WASHINGTON — ROSS PEROT, testing the waters for the presidency, stepped before the American Society of Newspaper Editors to make his case. When he finished speaking, an editor had a question: What did Mr. Perot think about the recent remarks of Jim Oberwetter, the Bush campaign chairman in Texas?
The editor recalled that Mr. Oberwetter had suggested that, if Perot ran for president, he should "take advice from someone else, which will be hard for him to do."
Perot responded peevishly. He said: "This ... young fellow, is that Oberwetter? OK. I get confused sometimes with bed wetter."
Perot's churlish comment tells a lot about the feisty billionaire businessman, says one of his Texas critics. "He is a man utterly without class," says the critic, who knows Perot, but who asked not to be identified in this story.
Mr. Oberwetter, somewhat stunned by Perot's remark, said afterward he felt like a private who had been tromped on by a general.
In a telephone interview from Dallas, Oberwetter said it was the first time anyone has made fun of his German-American name since he was in grade school. In the aftermath, he found it necessary to explain to his children why a man who wants to be president would ridicule the family name.
As the Perot bandwagon picks up speed, political analysts say the would-be candidate will find his patience and character tested in ways far more revealing than might be the case inside the corporate board room.
John White, a fellow Texan and former Democratic national chairman, says Perot will quickly realize that "being president is not just issuing orders. People don't say, 'Yes, sir,' " as they do in a private company. "Instead of a compliant board of directors, presidents have a 535-member board [the Congress], and every one of them is independent," says White. "So being president is a matter of reason, compromise, and leading by persuasion, rather than by command."
Perot's critics think he may find the give-and-take of government an overwhelming obstacle to the full-speed-ahead style he is used to in private life. They say his "thin-skinned" nature, as demonstrated in the Oberwetter remark, will hurt him if he plunges into the presidential fray.
A number of Texans warn that Perot's view of America reflects the lock-step discipline he learned at the United States Naval Academy. One veteran of Texas politics noted: "He's an egotist of the worst sort. He's also given to militaristic things. He is truly a graduate of Annapolis operating on land, rather than the sea."
Yet Perot partisans cheer, "Ross for Boss," convinced that he will solve the nation's problems. Democratic pollster George Shipley in Austin, Texas, says the idea of a businessman-president has growing appeal to Americans who feel "they don't receive value" from their government.
For those voters, eager for action and progress, "the Perot candidacy is potentially the most exciting thing in America today," he says.
Mr. Shipley, who has watched Perot in action, discounts stories that indicate he could be a militarist or a leader who would short-circuit American freedoms.
He says: "One argument against Perot is that he is unwilling to compromise, and that he is a corn-pone fascist. I don't buy that. Those who know Ross say that he is willing to provide direction, and bring in the best people in the country to do things.
"The hallmark of his businesses is excellent mid-level management. All of his business enterprises have been very well run, and very able to compete around the world."
If Perot won the presidency, Shipley predicts, he would have a bipartisan Cabinet selected from the best people in both parties. It would be problem-solving, pragmatic, and would avoid "sound bites and self-aggrandizing speeches."
Yet Shipley admits that "civil libertarians would not be happy" with Perot's approach to problems such as illegal drugs.
Perot discounts reports that, to fight the illegal drug trade, he would seal off neighborhoods in crime-ridden cities, and conduct door-to-door searches. Shipley predicts that Perot would get extremely tough on crime, and that many voters would find that acceptable.
"I think Americans are ready to entertain those comments [about door-to-door searches] if it eliminated crack cocaine from the streets and schools," he says.
David Hill, a Republican pollster in The Woodlands, Texas, doubts that Perot's success in business will transfer easily to government.
Dr. Hill says: "Perot is the supreme egotist. That tells you a lot about his work style. It is his blessing and his undoing, for he believes in his own charisma and ability." Sometimes it works, as at Electronic Data Systems. Sometimes it does not, as at General Motors. Hill says that in looking over Perot's record in business, his success comes primarily when he is on his own, not when working as part of a larger organization, like GM.
Hill sees another potential problem: "He is an elitist, which will get him in trouble. He believes he knows what will be best for you.... Eventually that will undercut his support."
While Perot's support grows rapidly, now reaching 30 percent nationwide according to a Washington Post-ABC poll, skeptics remain doubtful about his ability to lead the federal government.
"It would be a miracle if he were a good president," says Democrat White.
But George Christian, who was President Lyndon Johnson's press secretary, isn't so gloomy. "I don't worry about him [Perot] being president," he says. "It might be refreshing." Second of two articles, the first of which appeared May 7.