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Jim Lehrer remembers ‘authentic’ underdog Ross Perot

In the 1992 U.S. presidential election, Texas billionaire Ross Perot earned 19 percent of the popular vote, making him the most successful third-party candidate since Teddy Roosevelt in 1912. Perot died Tuesday at age 89 from leukemia. To remember him, Judy Woodruff talks to NewsHour co-founder Jim Lehrer about Perot's authenticity, passion for ideas and desire to use his own resources for good.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, the legacy of two-time presidential candidate Ross Perot, who passed away of leukemia today at his home in Dallas.

    We begin with a look back at the anti-establishment, self-made Texas billionaire.

  • Ross Perot:

    We want to close on our theme song. Let's hit it, Ed.

  • Man:

    We're crazy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    An early disrupter, Ross Perot was a tech entrepreneur, turned self-made billionaire, turned the most successful third-party candidate in modern American political history.

    Born into in Depression era Texas, Perot went on to serve in the Navy before getting a job as a salesman with IBM. The scrappy businessman eventually sold his first company, Electronic Data Systems, to General Motors for $2.5 billion.

  • Ross Perot:

    We have got to rebuild our great country. We have got to make our country the envy of the world again. And I can't sleep until the words "Made in the USA" once again become the world standard.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But Perot is best known for his insurgent third-party candidacy in the 1992 presidential election against President George H.W. Bush and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton.

  • Ross Perot:

    I wasn't put on the ballot by either of the two parties. This is a movement that came from the people.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Mixing brashness with charm, the political outsider pitched himself as a fighter for everyday Americans.

  • Ross Perot:

    The party is over, and it's time for the cleanup crew.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And he lambasted lawmakers in Washington as out of touch, paramount being President Bush.

  • George H.W. Bush:

    I think it's experience at this level.

  • Ross Perot:

    Well, they have got a point. I don't have any experience in running up a $4 trillion debt.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Perot kept up his attacks, most of them squarely on Mr. Bush, in the '92 presidential debates, moderated by the "NewsHour"'s Jim Lehrer.

  • George H.W. Bush:

    Free and fair trade is the answer, not protection.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    While President Bush pushed free trade deals like NAFTA, Perot pushed back.

  • Ross Perot:

    We have got to stop sending jobs overseas. There will be a giant sucking sound going south. So, we — if the people send me to Washington, the first thing I will do is study that 2,000-page agreement and make sure it's a two-way street.

    Since we're dealing with voodoo economics, a great young lady from Louisiana sent me this voodoo stick.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Perot's non-traditional campaign included 30-minute TV infomercials on issues like the national deficit, complete with homemade charts.

    The programs drew more than 16 million viewers.

  • Ross Perot:

    Just this year, we ran up $341 billion in new debt, as we discussed the other night. That's our legislators and our president trying to buy our vote this year with what used to be our money. We're not that dumb.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In the end, 19.7 million Americans voted for Perot in the 1992 election.

    Republicans forever blamed him for Clinton's win, claiming he siphoned votes from Bush. But later analysis undercut that.

    Perot went on to run in the 1996 presidential election, before dropping out. A philanthropist in his later years, Perot is survived by his wife, Margot, five children, and 16 grandchildren.

    Ross Perot was the best-performing third-party presidential candidate since Teddy Roosevelt in 1912.

    Some perspective now on his life and legacy from a man who knew Perot for decades, moderated two of his presidential debates, and is a very familiar face to our viewers.

    I am so pleased to welcome back "NewsHour" co-founder Jim Lehrer.

    Welcome back to this program that you know very well.

  • Jim Lehrer:

    Thank you, Judy. Thank you. Oh, thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, I knew Ross Perot after he became famous and he was running for president, successful businessman, but you knew him long before that. How did you get to know him?

  • Jim Lehrer:

    Well, I met him in Dallas.

    He was a computer guy who had had an idea about the way to computerize federal medical systems. And he created this incredible company. And he made millions and millions of dollars.

    He — because he had been a Naval officer and I had been a Marine officer at the same time, there was some overlap. Most of the people who went to work for him were former Marine officers and Navy officers.

    So, anyhow, I met him that way. And then somebody said, you ought to get to know Ross Perot. You're going to hear about him a lot in the future.

    So, I made an appointment, went over to see him, and he and I hit it off. And we became — there was already a bond there, that military thing that is always there.

    But, at any rate, I stayed with him, until I left to come to Washington. He had already shown that, when he had millions and millions of dollars, he want to use it to help other people. He had already shown that he was a guy who wasn't taken with himself. He was taken with his ideas, but he wasn't the standard kind of showboat Texas millionaire kind of guy.

    He was a guy who had millions of dollars, and he wanted to use it for good things.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What was he like as a person?

  • Jim Lehrer:

    Well, he was funny, he was straight, he was authentic.

    The Ross Perot that you sit around a table and talk to was the same guy who was in a debate stage many years later as a candidate for president of the United States.

    He always, always felt — he always seemed to feel comfortable with himself. He never — he wasn't an ideologue. He didn't wake up every morning and say, well, I'm a conservative, so I got to believe — oh, I'm a liberal. No.

    But he had — he decided every day, I'm Ross Perot, and here is what I believe.

    And it was the foundation and the motivation for everything he did in public life, politics and other things as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Were you surprised when he said he was going to run for president, and he brought this idea about, we got to get government spending down, we got to tackle this deficit?

  • Jim Lehrer:

    You know, I thought — I thought about that today, and that very question.

    I thought, what was it, because I remember now — and I hope I'm not basing this on what I hoped my feelings were then. I thought — I thought, that makes sense for this guy. In other words, my feelings about him were all positive.

    We were friends, not personal friends, professional friends. And I felt I admired him, because I liked what he had done. He had supported the military during the Vietnam War, not — he wasn't in favor of the war, necessarily. He didn't have a political position on it.

    But he supported the people who fought in the war. And he spent a lot of his money taking care of POW families and all that sort of stuff. But when he announced for president, I thought, oh, yes, yes, yes, Ross Perot running for president.

    And then, of course, he — we did a lot of interviews with him on the "NewsHour." And I saw him a lot during all that stuff. And he just confirmed — maybe a little bit proud to have known him, and, hey, hey, yes, yes, yes. And I kept telling people, pay attention to this guy. He's not going to come — he's not going to just come and go.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And he did better as an independent candidate. Everybody knows how hard it is to run for president as an independent. He ended up getting, as we said, over, what is it, 19-some million votes for president.

    But, Jim, you did moderate those two debates in 1992 with him, with then President George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton.

    Tell us some memories of that.

  • Jim Lehrer:

    Well, the biggest memory was — the major debate I did was at Michigan State University. And it was a 90-minute debate.

    But the debate commission had — had negotiated with the candidates that the first 45 minutes, for the first time, would be a single moderator. And it would be wide-open in terms of rules and all of that.

    And so this was a big deal. So, once the debate started — and then, in the second 45, they were going to bring in three panelists, and we would do the old-fashioned way, which is the way these debates used to be.

    But, at any rate, things started, and I got — just the way — it wasn't me. I mean, I asked the questions, but George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton got into it about Clinton's record in Arkansas. They went back and forth.

    And Perot over here on the right didn't get to say anything. And he kept looking at me. He was — I knew he was going to say something, and it was going — this whole debate could go right up into smoke.

    At any rate, I essentially — he finally said:

  • Ross Perot:

    Is there an equal time rule here tonight?

  • George H.W. Bush:

    Yes.

  • Ross Perot:

    Or do you just keep lunging in at will? I thought we were going to have equal time. But maybe I just have to interrupt the other two. Is that the way it works, this…

  • Jim Lehrer:

    No, Mr. Perot, you're doing fine.

  • Ross Perot:

    OK.

  • Jim Lehrer:

    Go ahead.

  • Ross Perot:

    OK.

  • Jim Lehrer:

    Whatever you want to say, say it.

    He looked at me, and he was ready to go. And I looked at him, and I — he heard me. And he hushed. And it — he was terrific at the debate. He would — if he would — if he had played games in that debate, it would hurt him.

    And from my point of view — and I was looking at it from my point of view as well, but also from the viewers' point of view — it could have been a disaster. And it wasn't…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    If he had…

  • Jim Lehrer:

    … because he understood — he understood what he needed to do.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What do you — you have told us so much about his life.

    What do you think his legacy is? I mean, we have talked about he — most successful independent candidate since Teddy Roosevelt.

  • Jim Lehrer:

    Well, the reason he was successful is, he had two things going for him that are — sound familiar in the current situation, but they're not quite that familiar.

    He had — he had ideas that were not driven by ideology. For instance, he was pro-choice. He was for gun control, as all — most military, real military people are who know about guns.

    And — but, at the same time, he was very conservative about the military, about budgets and all that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fiscally.

  • Jim Lehrer:

    He…

    … in welfare and all of that.

    So, as I say, he made his own — his own thing. But what he had — and he was able to explain what he believed and why he believed it.

    But he had that additional thing, was, he had resources. He made it — he spent $68 million of his own money. There was nothing about small donors. There were no donors, just Ross Perot.

    And he spent huge amounts of money. And he got them — and for these things that he did, these 30-minute infomercials he did, he did — he used the — you can have all the — you could have all the Ross Perot positives, but, without the resources, it's not going to work.

    That's the legacy of — there are two things that he had going for him. And anybody who wants to write the lessons for the future, that's it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Scrappy, that's the word we think of with him.

    Jim Lehrer, thank you very much for coming back to talk about Ross Perot.

  • Jim Lehrer:

    Thank you, Judy.

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