WHAT we most knew and admired about Ross Perot was his tough critique of the federal deficit and his impatience with a political culture unable to correct it. Given Washington's inability to make hard choices and its blindness to a staggering national debt, it took a folk-hero outsider like Mr. Perot to make the charge stick.
What we least knew, and what, after Perot's 148-day notion of a presidential run ended last week, we still don't know, was what he proposed to do about the federal deficit, entitlements, defense spending, urban renewal, race relations, foreign policy - or any other major issue of the day.
Millions of Americans, feeling a sharp unease about the country's direction, anchored their hope in the Texas billionaire, expecting him to do what he did in Iran and wanted to do in Vietnam - free them, and save America. They sat outside public libraries in the broiling sun, gathering signatures and talking about Ross and how he would set things right - fix 'em. Many got involved for the first time in years. Now they feel angry and betrayed.
Sadly, Perot's departure is in keeping with his own pattern of contention with others (in this case, his advisers) followed by a quick exit. The anger of many supporters underscores the fact, often raised though ignored, that they never knew Perot.
The immediate question is which candidate, George Bush or Bill Clinton, most benefits from Perot's departure. One can say Mr. Clinton, because Perot's constituency is disaffected and wants change. One can say Mr. Bush because of Perot's strong appeal to white males in the Southern states. In fact, in this unusual election season, no one knows. A lot will happen before November.
Yet before talk shifts to strategy in a two-man race, the Perot phenomenon offers some lessons:
Government defies simplistic nostrums. Magic bullets won't wipe out the deficit. America is not an engineering problem to be solved. The political demands of interest groups cannot be dealt with in corporate fashion. Americans must beware of the cheap grace offered by overnight populism.
America is built on the work of men like Perot. But it may be better off without him as president.