Politics The Phone Call

Why Ross Perot sabotaged his own Reform Party.

IN THE FALL OF 1999. RoSS Perot had seemingly agreed to a plan for his Reform Party. His cohorts had invited Pat Buchanan and his “Buchanan Brigades” into the parly to blunt a takeover attempt by Governor Jesse Ventura of Minnesota. The loudmouthed. coarse ex-wrestler flaunts his contempt for values Perot holds dear, so it was no surprise that the former presidential candidate would find a means to stop him. Pat Buchanan.on the other hand, is articulate, media-savvy, and, even if more conservative than Perot on social issues, has fought beside him on the issues Perot cares about. With Buchanan as its candidate, the Reform Party would use its $12.5 million in federal matching funds to continue Perot’s campaign for economic nationalism, campaign finance reform, and the elimination of foreign influence in the nation’s capital.
But by late Septemher 200(1, the Reform Party had been wrecked by trench warfare between Perotistas and Buchananites, Buchanan was barely registering 1 percent in the polls, and, after a flurry of lawsuits, the Buchanan campaign was still waiting for the $12.5 million in federal funding.
Why did Perot turn with such a vengeance against Buchanan? Even Buchanan is perplexed, as 1 found when I talked with him in early September. Buchanan wouldn’t respond when I asked him directly what he thought Perot’s motives might be for reversing field and derailing his candidacy. Others close to Buchanan were less reticent. From their perspective, Perot’s ego in the end could not abide giving up control of “his” party.
But, as I discovered, the reason the Reform Party-the best shot at establishing a third party since Theodore Roosevelt-may be relegated to a historical footnote in November has nothing to do with Perot’s famous ego. The turnabout can be traced to a phone call made to Ross Perot by a close friend in Dallas.

IN EARLY JULY OF LAST YEAR, PEROT ALLY (and 1996 vice presidential candidate) Pat Choate and Perot right-hand man Rus Verney approached Bay Buchanan, Pat’s sister and campaign adviser, with a proposition. Choate and Verney argued convincingly that Buchanan should abandon the GOP and run for the Reform Party nomination. Buchanan and Perot agreed on many fundamental issues. They both favor a trade policy that puts America’s interests first. They are opponents of free trade deals like NAFTA and GATT. Both have warned about the loss of national sovereignty to international organizations like the WTO. Perot had even invited Buchanan to speak at a United We Stand conference in 1995, where Buchanan had wowed the audience with a speech echoing many of Perot’s favorite themes. “We can deliver the Reform Party nomination to Pat,” Choate told Bay.
Buchanan bit. He unleashed his “peasant army” to help Perot forces fend off a takeover attempt by Ventura. The Buchanan Brigades moved quickly to take over or reestablish Reform Party organizations in states all across the country. Within a few months, the Buchanan and Perot forces had enough votes to take back control of the party’s national committee (which Ventura’s forces had captured). The infusion of Buchanan’s recruits into the party had made the difference. Ventura threw up his hands in disgust and announced that he and his supporters were abandoning the Reform Party for good.
Immediately fissions appeared. Verney expected to regain his former post as party chairman. But Buchanan supporters, who had grown to distrust Perot’s chief political aide, joined with other disaffected Reform Party leaders to place Choate in the top post. This split between the two longtime friends and allies signaled an underlying rift in the party. Choate announced he would do all he could to help Pat Buchanan secure the party’s nomination at its Long Beach convention in August.
For his part, Verney confirmed Buchanan’s suspicions by announcing he would stop Buchanan at all costs. “Verney promised a bloodbath,” says Choate now, “and he delivered one in Long Beach.”
Perot’s hand in this reversal is difficult to verify because Perot isn’t talking. He refers all Reform Parly matters to Verney. But Dallas sources who know Perot well are skeptical that a paid staffer like Verney would freelance on a matter so crucial as the party’s candidate for president.
Something caused Ross Perot to change his mind about Buchanan. And once Perot’s mind was changed, the Perot people showed they would go to any length to deny Buchanan the nomination.
First, Verney tried to recruit Donald Trump to run. After a few weeks of flirtation, played out in the tabloids. Trump declined to go head-to-head against the Buchanan Brigades. Trump’s dalliance with the headlines took so long that when he finally backed out, Verney found himself left with no better alternative than physicist John Hagelin. candidate of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Natural Law Party. Among other things, Hagelin believes in lévitation through meditation. As political observer John O’Sullivan notes, “Hagelin is one of the very few physicists who believes he can fly.”
Why would Perot descend so far to stop Buchanan? Was it ego? Some Buchananites recall how Perot blocked former Colorado Governor Richard Lamm’s bid for the nomination in 1996. But Perot was still active in the party at that time and had made a credible showing in the presidential race four years before. Perot hasn’t been actively involved since. And if it was ego, how to explain the bizarre endorsement of Flying John Hagelin? Other Buchanan supporters believe Perot’s opposition stems from his disagreement with Buchanan over social issues such as abortion. And it is true that many of the Reform delegates who walked out of the convention in Long Beach did so because they are “social liberals” opposed to Buchanan’s strong pro-life stance. But these issues are not at the top of Perot’s agenda. Even Vemey confirms that “we all knew where Buchanan stood on the abortion issue when we invited him enthusiastically into the party.”

The clue to perot’s about-face is when Perot himself refused to meet with Pat Buchanan a few months after Buchanan had switched to the Reform Party. He wouldn’t even take Buchanan’s phone calls, according to people in Buchanan’s camp. The timing is significant.
In September 1999, after Buchanan had been recruited into the Reform Party, his new book A Republic, Not an Empire was published. The book, of course, had taken months to write and prepare for publication. In it Buchanan made the case that America should have let the two totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union fight it out between themselves first before intervening in WWII. Buchanan had already crossed swords with leaders of the American Jewish community with comments he’d made opposing the Persian Gulf War (which Perot also opposed). Those comments had led some to accuse Buchanan of anti-Semitism. Now all the old charges were resurrected in a flurry of attacks in the major media circles. Former friend and fellow Nixon speechwriter William Safire even went so far as to accuse Buchanan of going after the “Hitler vote.”
It was a rocky moment for Buchanan. While he survived politically and continued full-steam ahead with his campaign for the Reform nomination, the charges did not sit well back in Dallas. A close associate of Perot explained to me that Perot prides himself on having good social and business relationships with leaders in the Jewish community. One of his good friends is Liener Temerlin, co-founder of Dallas-based Tem-erlin McClain Advertising and a prominent Jewish civic leader.
Temerlin had made no bones about his belief that Buchanan was guilty of anti-Semitism. His views on the subject were so well known that a while ago, his friend Perot even played a practical joke on him. One day Temerlin looked oui the window of his house to see none other than Ross Perot out in his driveway. When he went outside, Perot didn’t have a very good explanation of what he was doing there. Temerlin didn’t think much about it until he realized he had been driving around for a week with a Buchanan bumper sticker on his car.
The joke may have been good fun at the time, but a Buchanan presidential bid was no laughing matter to Temerlin. When it became clear in news reports that Perot had invited Buchanan into the Reform Party and was all but handing him its nomination, Temerlin made a phone call to his good friend.
I heard about this phone call from sources close to Perot. When I called Temerlin to confirm it, he politely declined to characterize its content. He told me he had a confidential conversation with Perot, but he wouldn’t discuss the substance. I later asked Rus Verney if he thought Buchanan is an anti-Semite. “No, but there is a perception that he is,” Verney said. “And perception can become reality if the issue isn’t addressed.” One thing about that conversation with Temerlin is certain. A short time thereafter, the Perot forces turned against Buchanan. The open embrace turned into a “scorched earth” policy thai was intent on destroying the party if that were the only means of keeping Buchanan from gaining control of it.

Whether Buchanan can over-come all of the roadblocks put in his way by the Perot forces by garnering the minimum ? percent to stay viable is up in the air. The conventional wisdom is that Buchanan and the movement he represents are finished politically. Most conservative activists have decided to slick with the Republican Parly, at least through this election. Buchanan’s diehard supporters are under no illusion about the difficulties they face. Nonetheless, they are intent on building a serious conservative third parly, no matter what happens this Novemher.
When I talked with Buchanan, he was just recovering from gall bladder surgery and preparing to hit the campaign trail. Buchanan seemed dispirited. He had spent a year battling furiously to win a nomination he had been led to believe would he handed to him. Now Ross Perot himself had finally surfaced after being almost invisible during the brutal internal struggles of his party, signing an affidavit to the effect that Hagelin, the “flying yogic,” should get the party’s matching funds.
But Buchanan didn’t earn his combative reputation by being a wallflower. As we talked his spirits seemed to rise. He told me about his favorite movie, Shane. In the movie, Shane stands up for a bunch of fanners being harassed by a powerful rancher who wants to run them out of the Wyoming territory. In the final gunfight, Shane takes out the rancher’s hired gunman. I later rented the movie and sat down to watch it. Before riding off into the sunset, the hero makes two statements that sound like they came from Buchanan himself. Shane tells the young son of a farmer that “a man has to be what he is” and “there’s no going back.”
I can see why Buchanan loves the movie. But then Shane never got into a gunright with H. Ross Perot.

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