Can a Self-Made Billionaire Become a Self-Made President?

JONATHAN RHODES is 20 months old and owes $15,000 - his share of the $4 trillion United States national debt. "We are following the exact same path that the Byzantine and Roman Empire followed. We are in decline," warns David Rhodes, Jonathan's father. "It's time to turn it around."

So Mr. Rhodes took six weeks off from his Austin real estate job to help put Dallasite H. Ross Perot on the Texas ballot as an independent presidential candidate.

No third-party candidate has won the presidency since Republicans overcame the fractured Democrats and Whigs to elect Abraham Lincoln, notes John Green, director of the Bliss Institute at the University of Akron. He rates Mr. Perot's chances, who would be an independent candidate, not even a third-party candidate, at "virtually nil."

But Mark White, who backs Bill Clinton, sees a "very good" chance of a Perot victory. "Many people get elected, not because they're so good, but because of events and circumstances, including myself," the former Texas governor says.

Just as in Mr. White's first race, Perot could be assisted by the unpopularity of the incumbent and public frenzy for change.

Perot is a self-made billionaire three times over, a populist who eats with employees in the company cafeteria, a champion of Vietnam veterans, funder of covert operations, scourge of General Motors Corporation bureaucracy, opponent of the Gulf war, a diminutive dynamo who puts heart, mouth, and money into his crusade of the moment.

In 1969 it was better treatment for Hanoi's US prisoners of war. In 1979, freedom for two employees imprisoned in revolutionary Iran. In 1981, a Republican governor's "war on drugs." In 1984, a Democratic governor's education reforms.

In 1992 it's a quest for the White House, backed by $100 million of Perot's pocket change - provided that the public puts him on the ballot in all 50 states. That will take until August, Rhodes says.

Given the 1.5 million telephone calls in a two-week period to his impromptu campaign headquarters, few people doubt Perot will join the race officially.

Republicans and Democrats say Perot belongs in each others' parties, but other observers say he is a problem-solving pragmatist devoid of ideology. Called the world's most impatient man by the GM chairman with whom he clashed and lost, Perot has made remarkable achievements, but also his share of impetuous blunders.

No one seems to mind that Perot's successful, covert rescue mission violated US and international law. However, civil libertarians shudder at the recommendation he once made that police cordon off a black neighborhood and search door-to-door for weapons and drugs.

Tough, candid talk thrills reactionary white voters but loses elections. Charles Royer, who directs the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass., compares Perot with John Silber. The Massachusetts Democrat "probably could have been elected governor if he had been able to control his mouth some," he says.

Fred Meyer, chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, offers the example of Clayton Williams. The Texas Republican's lip was often embarrassingly unzipped during his botched try for the governor's mansion.

Perot has spoken in favor of a line-item veto for the president, a simpler tax code, elimination of federal benefits for the wealthy (for years Perot didn't deduct his charitable contributions when figuring his tax bill), elimination of government perks, reduction of federal pension benefits, billing Japan and Germany for US defense costs, getting government on the side of business, shorter presidential campaigns, women's right to choose on abortion, and tighter gun controls.

He opposes deficit spending, Congress's right to raise taxes (though he says a reformed tax code must boost revenue), free trade with Mexico, political-action committees, and exit polls.

That leaves a lot of ground uncovered: the Spotted Owl, funding for AIDS research, the Middle East conflict, membership in the IMF for Russia, etc.

Until his candidacy is official, though, Perot's ballot-drive staff refuses even to confirm his on-the-record positions.

As it is, his known positions are "bizarre, impractical," Mr. Meyer charges. He scoffs at the notion of Japan and Germany agreeing to pay $100 billion each to keep US forces stationed nearby.

Perot's tax and budget proposals would take an amendment to the Constitution, which requires a two-thirds vote of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the states.

"When you're not a member of the Republican or Democratic Party, tell me how much cooperation you're going to get," Meyer says.

All observers, partisan or not, wonder whether an autocratic businessman can adjust to government.

"He's a snap-your-fingers-and-they-jump kind of guy," says Mr. Royer, a former three-term mayor of Seattle. "I'm very nervous about people who don't have some sense of the way decisions get made in a political system."

Perot has stated that, as president, he would compromise with no one. To Royer, that recalls Dixie Lee Ray, an academic who served one term as governor of Washington. She "alienated nearly everybody in the state and virtually wrecked the state government, and left hating the press and government and everybody else," he says. "She just believed that she was the governor ... and that people should do what she wanted them to do."

"Oh, come on," answers Tom Luce, Perot's lawyer and longtime friend. "You need to look at his record. He's been involved in the public arena before: education, drugs. What represents Ross in a unique way is his ability to build a consensus to enact change."

Perot's "war on drugs" campaign failed to live up to his prediciton that drug dealers would clear out of Texas. He got the Legislature to toughen drug laws, but overlooked the corresponding need to fund more prisons and law enforcement. Drug dealers thrive here.

On education reform, the consensus put together by Perot and state leaders omitted teachers. "Rightly or wrongly, we were blamed for trying to ram it down the teachers' throats," says White, who appointed Perot to lead the effort. However, Perot's "name wasn't on the ballot; mine was."

Teachers were instrumental in defeating White at the next election.

Ironically, Annette Cootes, a spokeswoman for the Texas State Teachers Association, says Perot "did a lot of good." The no pass, no play provision forced athletes to make better grades. Early education for minority children has caused "phenomenal" increases in their test scores.

But there was also "the bad and the ugly" side of reform, says Ms. Cootes, whose organization endorsed Clinton. "We're now undoing a lot of the red tape [that] absolutely paralyzed the schools." Overall, student scores are "inching up ever so slowly," she says. Teacher pay jumped above the national average for the first time in history following reform, but now ranks lower than before. Court decisions have shattered the state's school funding mechanism.

As for skeletons in Perot's closet: "I can think of nothing," says William Youngblood, an editorial writer at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "I think this is Mr. Clean. I have heard nothing detrimental at all."

Notwithstanding his pro-choice stance on abortion, Perot, married with five children, has a reputation of commitment to conservative family values. Back when Perot was running Electronic Data Systems Corporation, the company he founded and later sold to GM, an extramarital affair reportedly could cost an employee his job.

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