H. Ross Perot, a self-made billionaire and two-time independent presidential candidate, has died. He was 89, and the cause of death, according to a family spokesman, was leukemia.
Perot would have led an eventful life had he never even run for president. His was a rags-to-riches story that began with growing up poor during the Great Depression to in 1984 selling control of the company he founded to General Motors for $2.5 billion.
“As a boy in Texarkana, Texas, Perot delivered newspapers from the back of a pony. He earned his billions in a more modern way, however,” The Associated Press recounted. “After attending the U.S. Naval Academy and becoming a salesman for IBM, he went his own way — creating and building Electronic Data Systems Corp., which helped other companies manage their computer networks.”
What really made Perot’s reputation, however, occurred in 1979. When two EDS employees were taken hostage during the Iranian revolution, Perot financed the private commando raid that rescued them. That operation became a book, “On Wings of Eagles” by Ken Follett, and a 1986 TV miniseries starring Richard Crenna as Perot.
All of that, plus Perot’s championing of the cause of missing in action Vietnam veterans, contributed to his becoming something of a folk hero. By the late 1980s, there was talk he might run for president, and in 1992 he finally did, launching his campaign on CNN’s “Larry King Live” and setting an example for a free-media-driven campaign that subsequent candidates could follow.
The similarities between Perot’s quixotic political career and that of Donald Trump are unavoidable. Both are billionaires who styled themselves as populists. Both flirted with running for the presidency for years before finally jumping in. Both ran unorthodox campaigns with varying degrees of success. Trump eked out an Electoral College victory by running the table, winning narrowly every swing state he needed to deprive Hillary Clinton the presidency she thought was hers for the taking. Perot won 19% of the popular vote in 1992 for the best showing by a third-party or independent candidate since Theodore Roosevelt headed the Bull Moose Party in 1912. In so doing, he arguably helped deliver the presidency to Bill Clinton.
Both Perot and Trump ran with trade as their main issue.
With his charts and graphs and dire predictions of a “giant sucking sound,” Perot waged war against the North American Free Trade Agreement. Trump called NAFTA the worst deal the U.S. had ever made and pledged to get the U.S. out of it, which he did, replacing it with the virtually identical United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA.
And both Perot and Trump had ties to the conspiracy theorizing populist fringe. For Trump, the path went through political fixer Roger Stone to Alex Jones. For Perot, the path went though his 1996 running mate Pat Choate and 1990s “patriot radio.”
Perot’s dire predictions about NAFTA didn’t pan out.
“The sucking sound that Ross Perot predicted did not occur; many jobs were created in Canada and Mexico, and (the resulting) economic activity created a somewhat seamless supply chain — a North American supply chain that allowed North American auto companies to be more profitable and more competitive,” according to Morris Cohen, professor of operations and information management at Trump’s alma mater, Wharton.
Nevertheless, Perot’s effort successfully made NAFTA a convenient scapegoat for every economic dislocation of the past 20 years, whether it was even trade related or not, and created a fertile field for Trump to sow his campaign.
The one difference between Perot and Trump is Perot never focused on immigration.
Arguably, Trump would have been impossible had Perot not come first, and that will be Perot’s most lasting legacy.