SENSE OF THE CITY Farewell To The Wimp

’What A Wimp!” jeered the towering headline of the New York Post the day after Ross Perot quit. My sentiments exactly. He could have been a contender. He chose to be a false Napoleon. A Judas. A wimp.

Unlike most of my media brothers and sisters, 1 was not automatically hostile to Ross Perot’s pseudocandidacy. Call it a mild case of hope, a Heeling sense of possibility, I never believed Perot could win, but I hoped he would run a dignified, no-bull campaign of sense and clarity. Too rich and too well-known to ignore, he might have served as a magnet to pull the other candidates away from lies, sleaze, cookies, and saxophones.

Of course the media and the process hastened Perot’s surrender. The GOP skirmish with Perot was the Spanish Civil War of this campaign, just a warm-up for the total blitzkrieg against Bill Clinton. The Republicans dished out the rumors and the tips, and the press obediently spread the word that Perot, if elected, would erect an Auschwitz-on-the-Potomac for gays, blacks, Jews, pacifists, journalists and other un-Americans. He was called a fascist enough times, by enough people who knew better, to drain a useful word of all meaning. There is always a strain of paranoia in American politics, but it was ludicrous to talk as if Perot would engineer some authoritarian putsch out of Seven Days in May. He would not, could not have been a “dictator”-another word with no meaning in our political system. At its worst, a Perot victory would have meant four years of President Perot barking his orders down empty corridors. Four more years of drift and deadlock. Four more years of what we’ve had.

The press hated and feared Perot because, for a time, he seemed too big to cut down to size. Worst of all, he didn’t need us. For the past 20 years the press has functioned like the seniors back in high school, turning the campaign into a quadrennial hazing ritual. You wanna get to the lunchroom, you gotta go down the hall and let us swat you with paddles. Perot, the new kid in school, threatened to go his own way and gain the lunchroom by another door.

Our campaigns are contemptible charades, repugnant to any man or woman of more than room-temp IQ. But until someone shows us another way. it’s the only process we’ve got. Perot might have charted a new course, but he lacked the stomach. And he must bear the blame for his fiasco.

Last May, I wrote a story that opened with this proposition: “If Perot has the brains and guts to match his money…” Sadly, he didn’t have either. The man. the means, and the moment came together- and he choked. Two weeks before he cut and ran, Perot proved (on a 90-minute ABC “Town Meeting”) that he had teamed nothing from his visit to Los Angeles, his powwows with big-city mayors and urban experts. His performance was so flaccid that I ordered a transcript just to be sure I hadn’t missed some flicker of substance, some sign that the man realized the enormity of his task. Like the Oracle at Delphi. Perot speaks a private code that requires study and divination. But the transcript revealed no specifics, no programs, no new thoughts, only a cult of personality.

Nothing so exemplified Perot’s voyage of squandered opportunity as his exit lines on Larry King’s show. Preposterously, he announced that a “revitalized Democratic party” (rejuvenated, of course, by his challenge) now made it impossible for him to win outright. and gee. he just couldn’t let the House of Representatives pick the president. That would mean “turmoil,” see, and we just can’t have turmoil.

This, from a man whose movement was born of turmoil and rolled forward on turmoil? What was that line about cleaning out the barn and taking out the trash? And there was more mush from the wimp; In his (let’s hope) final seance with King. Perot was asked about third parties, leaving his name on state ballots, etc. Oh, it’s up to the volunteers, Perot piously repeated. Whatever they want. Yeah. Unless they want a leader to lead them. Once more. with feeling: What a wimp.

On the Sunday morning before the Democratic Convention opened, we left our hotel to find that the police had closed off 57th Street. A large crowd had gathered, and someone said that Bill Clinton and his family were attending the Baptist church next door. Sure enough, a few minutes later the Clintons stepped out, ringed by Secret Service agents. People held their kids up to snap pictures. “Bill! Bill!” came the voices. “Good luck, Governor!” “We’re behind you all the way!” “That’s the next president of the United States,” one smiling father said as Clinton reached for his daughter’s hand.

That man in the street may be wrong. But win or lose, he’ll vote for a more deter mined, gutsy, brainy fighter than Ross Perot will ever be. And I bet he’ll remem ber that morning on 57th Street long after Perot’s lost legions have forgotten the rich man who gave them hope, then took his money and went home.


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