To consider the life and career of Henry Ross Perot, who died on Monday at the age of 89, is to enter a world that now seems almost unimaginably quaint: a world in which an ex-Navy man who had done only a brief stint at a junior college could become, first, a top salesman at a technology company and then the founder and CEO of a data processing company, Electronic Data Systems, that was computerizing Medicare at a time when the technology's other principal use was trying to get the United States to the moon. It is still just about possible to imagine a person today enjoying something like Perot's success despite a similar lack of formal education, but instead of a straight-laced, plain-spoken winner of the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award, he or she would be some kind of messianic tech huckster.
Even stranger than the vicissitudes of Perot's biography is the attitude toward politics he embodied, one in which all the relevant issues were matters of prudential judgment, to be debated calmly and reasonably by practical men and women. This made him a political loner even in 1992, at a time when a Republican president could be expected to sign sweeping social and economic legislation like the Americans With Disabilities Act into law and even to raise taxes when it seemed necessary.
Perot was not an ideologue. His views on any given subject were almost impossible to predict. The two issues with which he is most often associated, support for a balanced budget and opposition to free trade, put him at odds with both of our major political parties. An old-fashioned, soft-spoken Southerner, he nevertheless held views on so-called "social issues" that would be to the left of the mainstream of the Republican Party, both then and now. He was a fervent supporter of the Vietnam POW/MIA movement in the late '80s and early '90s, but he was not in any sense a hawk. Never mind 2003. Perot opposed the first war in Iraq in 1990. It was his inability to persuade Republican senators to vote against military action in the Persian Gulf that led him to consider running for president two years later. To this day he remains the last third-party presidential candidate to share the stage with both the Democratic and Republican nominees during a major debate, and his 19 percent share of the popular vote in 1992 is unlikely ever to be equaled.
Perot was not a politician. He was a a technocrat and a man of action, and a competent one. Legend has it that early in his tenure as an IBM salesman in the '50s he met his yearly quota in the span of two weeks. He rebounded quickly from what was then the worst single-day loss for an individual in the history of the New York Stock Exchange when shares of EDS lost $450 million in value in 1970. Fourteen years later he would sell the company to General Motors for $2.4 billion. When two of his employees were imprisoned by the Iranian government in 1979, he arranged for their rescue himself, enlisting the help of Arthur D. "Bull" Simons, a special forces colonel who had been involved in the legendary Operation Ivory Coast during the Vietnam War. His decision to buy up late-night infomercial space in order to give himself more time to explain his views to the American people during his '92 campaign was inspired — and cost-effective. These half-hour-long ads make curious viewing now; they have a quirky period charm that is as captivating as it is difficult to describe.
Perot's death should be mourned by all Americans who regret the fact that it is no longer possible to make reasoned, non-ideological arguments about questions of public import, and by the devolution of our political life into mindless partisan squabbling.