Twenty-five years before President Donald Trump took office promising to roll back trade deals, H. Ross Perot told a national audience that the “giant sucking sound” voters heard was American jobs flowing to Mexico.
Perot, who died on July 9, at 89 after a 5-month battle with leukemia, was a billionaire businessman who sprang to fame as an independent presidential candidate in 1992, when he won 19% of the popular vote. That still stands as the best showing for a third-party candidate since Teddy Roosevelt in 1912. Perot launched his campaign on Feb. 29, 1992, when he told CNN interviewer Larry King that he’d run for president if supporters got him on the ballot in all 50 states. They did.
Perot used charts, graphs and 30-minute infomercials to expound on his two pet topics: opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement, which was about to go into effect, and the national debt, which was mushrooming even back then. “The debt is like a crazy aunt we keep down in the basement,” Perot said during the campaign. “All the neighbors know she's there, but nobody wants to talk about her.” He spent $72 million of his own money – $129 million today — financing his campaign, and his bluntness, Texas twang and folksy weirdness won him a cult following. Dana Carvey portrayed him on “Saturday Night Live.”
Perot led both major candidates—incumbent Republican President George H.W. Bush and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton—in some polls, but unexpectedly suspended his campaign in July 1992. A 1996 biography revealed that Perot believed critics were about to publish compromising photos of his daughter, which turned out to be untrue. Perot re-entered the race two months later, with Clinton ultimately winning. Some analysts claimed Perot tipped the vote in Clinton’s favor by siphoning off potential Bush voters, though Bush’s own underwhelming performance was also a factor.
Perot formed the Reform Party in 1995 and ran as its candidate in 1996, but 1992 turned out to have been his high-water mark in politics. Perot got just 8% of the popular vote in 1996, as Bill Clinton won reelection easily. Perot drifted away from the party he founded and in 2000 endorsed Republican George W. Bush rather than Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan.
A star salesman at IBM
Henry Ross Perot was born June 27, 1930, in Texarkana, Texas, where his family owned a general store and ran a cotton-trading operation. As a boy, Perot earned money by breaking horses, selling Christmas cards and garden seeds, and delivering papers. At one point, he made a deal with the local paper to deliver copies in the rough part of town—where nobody else would go—for 17.5 cents per subscription, up from the regular cut of 7.5 cents. Bosses at the paper didn’t think anybody in that part of town could read, but Perot proved them wrong and turned it into a profitable route.
With a reputation for ambition and smarts, Perot persuaded a retiring senator to sponsor his admission to the US Naval Academy. He arrived in Annapolis in 1949 with a broken nose, courtesy of a Texas horse. He was a middling student but stood out as an opinionated debater. Perot met his future wife Margot while on a blind date as a midshipman, and graduated in 1953. Once at sea, he complained that the Navy was a “fairly Godless organization” with too much drinking and carousing. But he completed his four-year commitment and left the Navy in1957, joining IBM to sell computers.
Perot promptly became a star salesman who famously met his entire annual quota one year by the third week of January. IBM sold mainframe computers at the time, and Perot urged the company to add customized software and services to its menu of offerings. Big Blue declined, and a miffed Perot decided to start his own company to do what IBM wouldn’t.
He founded Electronic Data Systems in 1962. It was rough going at first, but in 1965, EDS won contracts in 11 states to process claims for the new Medicare and Medicaid programs, which led to new business among private-sector insurers. Perot took EDS public in 1968, and within 18 months the stock price had risen tenfold, making Perot a billionaire.
EDS was at the fore of the computer revolution, and Perot sold it to General Motors in 1984 for $2.5 billion. Perot became a GM director, and the company’s largest shareholder. But Perot left in 1986—for a $700 million breakup fee—after publicly criticizing GM’s hidebound ways. “I come from an environment where, if you see a snake, you kill it,” Perot told Fortune two years later. “At GM, if you see a snake, the first thing you do is go hire a consultant on snakes. Then you get a committee on snakes, and then you discuss it for a couple of years.”
In 1988, Perot and several associates formed Perot Systems Corp., an information technology company that established a foothold in the emerging field of electronic medical records. Perot was CEO of the company until 2000, when his son, Ross Perot, Jr. replaced him. The elder Perot stayed on as chairman, fully retiring in 2004. Dell bought Perot Systems in 2009 for $3.9 billion. Bloomberg’s latest estimate of Ross Perot’s personal net worth is $4.4 billion.
In addition to his interest in trade deals and federal deficits, Perot was an advocate for military veterans who became an eccentric patron of Vietnam prisoners of war. In 1970, he tried and failed to deliver 26 tons of Christmas packages to American POWs in Hanoi. Some veterans’ advocates thought he was showboating, but others said he publicized the plight of the POWs and helped them get better treatment.
North Vietnam returned the POWs in 1973, but Perot insisted years later that American servicemen remained hostage in Southeast Asia, with the U.S. government covering it up. Many knowledgeable officials say that is untrue, and hurtful to families of service members missing in action. Nonetheless, the Department of Veterans Affairs honored Perot in 2009 for “his selfless support of veterans and the military.”
Perot oversaw a paramilitary operation of his own after Iran detained two EDS employees in 1978, as the government there was collapsing. Perot tried to get help from Washington, but couldn’t. So he hired a retired Green Beret colonel who had led raids into enemy territory in Vietnam to formulate a plan, with Perot himself traveling to Iran to oversee preparations. The gambit worked, and Perot’s team got the two men out of Iran as revolution was sweeping the country in February 1979. Ken Follett recounted the remarkable story in his nonfiction bestseller, “On Wings of Eagles.”
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman