In 2008, the mother of one of my best friends died. I flew to Dallas, Texas, to attend the funeral, and found my way to the chapel at the funeral home. After I sat down, an older gentleman and a middle-aged woman sat behind me. Soon after that, a woman came out to sing a hymn. When she finished, the man behind me said, “That was real nice. She’s got a real nice voice. But the music was too loud! I couldn’t hear her that good.”
The voice was unmistakable. It belonged to H. Ross Perot.
My friend’s brother-in-law worked for Perot for decades. In fact, the brother-in-law made all the flip charts that became part of the great Texan’s lore. I listened to Perot’s occasional commentary through the funeral, and then afterwards watched him drive himself away… in a Ford Crown Victoria.
He always drove a General Motors car, until the debacle of selling his company to GM, then buying it back. Then he swore he’d never drive another GM.
I’d love to see a person like Perot on the political scene today. He was quirky, but you didn’t have to guess where he stood. Fiscal discipline, good jobs, personal responsibility. But don’t call him a conservative… or a liberal.
He hated NAFTA, calling it a job-sucking program that would move industry south of the border. Clearly that happened, but on the flip side, Americans enjoyed much cheaper goods. Is it worth it? That argument is as old as Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and still hasn’t been answered. If I’m buying a car made in Mexico, I’m glad it cost 25% less than it would if it had been made in the U.S. If I worked for Whirlpool, I’m not happy to see my good-paying job leave the country.
Perot was reluctantly pro-choice. He called for Medicare for All. He wanted to greatly expand education, lengthening the school year from 180 days to 210, and absolutely disallowing any student from playing any sport if they didn’t have passing grades. Remember, he was living in Dallas, Texas… sort of the high school football epicenter of the universe. These were fighting words!
He wanted merit pay for teachers and term limits for Congress based on performance. Perot called for ending government pork and reducing staff.
Of course, he also wanted to ban the Electoral College, put disadvantaged kids in government-funded homes, and institute a $0.50 per gallon tax to pay off the federal deficit. Not every idea he had was a winner, and not every strategy would work. He famously said that we could wait out China because their leaders were very old, implying that the nation would turn more democratic as the leadership passed.
But the man was so genuine as to be magnetic!
After two of his executives were falsely accused of bribery in Iran just before the revolution, Perot put together a strike team to break them out of the prison. It worked, and author Ken Follett wrote a best-selling book about it that was made into a film, On Eagle’s Wings. Perot also told employees that, at his company, adultery was grounds for immediate dismissal.
Now, as in 1992, I can’t imagine a Ross Perot character winning a presidential election. They would be too realistic in their projections, calling for the nation to make sacrifices to achieve what we claim are our goals – reducing debt, caring for the needy, providing basic health services for all, and improving education.
But if we could get more Perots, both men and women, to make their voices heard… perhaps we can at least bend the political curve that seems to point our deficits to the sky without commensurate progress.
At least we might get Congressional term limits.
As we say goodbye to Ross Perot – the short, successful man with big ideas – I’ll leave you with a few of his best quotes:
The activist is not the man who says the river is dirty. The activist is the man who cleans up the river.
Which one of these three candidates would you want your daughter to marry?
And my favorite:
When you see a snake, kill the snake. Don’t appoint a committee on snakes.
Here’s to hoping that the political leaders of tomorrow channel their inner Ross Perot and kill a lot more snakes, rather than simply appointing more committees.
But I’m not holding my breath.