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The Runner Stumbles: Perot and the Gantlet of Politics : Candidate: He was swift and tough in his world of business, but on the campaign trail, he had feet of clay.

July 24, 1992|JOHN M. BRODER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DALLAS — A faded masking-tape X on the floor of a Lansing, Mich., airport hangar marks the spot where the earth yawned and swallowed Ross Perot whole.

It was on that spot--placed there by one of the political professionals that Perot so loathed but hired to help him get elected President--that Perot held his first and last conventional Tarmac press conference.

He agreed to the July 10 appearance against all his instincts. Just a day before, his chief spokesman had promised that there would be no airport photo ops, no "dancing bears" in the Perot campaign. The banty billionaire strode up to the microphones and outstretched tape recorders and spat out non-answers to a half-dozen hostile questions. He then angrily loped off toward his waiting private jet, and before the door was even closed, told his staff: "Never again. I am not going to run that kind of campaign."

Back in Dallas that night, he assembled his brain trust--longtime adviser Morton H. Meyerson, attorney and campaign manager Tom Luce, media counselor James Squires and his two hired political guns, Edward J. Rollins and Hamilton Jordan.

Rollins told Perot his drive was stalled, and he needed to take immediate action to restart it--a big image-making advertising campaign, direct-mail appeals, a dramatic public announcement of his economic program to upstage the surging Democrats, whose convention was to begin in two days. He had to pull out all the stops, Rollins said, use all the tricks of the political trade, in a massive counterstrike against all the negative publicity and his precipitous drop in the polls.

The only alternatives, Rollins said, were a lingering death or a quick withdrawal from the race.

Perot, whose business credo had always been "Ready, fire, fire, fire," hesitated. Like so many green troops seeing combat for the first time, he couldn't pull the trigger.

Six days later, it was all over. Perot chose to quit rather than conduct a conventional political campaign with its ceaseless interest-group demands, its unending press scrutiny, the slippery advertising and the necessary lies.

"He stared American politics in the eye," said University of Texas historian Lewis L. Gould, "and he blinked."

Ross Perot is different from you and me. He has more money. But his 147-day journey into the wasteland of American politics showed him to be neither the legend we created of him nor the myth he claimed to be. We built him up so large that we forgot that he was just a man, a man with fears and doubts and flaws like the rest of us.

He took upon his fragile frame all the hopes and resentments of a troubled nation, and for five remarkable months he offered a glimpse of an alternative future free of the sloppy compromise of conventional governance. But when the burden proved too great, the press seemed to take unseemly glee in the fall of this flawed political novice.

"What a Wimp," screamed the New York Post.

"The Quitter," Newsweek proclaimed on its cover.

Like Shakespeare's Caesar, ambition was Perot's grievous fault, and grievously has he answered it.

"For a man who started out to reduce the disillusion in American politics, instead he compounded it," said Gould. "Like many businessmen, he thought it would be easy. He found out that politics is a profession and it takes a great deal of skill to go through the agony these people go through. We expect them to have the skin of a rhinoceros. He had the skin of a butterfly."

John Jay Hooker, a savvy Nashville politico and one-time Democratic candidate for governor of Tennessee, started calling Perot last November to urge him to run for President. The calls continued through December and January and into February, three, sometimes four calls a week. But the answer from the computer service magnate who got his start as an IBM salesman was always the same: Forget it, pal. You're asking me to be an astronaut, and I don't know how to be an astronaut. I don't have the temperament for this. I don't have the desire to be President.

Hooker persisted. In early February, Perot met in Nashville for four hours with Hooker, Nashville Tennessean editor emeritus John Siegenthaler and a number of other local opinion leaders.

"I was really pleading with him to run," Hooker recalled. "I told him he could be the Eisenhower of his generation. I asked him if there was any scenario under which he'd consider it, and the only way he'd agree to do it was if the people put him on the ballot in all 50 states." The meeting and Perot's condition for running were reported in the Tennessean, but it caused barely a ripple.

Hooker helped arrange Perot's Feb. 20 appearance on CNN's "Larry King Live" television call-in show and informed King that if he pushed Perot, he'd get the same answer about running that Perot gave in the Nashville meeting.

"If you really press him," Hooker told King, "he'll give down the milk."

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