I first “met” Ross Perot on the telephone at work one morning in early 1990. “Mr. Malcolm?” said the voice in a clipped Texas twang that would become familiar to the nation in two later presidential campaigns. “This Ross Perot.”
I looked around the newsroom to see which colleague was pranking me.
“Mr. Malcolm, listen,” he ordered. “I read your article about the service members who died in Panama. God bless them.”
I had indeed written a lengthy page one piece in the previous day’s New York Times with the help of colleagues reconstructing the personal lives that had brought those troops to the deadly war zone in Panama.
President George H.W. Bush had ordered the U.S. invasion the previous month to oust de facto Pres. Manuel Noriega. He’d been a well-paid CIA informant for years, including those when Bush ran the intelligence agency.
But in 1989 with his country already in partial control of the Panama Canal, Noriega was helping drug runners launder money and drifting toward the Soviet Union. He had rejected Pres. Reagan’ request to step down, crushed two coup attempts and ignored election results.
Then, his forces accosted four U.S. personnel in a civilian car going to dinner. Two of them were killed.
Perot had been a battalion commander at the Naval Academy and served a four-year rocky commitment. He objected to promotions made by seniority, not merit.
I knew none of this when we had the first of what would become several long phone conversations. He asked they be off the record and since I had no intention of writing about him anyway and was very curious, I agreed. With his death Tuesday at 89 from a brief struggle with leukemia, I feel freed to share our conversations.
The immediate reason for calling me that first day was his approval of the sympathetic portrayal of the military fatalities. Perot’s fierce opposition to U.S. overseas combat would emerge later in the first Gulf War.
Perot wanted me to get 400 copies of the previous day’s newspaper to him in Dallas. Remember, this is pre-Internet. He said he’d talked that morning with Gen. Colin Powell, who’d just become chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Powell was assembling family addresses for Perot to get the newspapers delivered to families of the fallen and wounded.
I had two copies of that edition on my desk, 400 I had no idea but promised to find out. He gave me his direct phone line, which I tested the next day. He answered on the first ring. We talked some more.
I asked him about his fabled hiring of mercenaries in 1979 to free two men in a Teheran prison. He didn’t want to talk about that. “They were my employees,” he said as if that explained everything.
Right after the Navy, Perot became an IBM salesman. Typically hard-charging, he fulfilled a year’s sales quota in a few weeks. Soon, he was butting heads with superiors who did not share his expansive vision of all the things IBM could do.
He was to quit and start his own software company, Electronic Data Systems, which pretty much perfected computer outsourcing.
Later, I talked with some of those employees. A favorite Perot anecdote: He called a sudden meeting in Dallas for some two dozen far-flung executives.
While they were there, Perot called each of the executives’ spouses; in those days they were all wives. Perot apologized for disrupting their family life and thanked them for letting their husbands play such an important role in the company. Soon after, a bouquet arrived at each home.
I asked Perot why he was so interested in the military. He said his experience was that regular troops serving their country needed someone to look after them, especially when their service was over. He didn’t trust bureaucracy.
Turns out, whenever military personnel wounded abroad showed up at the Army’s San Antonio Burn Center, Perot would visit. With his connections, that was not a problem and he asked hospital personnel to keep it quiet.
Perot would spend the day touring wards, bed by bed, chatting with the men. He gave each his business card. “You just get better,” he told them. “When you get out, if you want a job, call me. I’ll have one.” He declined to say how many he’d hired.
Upon leaving one ward, he yelled out, “If y’all need anything, you call me.” One sailor who’d lost an eye, yelled back, “We need some girls down here.” Everyone laughed.
That night Perot called his pal Jerry Jones. Soon, Perot and a contingent of Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders were flying to San Antonio in Jones’ jet where they spent the day visiting wounded troops and posing for photos. “They seemed to enjoy that,” Perot recalled.
The son of a cotton broker from Texarkana, Perot claimed he had no idea how much such visits cost. But money didn’t concern him. When GM bought EDS with its 40,000 employees in 1984, it paid $2.5 billion for the company.
When Perot began butting heads with GM execs over their stodgy culture, they paid him $750 million for his stock and board resignation.
Perot then formed Perot Systems, which he later sold to Dell for $3.9 billion.
So, it was only lunch money in 1992 when Perot vowed to spend $100 million of his own to run for president as an independent. His unorthodox, even erratic campaign was built around free exposure on TV talk shows (no Twitter then) and buying time to explain how corrupt and beholden to special interests Washington had become.
A precursor of the Tea Party revolt and Trump voters’ anger, Perot roared against the dangers of a ballooning national debt and “the giant sucking sound” of free trade jobs moving to Mexico. Any of this sound familiar yet?
Perot got no electoral votes in 1992, but did garner 19 percent of the popular vote, enough to deny Bush reelection and the best third-party success since Teddy Roosevelt’s 27 percent in 1912.
Perot tried again in 1996, but the economy was strong, the parties were moving to a balanced budget and the magic was gone.
Now, Perot is gone. But I suspect he’s butting heads with someone else by now.