Ross Perot, 1930–2019
The fiercely independent billionaire who ran for president
Ross Perot spent his life beating expectations. As a salesman at IBM in the 1950s, the Texan once filled his annual sales quota in under three weeks. He quit the company when it rejected his idea to sell software, not just computers, and founded two firms that did exactly that—becoming a billionaire in the process. Perot grabbed national headlines in 1969 with a self-funded attempt to fly food and medicine to American prisoners of war in North Vietnam. Ten years later, he hired mercenaries to free two of his employees from captivity in revolutionary Iran—a raid chronicled in a best-seller and TV miniseries. But perhaps his most unexpected venture came in 1992 when the 5-foot-6 entrepreneur ran for president as an independent. He presented himself as a down-home “Mr. Fix-It” who would bring some much-needed common sense to a bloated federal government. “If you see a snake, just kill it,” he said. “Don’t appoint a committee on snakes.” He captured 19 percent of the vote—the highest showing for an independent in 80 years.
Perot was born in Texarkana, Texas, to a cotton broker father and a secretary mother, said The New York Times. His entrepreneurial skills emerged early: He sold seeds door to door at age 7, “later broke horses (and his nose) for his father at a dollar a head,” and delivered newspapers on his pony, Miss Bee. After four years in the Navy, he returned to Texas in 1957 to join IBM. Perot “clashed with his bosses,” said The Wall Street Journal, and so on his 32nd birthday he left the firm to found Electronic Data Systems Corp. “His management methods were unusual”: The company’s Dallas HQ was encircled by barbed wire and patrolled by armed guards, and employees were barred from growing beards. General Motors bought the business in 1984 for $2.5 billion, and Perot joined the auto giant’s board. But he grew frustrated—“Revitalizing GM,” he said, “is like teaching an elephant to tap-dance”—and quit after two years to start a new company, which he later sold for $3.9 billion.
After announcing his presidential candidacy in 1992, Perot deployed “his vast resources to buy large chunks of airtime to explain his political beliefs,” said The Washington Post. Using “a dizzying array of charts and graphs,” he railed against wars, lobbyists, and both major parties for ignoring the federal budget deficit—“the crazy aunt tucked away in the room upstairs nobody talks about.” By the summer he was leading the polls, but in mid-July he suddenly dropped out, blaming Republican “dirty tricks.” That fall, he re-entered the race but failed to win any state in the November election. Perot ran again in 1996, said the Los Angeles Times, warning voters that the North American Free Trade Agreement would create “a giant sucking sound” as businesses moved jobs to Mexico. He won only 8 percent of the vote and afterward largely retreated from the public eye. Yet he remained fiercely proud of his singular life. “Eagles don’t flock,” he often said. “You have to find them one at a time.” ■