Reform-Minded Texan Ready for White House?

Ross Perot has demonstrated skill as manager and problem solver

ROSS PEROT, the billionaire-who-would-be-president, has electrified the 1992 campaign for the White House. But what kind of man is he? Would he make a good president? Could he successfully make the move from business tycoon to government leader?

A blunt-spoken Texan, Mr. Perot has strong defenders and equally strong detractors. Supporters insist he is exactly what America needs at a time of national self-doubt and economic weakness. Others say they think Perot would be a terrible president, an autocrat who might threaten America's constitutional freedoms in his single-minded drive to get things done.

During the past few days, a dozen Texans who are familiar with Perot's record of public service and business achievement were asked to measure his performance and his personality. This article looks at some of his successes, while the next report will focus on the views of his critics. Even people who are disparaging of Perot admit that there is something special about this self-assured entrepreneur, who took $1,000 in savings and turned it into a fortune worth $2.5 billion to $3.5 billion.

As the founder of Electronic Data Systems, which he later sold to General Motors Corporation, Perot built a business which emphasized personal initiative, fresh ideas, and the kind of strict discipline Perot learned while a cadet at the United States Naval Academy and as an employee at International Business Machines.

Perot doesn't claim to be brilliant. But he was smart enough to gather innovative, intelligent people around him, and give them the latitude they needed to carry out their ideas. When discussing Perot with Texans, similar words pop up again and again. They call him strong, quick, formidable, intelligent, tough, aggressive, well-intended, patriotic, independent, self-confident, nonpartisan, and a maverick.

Grudging praise for Perot comes from people in both major political parties. They particularly take note of the work he did to revive public education in Texas, and to fight illegal drugs.

Jim Oberwetter, the Bush campaign chairman in Texas, says readily that Perot is "a very patriotic American who has helped a number of POW-MIA families, has been involved in Texas issues like education and drugs, and has been successful in business."

George Christian, a former press secretary to President Lyndon Johnson, says that when Perot goes after something, like education reform, he shows bulldog determination.

"He wants to bring as much public support as he can to whatever it is he's working on, particularly education.... He keeps hammering away," Mr. Christian says.

In 1984, Perot was picked by then-Gov. Mark White (D) of Texas to head an education task force, and he quickly made the cause his own. "He was so totally committed to it that he literally took it over," Christian says.

Perot's task force recommended several changes, and he fought for them all: better pay and competency tests for teachers, smaller class sizes, changing the state board of education from elected to appointed, eliminating teacher colleges, and prohibiting extracurricular activities, like football, for students who failed.

Christian says one cannot appreciate Perot's fight for reform without understanding the importance of football to Texas culture.

The "no pass, no play" rule for football players riled die-hard Texas fans, but Perot didn't flinch even when many Texans wanted to punt him out of the state. Christian, who worked with Perot on education reform, recalls: "He really infuriated the football coaches, and those interested in band, pom-pom-waving, and cheerleading. He wasn't against those things, but he didn't want kids spending all their time on that. He wanted penalties to enforce making kids work for better grades."

In addition, Perot had to take on the teachers' lobby, though he only succeeded in getting watered-down competency tests for teachers passed.

Keith Hamm, a political scientist at Rice University in Houston, Texas, says Perot will fearlessly challenge sacred cows when it's necessary to get something done. Nor does Perot grow weary of the fight. "He has follow-through," Professor Hamm says. "He is not a show horse who follows the political winds. Once he makes a decision, he makes a concerted effort."

Politically, Perot seems non-partisan. Democrat White chose him for education reform. Republican Gov. William Clements Jr. picked him to head a study of illegal drugs. And when Republican Ronald Reagan asked Perot to win release of an American hostage in Lebanon, Perot quickly turned to Democrat Jesse Jackson as someone who might be able to help.

Texans all agree on one thing: Perot is a man of action. If he gets to the White House, the lights will burn late into the night in an effort to solve problems. First of two articles. Next: Why some Texans don't want a Perot presidency.

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