Ross Perot: A Truman Type?

By , Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

THE call-ins to radio talk shows discussing Ross Perot all sound alike: They really don't know anything about him - but they see him as a man of integrity and someone who would act independently in behalf of all Americans.

They'd like to see a successful businessman in the White House. And although they describe it in many ways, they clearly take to his manner and the way he talks. "He talks straight," is the way many of Mr. Perot's admirers put it.

Indeed, if you look at Perot, a bit in profile, you can imagine you are seeing that famous straight talker, Harry Truman. They both look you straight in the eye and say this is the way it is. They both are no-nonsense fellows.

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In the evening TV news I see Perot talking to a group of supporters all aglow over word that their man is leading both Bush and Clinton in California and beating Clinton nationally. "Forget the polls," Perot warns. "We've got work to do."

On seeing this, I was reminded of the 1948 presidential campaign when the polls had just the opposite message for Harry Truman, indicating he would certainly lose to Dewey. And that spunky Mr. Truman was telling his backers to forget the polls and get to work as he plunged energetically into a campaign in which he proved the pollsters and most of the political observers to be dead wrong.

It was Truman who said on more than one occasion that all a president had to do to get things done was "to tell the people the truth." That's what Perot is saying.

Oh, yes, there are many differences. Perot is immensely rich, Truman a man of modest means - he once had failed in a small business enterprise. Perot has no real political experience; Truman was a product of the political system with beginnings in the Pendergast machine.

Yet there's that rather cocky (certainly super-confident) way that Perot walks and talks. That's Truman, too. And there's the feisty Perot, particularly when he gets a question from the press he doesn't like. That's Truman all over.

I recall an interview I had with Truman after he had retired to Independence, Missouri.

He was sharp with me when I asked him an unwanted question about his relationship with Eisenhower. He didn't like Ike, and he didn't want to talk about him. From then on the ex-president was prickly - anxious to get the interview over with as soon as possible.

But let's look at a few of the Truman quotes from the 1948 campaign and see if they aren't similar to what Perot is saying - or might have said back then. (And here I am indebted to David McCullough and his splendid new biography, "Truman.")

"You don't get any double talk from me," Truman declared from a brightly decorated bandstand at Sparks, Nev. "I'm either for something or against it, and you know it. You know what I stand for."

What he stood for was a government of and for the people not the "special interests." Sound like someone you've listened to lately? That's the kind of talk that turned the Truman campaign around. And that's what is making Perot take off in the polls.

Again, let's listen to some 1948 Truman straight talk to the voters: "Our government is made up of the people. You are the government. I am only your hired servant." Haven't you in recent weeks heard almost those precise words on TV, out of the mouth of this fellow whose slight Texas twang isn't far removed from Truman's Missouri accent?

"Some things are worthy to fight for," Truman said in a speech to Texans during the campaign. "We must fight ... the profiteers and the privileged class.... Our primary concern is for the little fellow. We think the big boys have always done very well, taking care of themselves. It is the business of government to see that the little fellow gets a square deal...."

Actually, you have to wonder: Could it be that Perot has decided to model himself after Harry Truman? If so, he's seeking to follow in the footsteps of one of the greatest campaigners of them all.

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