HIS candidacy scares some people, fascinates many others, and both fascinates and scares still others. America's first billionaire presidential candidate is being hailed simultaneously as a can-do, take-charge leader for the times and as an "upstart runt" who might undermine constitutional democracy.
In an election year of surprises, Ross Perot is the biggest surprise of all. It is still probable that he will fade away as Paul Tsongas, Pat Buchanan, and Jerry Brown already have this year. Yet Mr. Perot's candidacy is the most formidable challenge to the two-party system in at least a generation - and he has already helped in major ways to shape the issues to be debated in the 1992 election.
But just why does he fascinate people? Why does he raise the hopes of so many people - perhaps millions of people - who have lost confidence in our parties and in our political system?
A major reason for the rise of Perot is the public's diminished respect for President Bush. Bush may still win reelection, but most of his third and fourth years in office have seen a lackluster performance. Bush's ill-fated trips to Japan, Panama, and the Rio Earth Summit have been illustrative. Bush seems tired, defensive, and whiny, and he bores people. Perot, in contrast, appears vital, chipper, and willing to try fresh approaches to unlock the energies and talents of the nation.
Perot intrigues a lot of people because they believe he just might have the innovative can-do spirit and organizational sense to make government work. After years of seeming stalemate, vast numbers of Americans yearn for a gridlock-bypass operation, and in Perot they see an enormously successful pragmatist who may have just the blend of ruthlessness, tenacity, and fresh energy to get our political and economic officials to focus on what is critical for the nation's health rather than on what's needed to get politicians reelected.
Doubtless we are also fascinated by Perot because he is an uncommonly rich, self-made success story. He fascinates us just as Ford, Carnegie, Hunt, Hughes, Getty, and Sam Walton have also captured our imaginations as well as our envy. Moreover, in Perot's case, we are equally intrigued by his risk-taking, patriotism, rescue missions, and undeniable love of country - most especially of the American Dream.
Perot also has an unusually entertaining and at times even comic style of talking. He is part Harry Truman, part Will Rogers, part Mark Twain, part Huey Long, part the super salesman that both he and Sam Walton have personified in recent years. He smiles a lot. He listens earnestly to his questioners. He talks up rather than down to the viewing television public. He effectively uses pithy metaphors, easy to understand parables, and simple homilies. And he throws in an occasional Texas cornball saying to add some spice.
He is always the salesman - marketing himself, the American Dream, and his vision of a more caring, more healthy, and more dynamic America. His sincere, if naive, faith in electronic town-hall democracy and referendums fascinate a public that increasingly thinks Washington officials have forgotten the art of listening.
Perot is living proof of the generalization that emerging leaders rarely, if ever, have truly original ideas - they just know how to borrow and repackage the ideas of others. Just as Ed Rollins and Hamilton Jordan, Perot's campaign managers, are "borrowed" from the major parties, so Perot borrows freely from issues and approaches suggested by Mr. Tsongas. He borrows, too, from Mr. Buchanan and Mr. Brown and also from his own campaign to introduce more rationality and customer service into General Motors.
Perot embraces the same austerity, anti-waste, and anti-Santa Claus ideas Tsongas touted. He also blends a patriotic nationalism with a watered-down version of Brown-Buchanan protectionism. There is also more than a touch of populist isolationism in Perot's preaching: He says bluntly that the cold war is over and these guys in Washington don't seem to know it. Perot promises that only he can lead us from a cold-war economy to a truly post-cold-war economy.
Perot is in part the creation of the public's needing someone to serve as the sender of a message of no confidence to our two major political parties. Neither party appears to know how to jump-start our economy out of the prolonged recession we have been in. Neither party has put forward an appealing program for making ours a more competitive industrial and manufacturing nation. Neither party seems to know how to devise a just and affordable health-care system for all. Both parties seem clueless about so lving the drug, gang, and violence problems that are ruining our inner cities.
People don't seem to mind that Perot doesn't have specific answers for all these problems. Just the fact that he is available and hasn't failed, as the major parties have failed, is enough to offer both some hope and a means to punish the nation's ruling parties.
Perhaps there is something else at work in this unprecedented fascination with Perot. Many Americans are yearning for their own home-grown pro-democracy movement. We have cheered the Solidarity movement in Poland, the people's no-confidence referendum vote against Chile's General Pinochet, and those valiant students in Tiananmen Square. We applauded with joy when freedom lovers whacked away at the Berlin Wall and defended Boris Yeltsin against the old guard in downtown Moscow. And just a month or so ago we hailed the students and professionals who took to the streets of Bangkok to topple Thailand's military prime minister.
So why not an American pro-democracy movement - one that cries out for real choices, term limits, and a crusade against PACs, perks, and politics-as-usual? Jerry Brown tried, mostly in vain, to stir our imaginations along these lines. And now comes Perot. His is not exactly a typical pro-democracy movement akin to the Solidarity model. Yet it is part populist and certainly anti-establishment.
In any event, authentic or not, it is galvanizing large numbers of nonvoters, independents, and those who have recently despaired of the traditional parties to come out and support someone. Perot, to his credit, is at least getting people interested in what otherwise might have been a dreadfully boring election. He talks a lot about listening, serving, and empowering the people and of harnessing technology and democracy to make the system responsive and accountable.
This may not be quite the pro-democracy movement we need or want, yet it is at least stirring things up, providing added competition, and sending a loud, if not clear, message to the traditional parties that they wake up, and listen, and learn to serve their constituents better.
Perot also fascinates us because he scares many of us. We wonder whether the zealous, impatient, and somewhat authoritarian style that served him well in the high-tech corporate field will serve him and us well in our highest political office. We question his understanding and commitment to constitutionalism and all its checks and balances. We are also concerned about his involvement in both corporate and United States covert operations, and how soon it might be that Oliver North and Rambo operations mig ht be used at home and abroad against those who stand in his way. The paradox here is that we know a president sometimes needs to be ruthless and Machiavellian, yet we also want to strengthen and not weaken constitutional democracy.
If the news media and analysts on both the left and the right give Perot the thorough and critical evaluation they earlier have given Bush, Dan Quayle, and Bill Clinton, Perot's star may fall as theirs have. We are, if anything, tough critics of anyone brash enough to run for the White House.
Still, Citizen Perot - without a party, without a platform, and even without formally declaring his candidacy - has won a significant place in presidential election history. Not since George Wallace has an individual so challenged the traditional parties. Not since Gene McCarthy's dump-LBJ effort has an individual attracted such a large following in merely a few months. No one has used network and cable television as effectively to promote a candidacy. Even before declaring formally, it is Perot and not the incumbent president who is setting the pace and the agenda in this year's election. And we may have just seen the first rounds in a 12-round fight.