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Analysis: What's missing from the Ross Perot obituaries

Remembering Ross Perot
Remembering Ross Perot 01:49

The people.

That's what's missing.

Ross Perot died Tuesday of leukemia at age 89. Obituaries noted many extraordinary details about his life – that he was a self-made billionaire, champion of Vietnam veterans and POWs, education reformer, philanthropist, early computer/data visionary, buzz-cut bureaucracy hater, homespun Texan and twice-failed presidential candidate. 

You might have seen TV clips this week of Perot from that 1992 effort, participating in the three presidential debates – on stage with GOP incumbent George H.W. Bush and Democratic nominee Bill Clinton.

I covered Perot's first bid for the presidency in 1992. It was the first presidential campaign I covered. And what I saw was this: Perot unleashed one of the most impressive grassroots movements in modern American politics. He didn't win the presidency, but that's really beside the point. And whether he took a higher percentage of votes from Clinton or Bush is, in the grand scheme of things, similarly irrelevant.

What does matter is that Perot, against odds almost unfathomable now, qualified on ballots in all 50 states as an independent candidate.

It wasn't Perot who did this.

Volunteers did. They did so without a party and without a declared candidate.

And for some period of time their efforts continued without a declared vice presidential candidate, gathering signatures until Perot named retired Vice Admiral James Stockdale, as a stand-in running mate because laws in 25 states required it.

These volunteers, using their own ingenuity, grit and sweat equity, mirrored the intangible traits they believed Perot brought to his own made-in-America success story.

Readers of a certain age may not be aware of the technology available for grassroots organizing in 1992. It consisted of land-line telephones, fax machines, paper, pens and pencils.

That's it.

There was no internet. No cell phones. No cloud computing. No Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or crowd-funding. In January 1993, when Clinton was inaugurated, there were 50 web servers in the entire world. 

In those days, you organized by telephones, meaning telephones connected by wire to a wall outlet. Most Perot volunteers (I spoke to hundreds across the country back then) used phones in kitchens they converted into makeshift political offices. Most volunteers did not own fax machines, so they kept handwritten notes and later typed them up and later made copies where they could. 

Across the country, in every state, Perot volunteers researched ballot access laws, organized teams to collect and verify signatures and did so with only the flimsiest of guidance from Perot's business headquarters in Dallas.

Why did they do this? Because Perot would not run if they didn't.            

Perot described himself as a reluctant political player, one who would only run if volunteers put him on the ballot. He put the challenge before the country Feb. 20, 1992 on CNN's "Larry King Live." 

 "I don't want to," Perot said about running for president. "I've got all these everyday folks who make the world go round, writing me in longhand. Now that touches me. I don't want to fail them. So, I would simply say to them, if you feel so strongly about this -- number 1 -- I will not run as either a Democrat or a Republican because I will not sell out to anybody but the American people. I will sell out to them. 

"No. 2 -- if you're that serious, you, the people, are that serious, you register me in 50 states. And if you're not willing to organize and do that, then this is all just talk. I don't want any machine. If you're dead serious, I want to see some sweat. Why do I want to see some sweat? I want you in the ring. This is my way of saying 'Will you get in the ring? Will you put the gloves on?'"

People did. The ballot registration process took off organically and spread like nothing before seen in modern American politics. Perot was the first billionaire businessman to describe Washington as cesspool of dithering careerists who spent tax dollars foolishly and cut ruinous trade deals at the expense of blue collar workers, a theme that may sound familiar.

Perot set up a 1-800 number (inventive for its time) and a massive phone bank in Dallas on March 12. Within 10 days more than one million calls came in. After an appearance March 25 on the then-highly watched "Phil Donahue" syndicated talk show, the phone bank received 18,000 simultaneous calls.  The volunteers were driving the conversation, which led to more interest, which created better polling results. 

By May, Perot led Clinton and Bush in polls in California and Texas.

In June, Clinton won the California primary and secured enough delegates to be the nominee. But he was peppered with questions about why he was running third to Perot. Afterward, he fumed. "We were sitting in a hotel room in Santa Monica," top campaign adviser Paul Begala remembered. "And Bill was he was so mad. He was pounding this glass table. He pounded it so hard the Secret Service came in to check on us. Then he pounded his leg so hard he bruised himself."

On June 11, a New York Times national poll showed Perot leading with 39 percent to Bush's 31 percent and Clinton's 25 percent. 

Perot ran a chaotic campaign and bristled under the advice of political pros brought in to create an advertising strategy and to beef up the policy shop. Even so, his volunteers plugged away and by mid-July had qualified Perot on 24 state ballots – just in time for Perot to quit the race. His July 16 departure, announced just as the Democratic National Convention was ending, fueled Clinton's revival. "We gained 20 points and the biggest convention bounce ever," Begala said. In some polls, Clinton's bounce was 30 points.

Nearly everyone in Clinton's campaign was elated with Perot's departure. Now Clinton was the "change" agent and the favorite to win. Clinton was, according to Begala, jumping up and down with glee. Only Hillary Clinton was skeptical. "You don't get it," Begala remembers Hillary telling the assembled Clinton team. "It's just a dodge. He's going to go and hide. Then he's going to re-enter the race." Hillary's words cut through the room, leaving the Clinton inner circle somewhat subdued but mostly skeptical. "Nobody believed her," Begala said.

Even with Perot out of the race, his volunteers kept chugging along, hoping he would change his mind and re-enter the race. As Hillary Clinton predicted, Perot came back on Oct. 1. He was no longer the front-runner. He had become more of a fascinating variable. By then his volunteer army has secured put his name on ballots in all 50 states and with credible polling numbers, he qualified for the debates. 

He appeared at the first presidential debate 10 days later, the first debate ever to feature three presidential candidates. At first, unsure of how to handle Perot, Clinton's debate team ultimately settled on a deflect-and-aim strategy. "We decided to keep the focus on Bush," Begala recalled. The advice to Clinton: "When Perot hits you, you hit Bush." It worked. Clinton won.

Despite the 1992 outcome, appraisals of Perot are missing those volunteers of his. They put him everywhere. On the ballots. On the debate stage. At the center of rallies. They made him relevant to a policy conversation about taxes, trade and entitlements.  

They organized themselves. No one was paid. They had no leader. They had no minder. They had no playbook. They just had a nebulous cause – to shake up the system – and an imperfect, flinty, eccentric at the helm.

From the movement, from that activism, you can detect threads now visible in the era of Trump.

"There is 100 percent connectivity between people who wanted to support an outsider like Perot and then wanting to vote for Trump," said Dave Bossie, Mr. Trump's 2016 deputy campaign manager. "They were wanting a businessman, a successful businessman, and an outsider. And they hungered for that for 20 to 30 years after Perot. Perot's support was anti-establishment, very unconventional and grassroots. So was ours. 

He added, "Ours was a bigger movement. It had more intensity. But people who were younger when Perot ran and voted for him and still had that thirst for breaking up the system I know voted for Trump. I don't know how many, but I know they were there. And I also know many did not vote after Perot until Trump came along."

You can't draw a straight line from Perot to Trump. There are very few straight lines in presidential politics. But the tenacity behind Perot's volunteer movement was, for its era, rare and under-appreciated. It lingers in some aspect of our politics today.

And that's what was missing from most Perot obituaries.

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