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Can a Self-Made Billionaire Become a Self-Made President?

By Scott PendletonStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 13, 1992


JONATHAN RHODES is 20 months old and owes $15,000 - his share of the $4 trillion United States national debt. "We are following the exact same path that the Byzantine and Roman Empire followed. We are in decline," warns David Rhodes, Jonathan's father. "It's time to turn it around."

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So Mr. Rhodes took six weeks off from his Austin real estate job to help put Dallasite H. Ross Perot on the Texas ballot as an independent presidential candidate.

No third-party candidate has won the presidency since Republicans overcame the fractured Democrats and Whigs to elect Abraham Lincoln, notes John Green, director of the Bliss Institute at the University of Akron. He rates Mr. Perot's chances, who would be an independent candidate, not even a third-party candidate, at "virtually nil."

But Mark White, who backs Bill Clinton, sees a "very good" chance of a Perot victory. "Many people get elected, not because they're so good, but because of events and circumstances, including myself," the former Texas governor says.

Just as in Mr. White's first race, Perot could be assisted by the unpopularity of the incumbent and public frenzy for change.

Perot is a self-made billionaire three times over, a populist who eats with employees in the company cafeteria, a champion of Vietnam veterans, funder of covert operations, scourge of General Motors Corporation bureaucracy, opponent of the Gulf war, a diminutive dynamo who puts heart, mouth, and money into his crusade of the moment.

In 1969 it was better treatment for Hanoi's US prisoners of war. In 1979, freedom for two employees imprisoned in revolutionary Iran. In 1981, a Republican governor's "war on drugs." In 1984, a Democratic governor's education reforms.

In 1992 it's a quest for the White House, backed by $100 million of Perot's pocket change - provided that the public puts him on the ballot in all 50 states. That will take until August, Rhodes says.

Given the 1.5 million telephone calls in a two-week period to his impromptu campaign headquarters, few people doubt Perot will join the race officially.

Republicans and Democrats say Perot belongs in each others' parties, but other observers say he is a problem-solving pragmatist devoid of ideology. Called the world's most impatient man by the GM chairman with whom he clashed and lost, Perot has made remarkable achievements, but also his share of impetuous blunders.

No one seems to mind that Perot's successful, covert rescue mission violated US and international law. However, civil libertarians shudder at the recommendation he once made that police cordon off a black neighborhood and search door-to-door for weapons and drugs.

Tough, candid talk thrills reactionary white voters but loses elections. Charles Royer, who directs the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass., compares Perot with John Silber. The Massachusetts Democrat "probably could have been elected governor if he had been able to control his mouth some," he says.

Fred Meyer, chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, offers the example of Clayton Williams. The Texas Republican's lip was often embarrassingly unzipped during his botched try for the governor's mansion.

Perot has spoken in favor of a line-item veto for the president, a simpler tax code, elimination of federal benefits for the wealthy (for years Perot didn't deduct his charitable contributions when figuring his tax bill), elimination of government perks, reduction of federal pension benefits, billing Japan and Germany for US defense costs, getting government on the side of business, shorter presidential campaigns, women's right to choose on abortion, and tighter gun controls.

He opposes deficit spending, Congress's right to raise taxes (though he says a reformed tax code must boost revenue), free trade with Mexico, political-action committees, and exit polls.