WASHINGTON — Henry Ross Perot, the bantam-sized Texas billionaire who changed the dynamics of presidential politics and proved correct on such things as the federal budget, trade and those missing in action from the Vietnam War, died Tuesday.
Ross Perot, 89, born in Texarkana, died in Dallas after a five-month battle with leukemia, a representative for the Perot family said in a statement to the media.
In his final interview, done in 2016 with the Dallas News, Perot downplayed his legacy, saying, according to the newspaper, “Aw, I don’t worry about that.” Instead, Perot said he was just “Texas born. Texas bred. When I die, I’ll be Texas dead. Ha!”
Although best known by many for his historical presidential runs in 1992 and 1996, Perot — who rose from a childhood of Depression-era poverty — was more widely acclaimed for his business acumen and his devotion to the U.S. military, its veterans and those still missing from the nation’s conflicts.
His charitable works, especially for those who served in the military, were almost always done quietly. One that gained publicity occurred in 1979, when two of his employees were taken hostage by Iran after a dispute over a contract.
Perot organized a rescue mission with a team of his employees led by retired Green Beret Col. Bull Simons. Perot went to Iran and entered the prison where his men had been in captivity, news reports then said.
“Each of us was placed here for a special purpose,” Perot told reporters once. “I believe that it is each person’s responsibility to determine what he or she can do to make the world a better place — and then go out and do it. Take full responsibility for our actions. Risk failure.”
In 1974 the Department of Defense awarded him the Medal for Distinguished Public Service for his efforts on behalf of service men and women. And individual soldiers adored the Navy veteran. Among the items in Perot’s office: Osama bin Laden’s walking cane, given to Perot by the unit who killed the terrorist.
“In business and in life, Ross was a man of integrity and action,” James Fuller, a representative for the Perot family, said in a statement Tuesday. “A true American patriot and a man of rare vision, principle and deep compassion, he touched the lives of countless people through his unwavering support of the military and veterans and through his charitable endeavors.”
Perot was a stick of dynamite in the 1992 presidential race, where President George H.W. Bush was the Republican nominee and Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton was the Democratic nominee.
Perot campaigned on C-SPAN, CNN and other media, and drew support from unhappy voters of all political stripes. He mastered the debates and his biggest foe was his own quirkiness — dropping out and then reentering the campaign after accusations of sabotage by mysterious government operatives.
Nevertheless, his platform of fiscal responsibility and protectionism won nearly 19% of the vote in the 1992 race — the biggest ever for a third-party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party in the 1912 election.
In 1992, Perot repeatedly would tell crowds, “Folks, you are right. We have got to stop sending jobs overseas. pay a dollar an hour. We cannot have no health care, no environmental controls, no pollution controls, no retirement. And if you don’t care about anything but making money, there will be a giant sucking sound going south.”
As events proved Perot correct, bumper stickers and buttons appeared saying “ROSS WAS RIGHT.”
Republicans blamed Perot for Bush’s defeat in 1992 but exit polling showed Perot drew support almost equally from Democrats and Republicans.
His 1992 showing prompted the creation of the Reform Party, which had Perot as its presidential nominee in 1996 and led to the election of former wrestler Jesse Ventura as Minnesota governor on the Reform ticket.
In 2000, its nomination was courted for a brief period of time by Donald Trump, among others, who Perot privately rooted against. Party members had hoped to lure Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to be the 2000 nominee. He declined and the nomination was won by pundit Pat Buchanan, but the party dissolved for the most part after that.
Perot made his money in the tech business. He started his career in sales at IBM, and made his first year quota in two weeks. He formed Electronic Data Systems, with $1,000 in 1962 and sold it to General Motors for $2.5 billion in 1984. He later created Perot Systems, which Dell acquired for $3.9 billion in 2009.
On election night in 1992 the father of five danced with his wife, Margot, sang patriot songs, laughed loudly, and promised to turn the populist churn of energy he stirred into a new political movement.
As recounted by some of his supporters then, and subsequently, they feared the populist forces unleashed by Perot may not have the same type of leadership in the future.
“The next time the man on the white horse comes, he may not be so benign,” Perot operative and spokesperson Jim Squires told reporters. “He could be a real racial hater or a divider of people.”