It’s impossible to describe the excitement that surrounded Texas businessman Ross Perot in June 1992 to anyone who wasn’t there.
A man who had come out of nowhere was suddenly leading that year’s presidential race. Gallup had the three-way contest at 39 percent for independent Perot; 31 percent for incumbent Republican George H.W. Bush and 25 percent then-Arkansas Democratic Gov. Bill Clinton, who didn’t seem to have a chance.
It was a mind-blowing development. It showed genuine fault lines beneath a two-party system that often was thought to be prohibitively secure.
What made Perot’s ascendancy all the more breathtaking was Bush’s precipitous collapse in the polls. A year earlier, Bush had scored the highest popularity rating in U.S. presidential polling history. His successful prosecution of the first Persian Gulf War had earned him an incredible 89 percent approval rating among U.S. voters. I recall TV pundits laughingly asking whether Democrats would even field a candidate the next year.
But in spring and early summer 1992, it all came apart. The economy had fallen into a recession, Bush broke his 1988 campaign vow to refrain from new taxes, and middle-class families were angry. Bush, who was triumphant on the international stage, appeared feckless on the domestic front, which was all that mattered with the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
More pertinently, Bush came across as out of touch. His wealth and deep Washington experience were suddenly liabilities. His choice of a campaign anthem, Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” showed the deafest of ears.
Perot, who died Tuesday at 89, was there at the right moment to speak up for the ostensibly forgotten middle class. He was a brash, no-nonsense Texas patriot with a long record of helping military veterans and a gift for plain talk. Asked in a debate whether his economic program would be hard to implement, he responded incredulously, and in that inimitable Perot twang, “Hard? Hard?! Living in an iron lung is hard!”
People went for it in droves. Here was a non-politician, and Perot’s hostility toward the political class was cold spring water to Americans thirsting for change. Here, surely, was a businessman who could right the Washington ship. Sound familiar?
But it wasn’t just voters who began to break. Republican operatives who never trusted the patrician Bush the way they did Ronald Reagan were shifting to Perot as well. Reagan’s 1984 campaign manager, Ed Rollins, defected to Perot. Others followed. A revolution in American politics was breaking out, and darned if they were going to miss it.
One of those professionals, a former Reagan White House press officer, asked me to join the revolt in June ’92. I was working for a Republican New York senator at the time, and, after a couple of nights of tossing and turning, I quit my job and said yes. I wasn’t going to miss history, either.
I was on my way to Dublin to get engaged at the time and planned to fly directly to Dallas once (and if) the ring was securely on my girlfriend’s finger. When I arrived in Dublin, I flipped on a TV: Perot had dropped out of the race.
I mercifully got my job back, as stories of Perot’s paranoia and heavy-handedness began to leak, forever damaging the Texan’s political viability. But he would get back in the race and, however badly damaged, he garnered an astounding 19 percent of the national vote as an independent.
Perot did enormous good in his life, not the least of which was putting America’s major parties on notice. For one brief, shining moment, he almost pulled the rug out from under the calcified status quo. For that, we all should be grateful. No party should ever feel totally secure.
Ross Perot, R.I.P.
William F.B. O’Reilly is a consultant to Republicans.