I had casually collected bits and pieces of information on the newest Citizen Politician, H. Ross Perot, since he made his first splash on "Larry King Live," February 20. I'd also received a call in early March from people associated with Perot, asking if I were interested in his incipient grass roots presidential candidacy. I said I'd keep an eye on it, but was not taking it seriously, especially inasmuch as my focus was still on Jerry Brown's "outsider" effort. In mid-March, a friend in the White House roused my interest in Perot by saying he thought the populist billionaire was a genuine force in the presidential campaign and he was worried his colleagues and the President were not taking him seriously enough. My interest waned when I read Paul Gigot's usually astute "Potomac Watch" column on Perot in the March 27 Wall Street Journal, "Perot Knows $$, Not Politics." Gigot had sized up Perot as a pint-sized Lee Iacocca, a national industrial planner with Rockefeller Republican flabbiness on social policy. Reports that his switchboards in Dallas were being swamped with thousands of calls per hour were simply not credible, and I tended to dismiss Perot as a dilettante with an inflated ego and wallet. An April 11 front page Washington Post article, "Perot Sampler Short on Policy Details," seemed to confirm this opinion, depicting Perot flailing against the national debt and working "industry-by-industry" to improve national productivity. A national industrial meddler?
On the other hand, he piqued my interest three weeks ago when I watched him dodge policy questions on the David Brinkley show. He insisted he would propose to "engineer" solutions to national problems by applying the kind of business methodology that made him a billionaire three times over. It clearly sounded naive and amateurish to others who saw it, but I came away vaguely impressed that he did not have the kind of snap-on, pre-cooked solutions that the other contenders had assembled. This fact took on deeper importance when I read in The New York Times that his method of determining an optimum national health insurance plan would involve working out the details with the direct participation of ordinary people via his "electronic town halls." Could it be that Perot is a genuine democrat, one who believes the wisest policies will be the most popular and vice versa?
Only in the last week have I begun to see the angle by which Perot could be elected President. For one thing, on economic policy, he is beginning to come across less like Iacocca or Felix Rohatyn and more like Ted Forstmann or Jack Kemp. The Times noted he favored a capital gains tax cut, albeit of the targeted variety advanced by Paul Tsongas, but a growth agenda had clearly crept into his still rather vague presentations. Reporters have been confirming that his Dallas offices really are stacking up tons of calls and that he is not masterminding the citizen drive to get him on all 50 state ballots. This is the ultimate in "open conventions," with the electorate drafting Perot under open skies, seeing in him the citizen political evangelist whose heart is in the right place and who has a knack for getting things done.
Having decided I had been hasty in dismissing him, I determined to make a greater effort to understand the man. I called J. Fred Bucy, the retired president of Texas Instruments, who had read my book in 1978 and promptly telephoned to sign TI up as one of the very first clients of Polyconomics. Bucy has been Perot's next-door neighbor in Dallas for about 20 years (Lee Trevino, as I recall, is also in the neighborhood). He's had his ups and downs with Perot in the Dallas business community, Bucy says, but spoke admiringly of him as having the right stuff, enough at least to have a "Perot For President" sticker on his car. He actively encouraged me in that direction. Another business friend called to tell me Perot, whom he had never met, called him a week ago to talk economic policy and that after two telephone discussions he had decided that he also had been hasty in judging the man. He was quite excited.
So I decided to tune into Perot's second appearance on the Larry King show, last Thursday, April 16. For an hour I sat with a notebook in my lap to record negative impressions of opinion or fact. It was to my mind an astonishing hour. The only negative I noted was one of fact, which could be corrected easily, and at the conclusion of the interview I realized that if Perot would remain on the track he is now traveling, he could win a three-way race with the two Party candidates, President Bush and Governor Clinton. Compared to these alternatives, Perot might in fact be the best man for the job. A man who has, from a standing start, amassed almost three billion dollars through his entrepreneurial skills, may be the ultimate Citizen Politician, drafted by his fellow citizens to be president because the Ruling Class was not supplying acceptable leadership. This, of course, is how Howard Jarvis managed to collect a million signatures for California Proposition 13 in 1978, which the Ruling Class fought tooth and nail. And it is how an aging ex-movie actor named Ronald Reagan showed up with sixguns blazing against the Beltway bad guys to become the most successful American President of our time. Perot is definitely on this political axis.
There were several salients in the interview. One involved a discussion of the flat tax. A week earlier, on the Evans & Novak Show, Perot had been decidedly negative, and when Larry King asked him about it, I expected the conventional wisdom that it is regressive and hurts the poor. Instead, he said he had not studied the idea sufficiently, but that clearly the nation's tax system required fundamental reform. He said we should start with a fresh sheet of paper, on which we could write the perfect tax system. It would have to be fair, he said. It would have to raise the requisite revenues. And it would have to do so by expanding the tax base through economic growth.
Where he had been talking about reducing the national debt and federal deficit through economy measures, eliminating "waste, fraud and abuse," Perot now has decided that economic growth does double duty in that regard: A new job that is created produces a new taxpayer and eliminates a welfare recipient, he told Larry King. It's elementary supply-side doctrine, but it makes a new man of H. Ross Perot.
Another important salient turned on a discussion of Perot's electronic town meeting and the national health care issue. Perot was clearly suggesting that the people would know which plan would be best for them if they could only have the alternatives explained and then make their feelings known. King interjected, "Of course, you're not talking about a referendum." At which, Perot's face showed fleeting puzzlement, as if he didn't know about that either. Minutes later in the show, though, King asked Perot what he would do about the congressional pay raise. Perot answered that he really couldn't do anything about the last raise, but that he favored putting all future questions of congressional or presidential pay to a vote of the national electorate! The man clearly supports the idea of a national initiative and referendum. With national polls showing that only 1% of the electorate respects the work of Congress, Perot has an opportunity to go beyond the rhetoric of change and urge the idea that the people themselves become the Congress when this republican form of government fails them, as it has in this generation.
Indeed, Perot is already being attacked for holding these democratic views, which are anathema to the Establishment. I recall a conversation I had a dozen years ago with Barber Conable, then ranking Republican of the House Ways & Means Committee, later president of the World Bank, a protege of the Rockefellers, and an Establishment figure if there ever was one. While departing a Washington restaurant, where I'd just had dinner with him and several others, I mentioned that a tax issue we were debating could be easily settled if we had a national initiative and referendum. He looked absolutely horrified and said, as I recall: "Why would you need me? The next thing, you'll be one of those people who want people to be hooked up to their TV sets, so they can pass laws from their living rooms!" Exactly! H. Ross Perot seems to be one of those people. We don't know enough about him yet to reckon how far his message might travel this year and beyond. But we are now taking him seriously and will keep you informed as we learn more.