How Ross Perot Transformed The Political Landscape - And Paved The Way For Trump

Jul 9, 2019
Originally published on July 11, 2019 1:01 pm

A billionaire businessman rises from celebrity to the presidential stage, shaking up the establishment and raising nostalgic hopes about making America great again. Nearly three decades ago, that described Ross Perot, the plain-talking Texan who died Tuesday at age 89, leaving a lasting political legacy.

Perot was the most successful independent presidential candidate of the last century. In the 1992 election, he collected nearly 20 million votes, 19% of all votes cast.

And that, says NPR Senior Editor Ron Elving, might have cost George H.W. Bush his shot at re-election.

Perot had been "in the political conversation almost a year at that point, always beating up on George H.W. Bush," Elving says. "Yes he had some cruel things to say about Bill Clinton [the Democrat who went on to win in '92]. ... But he was mostly directing his fire at Bush, and everyone knew that's why he got in in the first place. So I think he damaged George H.W. Bush over the course of that whole campaign year."

Elving sees Perot as a singular character.

"He was a curious kind of celebrity," he said. "He did not have the sort of charisma about him, at least not in a conventional sort of Hollywood sense, that Donald Trump has had. ... He could be easily parodied: 'Saturday Night Live' basically built a season around him having him played by a very small actor," Dana Carvey.

Perot had made his name — and his billions — building North Texas-based EDS, and then Perot Systems, into tech giants. He sold EDS to General Motors, generating a fortune and allowing him to turn toward politics.

"The issue of Vietnam prisoners of war and whether or not there still were Americans waiting in the jungle to be rescued in Vietnam — that was a big win for him," Elving tells KERA's Sam Baker. "Also, he was a big opponent in the early 1990s of the North American Free Trade Agreement [NAFTA]. ... And he was a world-class all-time salesman."

Those are just a few of the parallels that Elving draws between Perot and the current president.

"It's an irresistible comparison," he said. "Among other things, you have the issue of NAFTA, you have the issue of jobs moving to Mexico. You have Ross Perot's very strong predilection for a definition of the U.S. military that really has its roots in the past."

Elving was a political reporter covering his presidential bids in '92 and '96 — and Reform Party that Perot founded.

"He opened up its nomination to a contest in 2000 and one of the people who ran for that nomination was Donald J. Trump," Elving said. "And he did not last till the end of that process. He dropped out when he saw he wasn't going to win. But the guy who did win it — Pat Buchanan, the conservative commentator — made his slogan for 2004 the Reform Party, 'America First' — which of course reemerged as part of Donald Trump's theme in 2016."

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