H. Ross Perot, the Dallas billionaire who offered his business background and homespun wisdom to U.S. voters as a third-party candidate for president in 1992 and 1996, has died. He was 89.
He died Tuesday at his home in Dallas, according to a statement from the family.
Whether on education reform or U.S. foreign policy, a company’s balance sheet or the federal budget, Perot had no shortage of prescriptions over the years, delivered with certainty, simplicity and his Texarkana twang.
“If someone as blessed as I am is not willing to clean out the barn, who will?” he said during his 1992 campaign.
Before taking American politics by storm, Perot did the same to American business. He sold the first firm he founded, Electronic Data Systems Corp., to General Motors Corp. for $2.6 billion, and the second, Perot Systems Corp., to Dell Inc. for $3.9 billion. He amassed a net worth of $4.4 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
Perot began calling out U.S. leaders on the federal budget deficit in 1988, describing the problem as a “crazy aunt that we keep in the basement” that someday would break out and cause havoc. He stepped up his critiques in 1991, as an economic recession and rising unemployment rate were puncturing the approval ratings of the Republican president, George H.W. Bush.
By the end of that year, an anti-incumbent movement in Florida had spun off an effort to draft Perot for president. His on-again, off-again campaign would provide one of the great spectacles in modern politics.
It began with a Feb. 20, 1992, appearance on CNN’s “Larry King Live.” Asked whether he would run for president, he answered with a flat “no.” By the end of the hour, he had boasted about his strengths (“creating jobs and fixing things”), bemoaned the nation’s mind-set (“See, we understand sports in this country, don’t understand business”) and finally suggested he might run, if “you, the people, are that serious” and “register me in 50 states.”
Over the next three months, as Bill Clinton, the former Arkansas governor, emerged as the Democratic challenger to Bush, Perot helped his supporters compile the signatures needed to get him on state ballots. He dominated the political discussion and soared in polls, even as he was criticized for offering few details on what he would do as president, beyond holding electronic town halls and attacking the budget deficit.
In July, he stunned his backers by saying he wouldn’t run after all. “I have concluded that we cannot win in November,” he said, citing, among other considerations, “the revitalization of the Democratic Party.”
Perot reversed himself again, announcing on Oct. 1 — 33 days before the election — that he was back in. He shared the stage with Bush and Clinton in three televised debates that month, offering a memorable turn of phrase when he predicted that the North American Free Trade Agreement would create a “giant sucking sound” as it pulled U.S. jobs south to Mexico.
In an interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes” that aired nine days before the election, Perot said the real reason he had dropped out in July was that he had learned of a plan by Republican leaders, whom he wouldn’t name, “to have a computer-created false photo of my daughter, Carolyn, that they were going to give the press shortly before her wedding to embarrass her.” He offered no proof.
On Election Day, Perot and his running mate, James Stockdale, a former U.S. Navy vice admiral, received 19.7 million votes, or 18.9% of the popular vote. Though not good enough to win any state’s electoral votes, their total was more than any other third-party presidential candidate since Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive “Bull Moose” ticket took more than 27% in 1912.
An exit poll by a group of news organizations found little evidence that Perot’s presence had influenced the result. The poll, focusing on second choices of Perot voters, found that only Ohio might have shifted from Clinton to Bush had Perot not been in the race, and Ohio alone wouldn’t have been enough to give Bush a victory.
Bush didn’t agree. “I think he cost me the election, and I don’t like him,” he said in “41,” a documentary that HBO aired in 2012. Bush died in November 2018, at 94.
Perot remained active politically, criticizing the Nafta accord in a November 1993 debate with Vice President Al Gore on “Larry King Live.” Congress adopted Nafta soon after.
Perot ran again in 1996, this time as the nominee of the Reform Party, which he had founded the previous year. He received 8.1 million votes, or 8.4 percent, as Clinton defeated Republican Bob Dole to win a second term.