SEPTEMBER 12, 1996
Most Americans are familiar by now with Ross Perot; perhaps a little too familiar for their voting tastes. Yet he is a complicated man. David Gergen, editor-at-large of "U.S. News & World Report," talks to Gerald Posner, author of "Citizen Perot, His Life and Times."
DAVID GERGEN, U.S. News & World Report: Gerald, you've been studying Ross Perot for the last two years. You've talked to him extensively through your book. I think many people find the mystery about Ross Perot today is why he's running in 1996. We understand why he ran in 1992. There was this grassroots groundswell of support for him. That call from the grassroots have been much fainter this year. So what makes Ross runs?
GERALD POSNER, Author, Citizen Perot: Yeah. I don't think he heard the call from the grassroots this year, David. He heard it from himself. He runs because even though he said for a long time that it's not about him and he doesn't want the job, he does want to be President. I think this man in his soul, in his heart really truly believes that he has the leadership potential to turn the country around, that he knows better than anybody else out there, any other politician, how to solve the ills that face this nation, and he wants--at 66 years old this is probably his last time to make the run, and he knows it.
DAVID GERGEN: So it's his confidence, his self-confidence, something which has served him well most of his life in his business career. But I'm wondering his politics, is he finding his strength is also his greatest weakness?
GERALD POSNER: I think you're absolutely right. You just hit the nail on the head. You know, often with characters that carve out a piece of history and Perot has carved out his footnote piece of American history, no matter what happens in this election, one of his great strengths is that absolute belief in himself that nothing can go wrong, never having any self-doubt, very Reagan-like in terms of looking at issues black and white, very simple. Once he forms what the answer is you can't move him off that, and he just proceeds straight ahead. But I think without having anybody to put that into check, that's also his Achilles Heel this time now, believing that he's infallible and he's finding out very quickly he's not in this campaign.
DAVID GERGEN: Without having anybody to keep him in check, last time around he did have two old associates, Morton Myerson and Tom Luce, both old friends from days in the business, from EDS, his lawyer, and that sort of thing. They're not around this time.
GERALD POSNER: No. Mort Myerson very wisely has moved just into the business end and doesn't want to cross Ross on the political end. And tom Luce, this is one of the disturbing parts, I think, of Ross Perot, he--Perot did--cut Tom Luce out of his life after that last campaign. He was upset over the way Luce ran the ‘92 campaign, and then Luce did the terrible thing in terms of Perot. After Perot dropped out in July, Luce went up to the White House and took a picture with George Bush. Luce, a lifelong Republican trying then to bring his Republican contacts back--to Perot, that meant he was disloyal. He crossed the line, wore a black hat, Perot cut him off and hasn't spoken to him, and I think that was very, very hard. But today Perot is surrounded in Dallas by people who are unable to stand up to him. Perot is his own campaign manager, media adviser, strategist, and everything else. It's a one-man operation down there. He'll take the blame or the credit on election night.
DAVID GERGEN: Well, let me ask you about who he is, in your judgment, because I've met people, as have you, who've known Ross Perot over the years as a private citizen who would walk through a wall for him, who see him as a man of enormous generosity, someone who has helped countless numbers of military veterans and their families over the years, and yet, others see him as an egomaniac, as someone who's, you know, a little kooky. Has--which is closer to the truth?
GERALD POSNER: Unfortunately with Perot, there's a bit of truth in both. He's certainly not crazy. You know, that ridiculous question asked all the time, is he crazy, I feel always odd, put in the position of defending the Perot sanity, but, in fact, he's quite sane--crazy as a fox, maybe, if anything else. But there is that wonderful part of Perot. There's the persistence, the dedication, the bulldoggedness which makes him so charming, that discipline that he has that he's had through all of his life.
And there's the great philanthropy, the patriotism. All of that is there. But then there's also the part of Perot that you worry about when he gets locked into a position where he thinks he's right, as he was on POW's and MIA's, convinced that somebody in the Defense Department, Richard Armitage is wrong and is dirty, and sullies Armitrage's career for years inside the Reagan and Bush administrations because he thinks he's right, that's the part of Perot that sometimes you'd like him to pull back from the precipice, have a little bit more reason, talk to other people.
And there are those instances also when he does think conspiracies are brewing, sometimes aimed against him, whether it's 1992 and his daughter's wedding and Republican "dirty tricks," or whether it's Al Gore in the NAFTA debate wearing a hidden earpiece and being food good answers or good questions, as Perot thought, those are the parts of Perot that make you wonder how a man who's able to make such good business decisions and seems to have such good horse sense and common sense can sometimes go far out on the fringe. And that's what worries many of us about him.
DAVID GERGEN: Yeah. Well, I must tell you, I did get to know him during the 1992 campaign, and after the campaign, I actually spent time with Ross Perot and his family during a family vacation setting and found his family absolutely lovely, and he's totally dedicated to his family, as you know. And I met many people in Dallas and elsewhere around the country who just love this man. And it's always been hard for me to understand what it is that triggers this other side of the personality. How do you explain that?
GERALD POSNER: It's almost as though there was--a Dallas newspaper said years ago that if Ross Perot was on his own TV series, he'd have an evil twin somewhere inside the series coming up. I don't know if it's quite that. It's a bit too dramatic. But what's interesting about Perot is when you go back and talk to the executives who worked with him for thirty or thirty-five years, as I did, you find that they are loyal to him. They view him in a very special way, had leadership potential and qualities that they didn't see in others, but they also had a love-hate relationship with him. They described the fact that Perot on the most part was wonderful in engendering this loyalty but at other times would tear them apart in person if he did something wrong and nobody would make him feel worse.
And they talk about him in very mixed terms today, most saying in the end they would go back to work for him if he called tomorrow, which is that part that he inspires loyalty in. But he does have in the end this--and these are the traits that would worry me about him in the White House, this, this sort of inability to reach a consensus, you know, that belief that we talked about that he has in himself before, means that he doesn't often compromise.
He hasn't had to in years, David, listen to somebody say no to him in that company, and his intuition has led him to great success. You know, he acted on that intuition in a business world before the business competitors even knew the contract was available. Perot would get a feeling to go after something and get it and win. He's got a $3 billion empire as a result. That same intuition has not served him so well in the political realm. He doesn't seem to have the right intuition when it comes to politics.
DAVID GERGEN: So your conclusion in your book is he's better as “Citizen Perot,” that's the name of your book, than as a President Perot.
GERALD POSNER: Yes. I believe that very firmly. I think that in the White House he might not reach the consensus or compromise necessary. I mean, he would send the budget to Congress and wonder why it wasn't back in a couple of hours signed already. He thinks you move--and part of Perot's problem is that if you stand against him, he is a patriot, there's no question about it, but he thinks sometimes he's the only patriot, so if you stand against him, he doesn't view it as a room for compromise, but he views it as a contest, and he will make you eventually cry "uncle." That's not the way it works in Washington very well. I think if you were Dole or Clinton, appoint Perot to head a commission on the, on the deficit, or on health care reform, some intractable, he'll be like a bulldog. He'll talk to all the experts, come back with an answer.
DAVID GERGEN: You've been privy to a lot of his private thoughts. What does he think about President Clinton?
GERALD POSNER: He has real disdain for Clinton. Uh, it's hard to explain how little respect he has for Bill Clinton. He thinks that Clinton doesn't have a conviction in his body, that he holds up his finger to see where the polls are blowing, and depending on where they're blowing, he then takes a position. He thinks that Clinton has acted his way through the last four years, and he's a good actor, and that's why people are coming to him, but he doesn't like Clinton.
DAVID GERGEN: What does he think about Dole?
GERALD POSNER: Dole only sightly better, believe it or not. He complains about Dole flying around on the Archer-Daniels-Midland plane and too beholden to many interests. He thinks that Dole in his over three decades in Washington has built up too many chits to special interests that he has to pay back, also doesn't think Dole has very strong convictions. It's his problem with the other candidates that are running. He wants a leader who's willing to stand up and say this is what I believe in, even if it's politically unpopular. He doesn't see that in either of these candidates.
DAVID GERGEN: So, in effect, he has confidence in himself to be President, but he doesn't have a lot of confidence in anybody else?
GERALD POSNER: I think that's exactly why he runs again. He thinks he's the only one in this ball game who sort of can pitch the 100-mile-an-hour fast ball.
DAVID GERGEN: Well, he's in a very tough up-hill fight now, of course. He's very low in the polls, so--and he's 66. You say he will not do this again. What would he like his legacy to be if he does not win this race?
GERALD POSNER: His legacy will be the Reform Party if he does not win this race. I don't think he can do better than third. He can do--you know, let's say it's possible for repeat what he did in ‘92 and 19 percent and everybody says that's an astonishing feat and would be for him to come up from where he is now--but in the end, if he's not going to win here, he won't. Can this Reform Party sort of become viable? Can it prosper? If he gets 5 percent of the poll in ‘96, it will receive minor party funding for the year 2000 election. So some candidate will come forward and get at least $30 million to run for the presidency. We'll see it for one more election. But I think it can only survive if he cuts the umbilical cord to it. That may be his final footnote to history is this budding third party.
DAVID GERGEN: Gerald, thank you very much.
GERALD POSNER: Thank you, David, appreciate it.