hardly a failure. The spotlight on prisoners’ hardships embarrassed Hanoi and led to better treatment for some.

In 1979, as an Islamic revolution swept Iran, Mr. Perot mounted a commando raid on a prison in Tehran to free two employees being held for ransom. A riot was orchestrated at the gates, and in the chaos of an ensuing breakout 11,800 inmates escaped, including both employees. The episode was chronicled in Ken Follett’s best-selling book “On Wings of Eagles” and in a 1986 mini-series on NBC.

Mr. Perot was recruited in 1979 by Gov. William P. Clements of Texas to spearhead a state war on drugs. His work led to new laws that toughened sentencing and law enforcement. In 1983, at Gov. Mark White’s behest, he led an overhaul of the Texas public school system — raising education taxes, increasing teacher salaries, cutting class sizes and barring failing students from school sports.

In 1984, Mr. Perot sold Electronic Data Systems to General Motors for $2.5 billion in cash and stock that made him G.M.’s largest shareholder. He joined G.M.’s board and rankled the chairman, Roger B. Smith, with barbed demands.

“Revitalizing G.M. is like teaching an elephant to tap dance,” Mr. Perot said. He also said: “It takes five years to design a new car in this country. Heck, we won World War II in four years.”

In 1986, Mr. Perot accepted a $700 million G.M. buyout. Two years later, he founded Perot Systems and raided his old executive pool to staff his new company. He was chairman for years and became chairman emeritus in 2004, when his son succeeded him. In 2009, Dell, the computer maker, agreed to acquire Perot Systems for $3.9 billion.

Mr. Perot gave millions to schools, hospitals and cultural groups. He wrote books on politics and economics, including, “United We Stand: How We Can Take Back the Country” (1992), “Not for Sale at Any Price: How We Can Save America for Our Children” (1993) and “Preparing Our Country for the 21st Century” (1995). He was the subject of several biographies, including Gerald Posner’s “Citizen Perot: His Life and Times” (1996).

Mr. Perot’s Reform Party faded in later years, and he cut his ties with it. In 2000 he endorsed George W. Bush for president, and in 2012 he backed Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor. He was publicly quiet about the 2016 race, but in early 2000, when Mr. Trump was briefly exploring a presidential run on the Reform Party ticket, Mr. Perot had backed a party faction that strongly opposed the prospect of a Trump candidacy.

All the while his business, Perot Systems, thrived. Forbes listed him as America’s 97th richest man in 2008, with $5 billion. His ranking had dropped in the years since, however: Forbes put him at 172nd in 2018 and most recently listed his net worth at $4.1 billion.

Mr. Perot remained proud of his singular life. “Eagles don’t flock,” he told visitors in Dallas. “You have to find them one at a time.” It was his favorite saying, and he had it engraved on a plaque, displayed in his office with his bust of Teddy Roosevelt, his Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington and his collection of Norman Rockwell originals.

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