Perot's Rare Political Gift: Being Himself

IT was on a Larry King TV show that H. Ross Perot first said he might run for president. The idea caught on immediately with millions of viewers. Several Perot appearances on television since then have made him into a TV star.

It has been written, many times, that Ronald Reagan was the first made-for-television presidential candidate. As an actor, Mr. Reagan knew how to use television to his advantage - how to package ideas for short spots, how to play it for laughs or tears, how to come across to the viewers as that aw-shucks, boy-next-door fellow that they preferred to all those political types.

Yet should Mr. Perot accomplish what some call an impossible dream it may well be said that he, too, in an uncontrived way, is another made-for-television candidate. Along the way, though, if Perot does indeed decide to run, he may find that the tube is not as kind to him as it is now at the outset.

His candor at present is refreshing. And when he says such things as, "If there's a problem, find a way to solve it" and "If the people don't want action, they don't want me," the TV watchers jump out of their chairs and cheer.

The impressive Perot is always in charge of his TV interviews. He will get testy if he feels his questioner is pushing him too hard. When David Frost tried to get him to say what he would do if some of his ideas about dealing with the budget deficit or with other countries failed, Perot bridled. He made it clear that he was not about to answer "iffy" questions. He said he expected that his solutions would work, and he simply wasn't going to concede that they wouldn't.

Mr. Frost on several occasions was caught off stride by Perot's refusal to answer such questions. When Perot at such times turned a bit feisty, Frost retreated. Perot had Frost on the defensive. I think that the public, which polls invariably show as holding a low opinion of the press, again was cheering.

This is not Perot the actor. This seems to be the genuine Perot, a man who has been unbelievably successful in the world of business, and who got there not by being pushed around but by being fully in command. And it is clear that by playing himself he is doing exceedingly well in a campaign year when the voters are particularly tired of politicians.

Before a panel of editors Perot at one point flared up and said a questioner had become "adversarial." It was the kind of tough question that presidents and presidential candidates often get and field without batting an eye. Perot may well be right - in the eyes of the voters. I think he instinctively knows that the public is tired of reporters who sound more like prosecuting attorneys than questioners.

How then is Ross Perot doing? Well, three recent national polls tell it all. They all show Perot running virtually even with Bill Clinton in a three-way race in which President Bush leads by from 7 to 10 points. The New York Times poll discloses that Perot is the only one of these three who is viewed positively by more people than those who view him negatively.

So who in the world could say to Perot that by just "being himself" he isn't doing it just right on TV? One also gets the feeling, by watching this strong, confident, assertive man in several of his TV interviews, that any "handler" who would suggest to him to be, say, a "little sweeter" in his demeanor, might well be very soon finding other employment.

Television doesn't always stay kind. Jimmy Carter's low-key approach and big, warm smile was a decided TV asset in his first presidential campaign. But viewers grew tired of that style after he became president.

Could the attractive naturalness of Perot lose its allure to voters somewhere along the way? Of course. But by so obviously insisting on being himself - by even revealing that he does possess those very human qualities of impatience and even anger - Perot underscores a point that the public loves: That here, indeed, is an honest man who is talking straight talk. This has already taken him far. It could possibly, though not too likely, take him to the White House.

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