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National Columnists

Another view: H. Ross Perot had lasting impact on America

H. Ross Perot was not a large man: barely 5 feet, 6 inches tall, and maybe 150 pounds. But he was a giant.

Perot died Tuesday in Dallas at age 89. A family spokesman said the cause was leukemia.

He led an amazing life serving his country, amassing a fortune on his own and ultimately launching a third-party run for president in 1992 that wound up garnering 19% of the popular vote. It was the most successful third-party run since Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party splintered off from President William Howard Taft’s Republican Party in 1912, throwing the election to Democrat Woodrow Wilson.

Perot may have had a similar effect in 1992, and the reverberations still are being felt today.

By any independent accounting, Perot was quintessentially American, and unabashedly Texan. Born Henry Ray Perot in Texarkana in 1930, Perot was a born fireball – he began earning money at age 7, and by the time he was 12, he was delivering his local newspaper, the Texarkana Gazette, on horseback, establishing a hugely successful route. It was a set piece in Perot’s life. He wasn’t the brightest student, but refused to be outworked. After two years at a junior college, Perot earned an appointment to the Naval Academy. He became class president, graduating in 1953.

His four-year stint in the Navy was too late for Korea and too soon for Vietnam. In 1957, he joined civilian life and began a Midas-like career. He started at IBM in Dallas, at one point selling his annual quota in three weeks. The slowness of corporate life rankled him, so he quit, founding his own company – Electronic Data Systems – that became a mammoth force in the burgeoning computer industry. He made a fortune when EDS went public in 1968, becoming one of America’s wealthiest men.

He was a titan in business but had bigger ideas. He became not only a philanthropist, but an evangelist for causes he believed in, and one of those was care for veterans. In 1969, alarmed by reports of mistreatment of American prisoners of war in Vietnam, he chartered two jets and filled them with food, medicine and supplies. The North Vietnamese turned him away, but he raised awareness. Even bolder was his rescue effort in 1979 in Iran, where he authorized a commando raid that freed two EDS employees from an Iranian prison and served as the basis for Ken Follett’s bestseller, “On Wings of Eagles.”

And the money kept coming. GM bought EDS for $2.6 billion in 1984, then paid Perot $750 million to go away two years later. So he started a new company, Perot Systems, in 1988. Dell bought that in 2009 for $3.9 billion.

But it was Perot’s foray into politics that has had lasting effect. Perot hated inefficiency, and saw it everywhere in Washington, D.C.

George H.W. Bush was poised to get another four years against the Democrats, who settled on a governor from a small southern state – Bill Clinton.

Enter Perot. Bush was flailing, and while Clinton was a new voice, he wasn’t exactly a fresh one. Perot dazzled a disaffected electorate with his straight talk, his impeccable background and his penchant for success.

His populist manner in many ways was the precursor to Donald Trump, another political newcomer with a history of getting things done and saying exactly what was on his mind. Perot took 20 million votes in 1992, although he didn’t win a single state. Bush gained 38%, and Clinton became president.

A 1996 run was substantially less successful, and Perot more or less gave up his political aspirations. But his impact remains.

Boston Herald

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