Citizen Perot: His Life & Times
By Gerald Posner
400 pp., $25
In his new biography of H. Ross Perot, Gerald Posner effectively strips away the many myths surrounding the Texas billionaire and political figure. And while Posner is careful to give everybody's side in the many controversies surrounding Perot, the end result is a portrait of the man far different from the one he and his supporters would have us see.
The story of Perot's attempts to get out of the Navy, where he was a junior officer, set a pattern for his later career. As long as things were done Perot's way, fine. When they weren't, he wanted out and pulled every political string he could to bring that about (unsuccessfully in the case of the Navy).
One gets the impression of a man who is extremely hard-working, talented, and bright, but who is also impatient and quite convinced that he is right and that his approach to a problem is the best. And Perot comes across as a disturbingly vindictive man who never met a conspiracy theory he didn't like, no matter how preposterous or without basis. This has led him to persecute innocent government officials and to his strange departure from the presidential race in 1992 (he later reentered) on the grounds that Republicans were going to disrupt his daughter's wedding.
Perot made good as the president of Electronic Data Systems (EDS), a computer data-processing company he founded in 1962 after a successful stint as a salesman at IBM. EDS made its billions by processing Medicare-claims for several states, starting with Texas. Even here, Perot insisted on doing things his way: He often got contracts by circumventing competitive bidding procedures and refused to open his company's books to review by the Social Security Administration.
Social Security analysts estimated that it costs 36 cents to process a claim in Texas and that 55 cents was a fair profit for EDS. Perot, however, was charging Texas Blue Cross/Blue Shield $1.06. In addition, audits showed that in Kansas EDS overcounted the number of claims it processed by anywhere from 8 to 35 percent, while in Texas, the overcount in one month reached 129 percent. EDS's computer program was developed with the help of Texas Blue Cross and federal funding, yet Perot treated it as EDS's property and resold it at a significant profit to other states.
The author details other fascinating episodes of Perot's life: His involvement with the Nixon administration, in which he promised the White House much and almost never delivered; his longtime concern with the Vietnam POW-MIA issue; his failed takeover of the DuPont-Glore, Forgan stockbrokerage firm (at White House urging), and his unhappy business marriage to General Motors Corp.
Most interesting are Posner's retelling of Perot's 1979 "rescue" of two EDS employees in Iran and Perot's 1992 presidential bid. Disdaining government help as insufficient to gain the release of two arrested employees, Perot organized a dangerous private commando operation to bust them out of jail. When the Iranian government fell and Islamist mobs stormed the prisons, the two employees were released and found their way to the hotel where Perot's people were staying. The mercenaries drove the EDS men to the Turkish border.
Perot claimed that an Iranian EDS employee working with the commandos organized the storming of the prison and released the two men. This later became the basis for Ken Follett's bestseller "On Wings of Eagles," written under Perot's editorial supervision. Posner finds several witnesses who cast doubt on Perot's tale.
The story of the 1992 campaign is the story of how Perot thought he could run a political campaign with no politics. He hired professional consultants who thought Perot could win, and then fired them without heeding their advice.
Posner's careful interviewing of witnesses and participants shows that Perot's version of events is often at variance with that of others. More disturbing, perhaps, is Perot's tendency to accept conspiracy theories at face value. Perot has claimed that Vice President Al Gore did well in a televised debate because Gore was wearing a secret earpiece and was being fed answers.
This is not a "trash Perot" book, however. Posner is careful to give all versions of the events he relates. He interviewed Perot at length and quotes him extensively, often showing how Perot arrived at his conclusions. Posner's use of first-hand documentation and detailed footnoting bolster his credibility.
*Lawrence J. Goodrich is a Monitor staff writer.