SENSE OF THE CITY

The Lessons of Perot: No Magic, No Magicians

Ross Perot’s harshest critics said that he was mad for power, a dictator in waiting. He wasn’t. Rich beyond all dreams by the time he was 40, free to sculpt his personal legend and pursue his causes, Perot peaked early in life. He is not consumed by ambition; on the contrary, he was not ambitious enough to run the gauntlet of the presidency, And for that we are lucky.

Imagine a Perot who, like Lyndon Johnson, burned with an unquenchable passion to lift himself from poverty and mediocrity. Imagine a Perot who, like Richard Nixon, saw life without power as a meaningless exile. Imagine a Perot who, like Bill Clinton, believed so supremely in himself and his cause that he would endure endless humiliation in pursuit of a lifelong dream. A Perot so fueled would have sublimated his ego to his cause and papered over his many flaws, as Nixon did, giving the nation a “New Perot.” He would have played politics when it counted and chosen a thinking, viable running mate (at least someone of Dan Quayle’s stature), not a war-scarred shell of aman.

And he would never have been derailed by Daughtergate. As Amy and Billy Carter learned, a president’s loved ones always become hostages to his enemies. That’s one source of mat legendary heat in the kitchen. By the way, Perot might not be lying about the calls he got alerting him to the alleged plot. It’s certainly possible that desperate rivals, knowing Perot’s taste for skulduggery and his penchant for guarding his family, floated the absurd wedding/photo threat just to see if he would take the bait and run with it. thus destroying his already tattered credibility. If that was the plan, they hit the jackpot.

A “New Perot” might-might-have been president, or held the balance of power before horse-trading his support for clout in the next administration. But that Perot could never exist. None of us can escape our natures.

Good Perot and Bad Perot are two sides of the same coin. History will footnote Perot’s good ideas, his colorful language, but also his vindictive, paranoiac nature. Still, give credit where it’s due. Despite its outrages, the ’92 election came closer than either ’88 or ’84 to being a genuine contest of ideas, and Perot deserves some thanks for that. Above all, he will be remembered for putting the deficit on the national agenda-no small feat. Now someone else-if not President Clinton, then his Republican successor in ’96-must summon the courage and political dexterity to begin solving the problem.

While Perot was right to rail against a gridlocked system, the country was right to reject him as chief system-fixer. No glib magician can wave a magic wand and make our problems disappear. But why were almost 20 million voters seduced by this brash supersalesman?

For several reasons, I think: First, we Americans are tantalized by fresh starts and the eruption of the New. In our hearts, we still want to light out with Huck Finn for the territory. Bom in revolution, we know that the tree of liberty occasionally must be watered with the blood of tyrants-or bureaucrats, at least.

Second, we hate politics because we’ve allowed our own role in governing to wither away. For the vast majority of us, governing is politics and politics is voting once every so often while griping about Those Damn Politicians. With the political parties sapped by television and our increasing mobility, most of us have no links at all to the work of governing, and it’s easy to hate what we don’t understand. As the Texas Observer noted some years ago, we do not organize or set agendas between elections. Instead, “we wait for the next savior to come along-to tell us what it is we shall believe in.”

Our relationship to politics and government is like my relationship to my car: I know nothing about its workings and frankly don’t give a damn as long as it’s causing me no hassles. I roll it in for routine maintenance, much like we tum out grudgingly to vote. And when the blasted thing breaks down, I want it fixed now-and don’t bug me with details.

Of course we can’t all trade our jobs as butchers, bakers and consultants to candlestick makers for full-time work in politics. But we know things are wrong.

Our schools are not good enough. Our streets are too violent. The deficit is the H-bomb scare of our kids’ futures. Perot was wrong about many things but right about this: We’ve got to get under the hood, together, and get the system running again, If you’re sick of the professional politicians, become an amateur politician. There’s an organized group out there working on every issue that concerns you-schools, crime, guns, the environment, health care. It might mean giving up a few hours a week on the golf course, or filling a Sunday afternoon with something besides those incredible Cowboys. But as Ronald Reagan liked to say before he ran out of ideas, “If not us, who? If not now, when?” There’s no magic, no magicians. It’s just not that simple.

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