We all know, don't we, that President Clinton has a bad character. We've read the charges, assertions, allegations and innuendo for so many months and years on The Wall Street Journal editorial page that those of us who allow the Journal to do our thinking for us are sure the paper must be right. In 1974, those of us who allowed the Washington Post and New York Times to do our thinking for us were persuaded that President Nixon was a man of low character, guilty of an obstruction of justice. At the time, the Journal asked me to take on the unwanted role of Nixon's advocate on the editorial page, and I did so with conviction, having studied the evidence and concluded the gun was not smoking. More recently, I became interested in the everyone knows he is guilty attitude about a man I'd never met named Michael Milken. I did so when I saw The Wall Street Journal's news editors adopt a prosecutorial approach to him on the paper's front page. In that case, as in Nixon's, the Journal editorial page had an associate editor, Gordon Crovitz, defending Milken against the charges raised in the news pages. To this day I am convinced Milken was unjustly railroaded into prison. The federal government invested so many resources in getting him, with the Journal's help, it finally broke his will to resist.
Ross Perot is a horse of a different color. We have been assured he is a man of the highest moral rectitude. No funny land deals. No naked ladies. No parking tickets. When he ran in '92, investigative reporters from all the papers could not find a blot on his escutcheon. On the other hand we know he is at least eccentric and maybe a genuine nut, that he is a certified paranoid and that he has never met a conspiracy he did not like. In other words, he has demonstrated to most thinking people who are in the know that he is incapable of being President of the United States, just a troublemaker. Is all of this true? It is hard to find a serious defense of the man because the three Establishment newspapers who do the thinking for people in the know are committed to the Establishment political parties. Neither the Journal, the Times, or the Post has assigned anyone to Perot's defense. As a result, the Perot stereotype marches on unimpeded. I can't say I will vote for him on November 5 — a decision I will make on November 4, after I see what the other fellows have to say to that point. In Perot's defense, though, I can say that nothing I have seen in the four years I have studied him which tells me he is incapable of being a good President. What are the bad things we think we know about him?
1. He dropped out of the 1992 campaign for what seemed to be a phony reason and two months later came back in. The only public reason he gave was to spare his daughter, who was about to be married, from dirty political tricks. The detail Perot never gave at the time was that he received fake photos of his daughter and threats to reveal that she was a lesbian. The new biography of Perot by Gerald Posner, Citizen Perot, reports that the late John Connally, the former Texas Governor and Nixon Treasury Secretary, had told Nixon he had learned that dirty tricks were being planned against Perot, including the spreading of false rumors against his daughter.
2. Even so, for a man who would be President, the reason given seemed insufficient, given the enormous investment that millions of volunteers had placed in his candidacy. Perot was also completely discouraged by the hapless campaign constructed for him by Ed Rollins, who had been Reagan's campaign manager in 1984 and Jack Kemp's in 1988. This was indirectly my doing, in having recommended Rep. Vin Weber [R-MN] to Perot as campaign manager. Perot sent his two top aides to Washington to meet Weber, who had recently announced that he would not seek re-election to the House. Weber declined, but suggested Rollins, whom they met and hired before I could warn them he was incompetent, a blabbermouth and a spendthrift. Rollins immediately insulted Jesse Jackson on national television. Perot's campaign was in a free fall as his daughter's wedding approached. His withdrawal enabled him to send the Rollins team home, terminating their run-of-the-play contracts. Yet he continued to finance the volunteer campaign, as the Posner biography makes clear. When he re-entered, he was in single-digits in the polls, but free of Rollins & Co.
3. How could he be trusted with the Presidency when he would name a thoroughly incompetent political figure like Admiral James Stockdale as his running mate? Stockdale, a California resident, never was intended to be Perot's running mate. California regulations required that Perot put someone down on his candidacy forms. Stockdale was a stand-in. When Perot returned to the race, it was already too late to replace Stockdale unless Perot would have been willing to be stricken from the California ballot. He also knew he did not have a realistic chance of winning, but would follow through because his volunteers had never given up on him. His 19% vote was miraculous, given what he had been through.
4. Perot is a protectionist, who opposed NAFTA, putting him in a policy fringe that would make him a danger to the international economy as President. Operating at the highest levels of the Fortune 500, Perot saw the captains of major U.S. industry being drawn to NAFTA as a way of tapping the low wages of Mexico and thereby keeping the U.S. labor unions weak. In a lengthy conversation I had with him in his Dallas office in the spring of '92,1 was satisfied he would not oppose lower tariffs with Mexico after the U.S. had repaired its domestic economy with a restructuring of the tax system. In the end, Perot turned out to be right, as our Establishment banks helped engineer the Mexico peso devaluation, which the Mexican government said at the time was necessary to drive their wage rates even lower.
5. Perot is driven by a messianic ego that has no place in the Oval Office. Perot has the healthy ego of a man who made $3 billion from a standing start and who has correctly identified most of the politicians he has known as mental midgets. If he did not have this healthy ego, he would not be attempting to reorganize the national government. His paranoia in 1992 was the result of his political inexperience and the raw fact that both Establishment parties were treating him as their enemy.
What are the deficiencies in the man that stand as a barrier between him and the Oval Office? The fact remains that helias not yet figured out how to overcome the consensus view that crystallized in 1992. My defense of him here should not be necessary, four years later. He trusts few people with his confidences, which is not unusual in a political leader or a chief executive officer. His two closest advisors are his son-in-law, Clay Mulford, and the chief engineer of the Reform Party, Russ Verney. If he is to overcome the skepticism of the electorate, he would have to choose a running mate who would better define him, which would lead to the endorsement of other serious people in our ruling class. Felix Rohatyn called me the other day and said that while he is 100% behind President Clinton's re-election, he has known Perot for 25 years, had been on his board of directors, and considers him a fine and wonderful man. The argument that he did not get along with the General Motors management when he was on its board impresses rather than discourages me. The speech he gives in Long Beach on Saturday, at the Reform Party convention, is critical to his definition. For the last year he has held his tongue on policy specifics. He will now have to show his thinking at a time when the national debate turns on the question of how fast we can grow without inflation. As much as we think we know all we need to know about him, based on what we have read in the papers, we should give him a hard listen. Whatever else we may say about Perot, he has devoted four years of his life full time to building the Reform Party. We still may need it.