How Ross Saved Dallas if only for a moment

MAYBE NO ONE EVEN NOTICED US. THE command center of the Perot campaign was lodged in one of those nice but nameless North Dallas buildings, haphazardly afloat in a choppy, crosshatched sea of conflicting parking lot curbs-the kind of generic suburban scenery that looks as if it could be on the access road to anywhere. Or nowhere. A very prominent Dallas business leader who watched the whole Perot thing unfold from his summer home on Nantucket told me, “I never even heard anybody up here mention Dallas. It was all Perot and Texas, but 1 don’t think anybody associated Dallas with it in particular.”

But from our own point of view, as we try to assess what this very strange chapter meant to us here in the man’s home town, it’s almost irrelevant whether anybody else saw us at the limelight’s rim. Because we did. And let’s be honest. It was for many people heady. Heady heady-a flashback to the glory days.

Since the late 1970s, Dallas has played a funny kind of role in the American dream. The dream-the real dream, the powerful dream, the dream that for centuries has sucked immigrants out of the rest of the world in multitudes-is the dream of the Fountain of Wealth.

Coronado. The place where the streets are lined with gold, where money is like air, where there is equality in opulence.

A decade ago, the real-life boom here and the adult fairy tales told in the TV show “Dallas” posited our city as a place where the dream of the Fountain of Wealth, in all its obscene magnificence, was still alive, shimmering in the heat. America was like-still is like-an old down-at-the-heels British country gentry family, living in a grand, old home-pipes are broken, roof leaks, orchard has gone to weeds-and here we are having dress dinner by candlelight. And every once in a while, some uncouth cousin like Jimmy Carter or David Stockman comes in from the garden, pokes his nose through the French doors and says, “Your problem, dear family, is that you are no longer rich.”

So we run him off. Because we cannot live with that.

For a long time in the late 1970s and 1980s, people in the rest of the country could at least turn on the television set, point at Larry Hagman and say. “See! There it is! Coronado! In a place called Dallas!” The real Dallas, bless its heart, tried its best to live the legend, and the result was the utter decimation of the local economy and years of bitter disappointment, not to mention humiliation and recrimination. If only we had a Dickens, he could write powerful novels about the families who trusted their tough, brash, Texas-style patriarchs, only to sec the wealth of generations burned to the ground when the banks went down.

These have been hard times, and not only in the economic sense.

And then all of a sudden, late this winter, out of the blue, there was the Perot thing! We looked at television at night and looked at the date-lines in The New York Times and The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, and we saw our wonderful, misunderstood, beleaguered and benighted selves! Dallas redux!

A Dallas woman who moves in the circles of local wealth and power said to me (only partially tongue-in-cheek), “For many people, I think his candidacy was Redemption.”

“The first time around, when things were booming, we thought we deserved to do better than the rest of the country,” she said. “And then we went through these perfectly awful times since. And here we were, back in the limelight, and it was a kind of rebirth.” She’s certainly right about part of it. Back during the headiest days of the boom, people in Dallas power circles used to say-quite seriously-that Dallas was doing well while the older cities of the northeast did poorly because Dallas was more virtuous. Some of them even felt they had support on this point from certain authorities. (As I write this, I am rolling my eyes skyward and pointing up with one finger).

Understandably, we didn’t hear a lot of this sort of talk after the real estate market collapsed and the banks failed and the unfortunate business happened with the S&L indictments and … and I really don’t have to belabor this point, do I?

But when Ross Perot began to soar in the polls, it was as if the nation had come back to Dallas like a war-torn lover, ready to pick up the thread and begin weaving the fabric anew. It was, for Dallas, a surprise rendezvous with suppressed emotion and scar tissue.

An interesting aspect of the way in which the city responded: Among wealthy influential people in Dallas, the outpouring of support for Perot was much more noticeable among the women than among the men. Almost every living former chairwoman of the Crystal Charity Ball openly supported and worked for Perot. One of the few who did not was former Mayor Annette Strauss, but she was already working on a White House project and, even at that, you’d have a hard time getting her to say anything non-flattering about Ross Perot. (Believe me.)

The wealthy-woman support for Ross Perot seems to have occurred at two distinct levels of motivation and consciousness. At the outward and apparent level, the biggest reason for it probably was Margot Perot, his wife. As it turns out, she’s a lot better known and wired into Dallas than her husband.

Ross Perot himself, as one local Republican leader said to me, “is not a Dallas guy.”

That is, he has never had any particular inclination to weave himself into the fabric of local politics or business. He made his money far away. He fixed his eye far away. On occasion, he waltzed into town as a white knight. But he was never a trenches kind of guy. And why would he be?

On the other hand, there is a sense in which Margot has been. And still is. We’re talking society trenches here, of course, but she, nevertheless, has been in them. And that was why women such as Ruth Collins Sharp Altshuler and others of her tribe-as staunchly Republican as they are American, almost-broke with the Bush ranks and lined up behind Dallas’ own No Party candidate.

One former Crystal Charity Ball chairwoman said to me; “She [Margot] had done so much for us, we couldn’t say no to her. And we didn’t want to.” So that’s one reason the local power ladies, normally and loyally so Republican, backed Perot. But it’s only the most superficial reason.

The real inner reason, the gut reason, goes back to what the woman who moves in those circles said about redemption. Dallas is an individualistic, semi-weird town with its own very strong tradition and mythology of masculine leadership (given that we’re still talking about older, rich people here). It’s a variant of the Texas thing, of course, but it’s a distinct variant-colder and more jugular than what you’d expect from Houston; more sophisticated than Austin; prouder, probably more responsible and definitely more self-righteous than the rest of the state.

Of course, in the very sobering wake of the last eight years, the men, anyway, have had time to reconsider the local mythology-some of them while dozing on deck chairs in the comfort of their own back yards, some while folding laundry at fenced federal facilities. Bracing times.

While wealthy women literally seemed to swarm the field for Perot, I thought their men sounded much more reserved. More than reserved in some cases. Among the ones I talked to, there were at least a couple of different depths of feeling. One level was among practical political people, who just thought Ross Perot would screw things up for a lot of local down-ballot Republicans who would be out of work if Perot caused voters to split their tickets.

Some people seem to think the rifts among local Republicans may prove to be lasting.

“It will take a long, long time for that to heal,” the man on Nantucket said. But a woman who has a more personal experience in politics said: ’The kind of people who supported Perot are the kind of people who give money. They will always be welcome back, wherever they want to go, whenever they want to come back.”

There is another level of feeling, however, that has to do with responsibility and with the way Ross Perot presented himself to the country. It’s almost as if people here, especially men of Perot’s generation and class, knew his routine too well, having practiced it themselves for so long.

A week after Perot announced he was quitting, I sat in the North Dallas office of one of the richest and most powerful older Dallas men. He was like all these people: He would only talk to me on the condition that, if I did ever quote him about Perot by name, he would kill me. We were looking out over, you know, Oklahoma and New Mexico probably, it was so high up there, and I asked him to explain about the money.

I wanted to find out if he thought the money was why Perot quit. Everybody else had told me $100 million wouldn’t have meant anything to Perot. 1 explained to the man in the tower that I didn’t know what it meant when you said $100 million didn’t mean anything. He rubbed his chin and frowned for a very long time. I thought he was frowning at me, of course, but then I realized he was actually frowning at a cloud.

“He has more money than I do,” he said softly.

Well, stop the presses.

’”If I could write a check for $10 million and be the president, I’d write it,” he said. “If Ross could write a check for $100 million and be the president, he’d write it.” While my host and I were speaking, a former president of the United States called him up. No kidding.

He didn’t shoo me away, so I listened in, of course. The former president wanted to talk to him about the same thing I did.

He told the former president he thought Perot had quit because he couldn’t take the heat. Not the money. He had the money. The heat. He didn’t have the hide for it and maybe not the backbone.

By the time he hung up. my host was on a roll. He turned to me and delivered a scathing assessment of what would have happened if Perot had stuck with it and won. “It wouldn’t have been anything but a big mess,” he said. “He couldn’t have governed. He’s no smarter than Bush or Clinton. Infect, they’re probably both smarter than he is about Washington and politics and the government.”

Ross Perot, he said, wanted to have it both ways. He wanted to flatter the worst weakness of the American people right now- their inability to accept the fact that the country is poorer than it used to be and because of that people have to work harder, live poorer and do with less until they make the money back. Themselves.

Perot, my host said, exploited the eagerness of the public to blame its woes on villains in Washington and New York. He exploited his own image as a J.R./Daddy Warbucks-the with so much money that some of it just has to fall out of his pockets if you follow him around long enough.

But look at his economic plan, my host said to me. He also wanted to be the one who brought the hammer down-really did what had to be done to whip the weakness and the whining out of society.

My host said. “The problems aren’t in Washington. He knew that. He knew that better than anybody. He knew he couldn’t reduce the deficit without breaking a sweat. “It’s not a case of just plain-talking and some hero riding in from outside and fixing things in Washington. The problems are out here. In the people. And Ross knew that.

“Now, you could say he knew what the truth was, and he said what he said because he thought that was what you had to do to win. And maybe you think that’s OK. But he was the one accusing the rest of them of acting that way, being hypocrites. So maybe you could say, if he knew it wasn’t true but he said it anyway, then he was a liar. Wouldn’t you say that would make him a liar?”

Me? Well. 1 wouldn’t say. And anyway, I’m just not a huge world expert on what needs to be done with the economy and so on. As my host spoke, I kept thinking more in terms of things here in the old home town.

Isn’t it interesting; All of the stuff my host accused Ross Perot of lying about-his self-spun myth as the no-nonsense good ol’ boy who could ride in and shoot up the sissies if he wanted to-it’s the same kind of stuff all of the men like my host used to tell their wives and the local editorial boards about themselves.

It’s those thieves on Wall Street. Those corrupt bought-and-sold cowards in Washington. Those Harvard MBAs in the Boston banks who can’t fight their way out of a wet paper bag. Just let me get up there with my hat and my spurs on, and, boy, howdy, I’ll set ’em straight.

Don’t sell that Republic Bank stock, honey. We’re taking care of business. Everything’s going to come out OK.

A very strange experience for Dallas, this Perot business. Almost a decade after Dallas had wrecked itself trying to live up to the TV show, after long years of introspection and, one hopes, real growth among many of the old guard, macho-man, leadership set, here comes this guy who was never truly a part of it, and he repackages it-the tough, rich, cornball-aphorism-spewing cowboy deal…

And it works.

The country has been through J.R. Ewing, Ronald Reagan and Ralph Lauren, and you’d think we would finally have worked up a little appetite for just a dab of post-adolescent reality, and then here comes H. Ross Perot, spurs a-jangling-hey. Pilgrim, I’ll fix that dang deficit without break in’ a sweat and make y’all scadzillionaires in the process. ..

And the country goes ape for it. So much for introspection and growth. Just goes to show: At this particular moment in this particular nation, people will embrace anybody who’s got a message other than “Get a job.”

That still says nothing, however, for what he meant to us. 1 suspect strongly that he threatened to touch a wound that runs far deeper than partisanship-a rift that runs right down the middle of many beds in many Park Cities and North Dallas homes. The women wanted to believe. They wanted all of that business about the can-do patriarchs to come true again. And one can see why.

But I think the men were shy. And you can see why that would be, too. The world has become more complex in the last 10 years for many of them. To say the least.

Perot, of course, is the big exception. In the last decade, while many of the local boys were dying on the vine, he was thriving. In his defense, you’d have to say Perot is the one guy who would have been justified in believing in the old mystique.

It could have been nothing more than that-that he hadn’t heard about the problems with the mystique or didn’t believe they applied to him personally. Maybe he rode out with his six-shooters blazing and then-just as his horse was hitting a full gallop-found out about the drop-off. All of a sudden he came to the part where the good ol’ boy with the can-do attitude can’t do diddly because the people are nuts.

Maybe he’s the one who would be justified now in coming back to these other local penthouse types and saying, “How come you boys never told me about this new sadder-but-wiser-type deal you got going?” Of course, presumably now he’s got it going, too. We all certainly hope he’s not just sadder. His home town knows how embarrassing it is to grow up.

Too bad about the country.


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