Behind Perot's Instant Exit

SO Ross Perot is gone - suddenly, unexpectedly. He had brought to his side millions of voters who saw in him their hopes for better government. He has left them stunned, mournful, angry.

I have to admit it: Ross Perot intrigued me. A private citizen was going to Washington to clean things up. No party, no politics - just a "can-do" guy who had achieved spectacularly in private life and now was going to purify the presidency.

That open, forthright way of his was beguiling. He reminded me, and many others, of Harry Truman. And it is to Harry Truman that I turn to again for an explanation of why Perot dropped out. Truman said, "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." Truman could take the heat.

Perot, in the end, found that he couldn't - or, more accurately, he wouldn't.

What do I think of Perot's explanation - that he had earlier thought he could score a clear victory, but now saw a revived Democratic Party sending the race into the House where he had no chance of winning? I'm afraid Perot is rationalizing here, something he isn't very good at. He's an honest man.

In fact, his support was fading fast; he had dropped from first to last in the polls, with only a 20 percent backing. He could see the soaring popularity of Bill Clinton taking away his supporters. So Perot, who had done it before, decided to cut his losses.

But I think Perot, whether he would admit it or not, welcomed the slippage that enabled him to "explain" his exit. He had tired of the "heat" - of the examination of his past and the unwillingness of reporters to accept his answers about how he would deal with complex problems, like the economy. In exasperation he would say he would deal with it "without breaking a sweat."

"Look at what I've had to go through," Perot said on last Friday's Larry King show, referring to criticism in the media.

He disliked the "process." "All this petty stuff," he said at one point, "you hold your nose and do it." Here he seemed to be referring to the demands on him to hire advisers and shape a detailed course of action. He preferred to simply state his "principles" and then work out solutions after getting elected.

If I were to pick a moment when Perot began to think that he had "enough," it would have been around June 22. On that date, his senior spokesman, James Squires, called the Monitor office and said that Perot would likely be willing to meet with our paper's breakfast group soon. We, of course, eagerly said "yes." Perot was riding high.

Later, Perot had antagonized the NAACP with what that group took as patronizing remarks. Our group would want to question him about that. He, of course, would use such a meeting as an opportunity for what press secretaries call "damage control."

I had for months been trying to get Perot in for a breakfast. Indeed, a close friend of Perot's who, incidentally, is a member of a state supreme court, had called me shortly after Perot "announced" on an earlier King show to urge that he be invited to our group. She said she would tell Perot that he should do it.

Nothing happened. Then I faxed Jim Squires an invitation. Not even a reply - and I had known Squires, former Chicago Tribune editor, for years. I assumed that he had tried the idea on Perot and gotten nowhere with it.

About here I learned that Perot had decided that he didn't like to meet with the print media - that he would prefer to go over their heads on TV programs like King's and Barbara Walters's. He was doing well with this approach, he believed, so why expose himself to what he viewed as unfair and critical questions from the print media?

But then, out of the blue, he's ready to meet with us newspaper types. At the last minute, however, he found he had to change his plans. But he did hold a press conference - in another city - submitting himself to very tough questioning.

I think it was at that time that Perot found that he not only hated the going over he got from the press and political people - but that from then on he couldn't avoid it. From then on, whether he knew it or not, he was looking for a way out of something that for him had become a crucible.

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