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The Rescuer

Like other departments of biology, history remains at bottom a natural selection of the fittest individuals and groups in a struggle wherein goodness receives no favors, misfortunes abound, and the final test is the ability to survive;…the universe has no prejudice in favor of Christ as against Genghis Khan.25

Though the book is one hundred pages long, not eighty, it is in large print, and one wonders what Perot makes of its unrelenting hostility to religion. Like good Social Darwinists, the Durants treat religion as “a secondary sexual characteristic of the female.”26 When I ask Perot about his religious background he says he went to church “like everybody else [in Texarkana]—and some of it must have rubbed off, even on the boys.”

We have barely settled down again, knee to knee, before he is up to fetch another book, one he made famous, which he also presses on me. The cover says “Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun, by Wess Roberts, Ph.D.” A readership secret of common sense suggests that one stay away from books whose authors identify themselves on the cover with a Ph.D.—we can expect to find a writer who does not know the difference between “adapt” and “adopt.” But, even warned, we may be surprised to find Attila repeatedly giving “council” to his Hunnish “counsel.”

Perot admired the book so much that he gave away hundreds of copies when it was an obscure volume turned out by a vanity publisher. He disconcerted Roger Smith when he tried to distribute five hundred copies as party favors at a GM company dinner. Albert Lee’s account of that in Call Me Roger made the book notorious, and the consequent move to a commercial publisher made it a best seller. Perot’s strange affection for the book may stem from Robert’s discovery that Attila was a Boy Scout: “Above all things, a Hun must be loyal.” It is true that Attila engaged in pillage, but one must understand that “looting was, for the Huns, simply a part of post-battle etiquette.” It would, beyond question, be interesting to have a president who has learned his history from Dr. Durant and his morals from Dr. Roberts. (Happily, Perot has not drawn his grammar from Roberts. Perot’s sentences parse.)

Perot speaks with genuine and winning warmth of his upbringing in an idyllic Texarkana, a place of communal solidarity and civic spirit. I ask how he escaped the racism for which East Texas is known, and he gives credit to his father. “All of his workers—or most of them—were black, and each carried his [the father’s] calling card. ‘If anybody treats you rudely, show him this card.’ Nobody would bother the people that worked for my dad.” That episode may help explain the paternalism Perot exercised at EDS—giving out bonuses, special medical care, rewards as personal (often spectacular) gestures, but not creating a plan of expectable incentives.

The idyllic note fades abruptly when Perot is asked something he does not think a fitting question. When I say that “the people” he is going to bring back into the system have been encouraging unreality by applauding pledges like “no new taxes,” he tells me I am divorced from the real world, like everyone inside the Beltway. (I live in Evanston, Illinois, but Perot is quick to typecast critics.) “You are a total creature of the system and the establishment. You guys have been breathing the same air and drinking the same water for too long. You’re kinda inbred.”

When Perot told me he had to take over health care because the government bureaucracy could not handle it, I ask if he thinks government can do some things well. “Jesus,” he mutters to himself in disgust. It is clear that I am no better than the “arrogant, condescending” questioners he met on Sunday talk shows—probably no better than Linda Wertheimer of National Public Radio, whom Perot accused of doing some unnamed enemy of his a “personal favor” when she asked a question based on a Wall Street Journal report.

Even when I said things complimentary to Perot, he wanted to talk about his critics. Asking about his East Texan roots, I said I had never heard him called a racist. “You will in a day or two. The process is so irrelevant. I was never arrogant until two months ago.” When I ask him if he favors covert actions, he sighs in disgust and says, “Name one.” When I name the Iran rescue, he says that was only covert of necessity, because the government would not get his men back—by a covert action, presumably. All his other work for MIAs, POWs, hostages, has been done only at the request of the government, “and that at the highest levels.” What about his dealings with Oliver North? “You’re missing the point—he was a walk-on bit player. You don’t think I would react to—the request came from much, much higher, from the most senior people in the government.”

According to Perot, all his work for the military was in response to governmental pleas for help. Earlier, he told me he worked for Blue Cross while setting up EDS because Blue Cross asked him to “help out.” EDS itself was set up because the bureaucracy needed what it could not supply. Perot sounds like Amahl in Menotti’s opera, who defends his demands on the three kings by telling his mother, “They kept asking me questions.”

Yet there is ample evidence for Perot’s fascination with military derring-do and secret missions. He has played a tape he secretly made of his own telephone call to Oliver North, setting up a meeting with North’s lawyers—despite his claim to me that he only responded to North as a negligible errand boy for “senior people” much, much higher up.27

Perot, who prides himself on being what business people call a “self-starter” in his own affairs, claims that, until this moment, he only reacted in political matters. Yet he has probed murky areas as a kind of ombudsman for paramilitary activities. He mounted his own investigation of the so-called “October Surprise”—the Reagan campaign’s alleged effort to delay hostage releases from Iran till after the 1980 election.28 He has even followed up reports of an international drug operation flying out of Arkansas during Clinton’s governorship.29

Perot has made himself the champion for military personnel neglected by this government. His attacks on Richard Armitage, the Reagan appointee for MIA affairs, hinted at a government conspiracy to abandon missing Americans, motivated perhaps by what Perot considered Armitage’s compromising relations with a Vietnamese woman.30 Perot opposed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as a sneaky plot to insult veterans, and backed the addition of statues to glorify the fighting men who survived. He has a small model of the statues added to the memorial, which he shows me on the way out, saying it took “eighteen very unpleasant months” for him to win that battle for the veterans, “who wanted it, and are happy.”

With the exception of Perot’s admirable work for educational reform in Texas, which led to teacher testing and a “no pass, no play” rule for high-school football players, almost all of his crusades have been for officers of the military or law enforcement. He has said that any war he wages on drugs would “not be pretty,” and his campaign for tougher enforcement in Texas entailed the removal of a civilian review board as a check on the police.31 According to several witnesses, he talked then of waging a “civil war” against drugs, and of cordoning off targeted neighborhoods for house-to-house searches. He now denies these comments, but did not challenge them when they were first published. Peter Elkind of the Dallas Observer says Perot supported them even after they were reported.32

Perot’s readiness to defend officers against remiss supervisors was most spectacularly proved in the case of a Tyler, Texas, drug case made famous by the recent book and movie, Rush. Perot hired private guards, and supplied a Dallas “safe house,” for police who claimed to be the target of drug dealers’ threats. Unfortunately for Perot, the police were themselves dealing drugs, and their tainted testimony led to the invalidating of drug convictions.33

But the greatest proof of Perot’s penchant for military swashbuckling lies in the corridors that wind off from his office, which contain emblems and trophies of war. Though our hour in the office had gone beyond my scheduled time, and Perot had people waiting for their own appointments, he took me on a tour of his wide-flung treasures. We began with a life-sized color photo of Bull Simons, Perot’s hero and exemplar. “Look at those eyes.” Simons was so magnetic that “my dog went to him instead of me when the Colonel was staying with us.” In fact, after Simons left, the first thing the dog would do, when let out of the house, was run for the guest house where the Colonel had been staying.

Down one corridor, a copy of the Houdon bust of John Paul Jones leads to some huge paintings of eighteenth-century sea battles. Perot points to “the award I value most,” given him by the Air Force Sergeants, and to a poster signed by all the Vietnam POWs. “They must not think I’m crazy.” There are framed letters sent by military personnel for whom Perot did favors. One is affixed to a picture of the Miss America finalists performing on a navy ship. “They could not go ashore [in the Gulf War], and entertainers were being sent to them. I asked who, and they said, ‘Wayne Newton.’ I said, ‘The navy must have changed since my day. Let me get you some girls.’ I got them Miss America and all that year’s finalists.”

One moving letter, with a picture included in the frame, is from a man whose life Perot saved by getting specialists to him during the Gulf War (of which Perot disapproved). Told the man would die without a team of specialists, Perot tried to send the doctors from America—but they would not arrive in time. “I called the National Command Center in the Pentagon, where the chief duty officers are generals and admirals. I told the general on duty that there were doctors, called up in the reserves to serve in the Middle East, who could save the man. Two and a half hours later, the doctors were in his hospital room. Isn’t this a wonderful organization, when a full general can do that for a mere soldier?” Of course, the general was not doing it until a billionaire with political clout called him.

There is no question that Perot would love to be the Commander in Chief of these military men. He is already their patron. The Pentagon would be his minotaur’s lair with a shrine to “Bull” at its heart. The secrecy, the mendacity, the deviousness of EDS’s early days would be transferred to the United States government. Duck.

  1. 25

    Will and Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History (Simon and Schuster, 1968), p. 46.

  2. 26

    Durants, Lessons, pp. 48–49.

  3. 27

    Perot Releases Tape to Rebut North,” staff article in Dallas Morning News, October 26, 1991.

  4. 28

    David Rogers, “Perot Sent a Team to Investigate Claims of Bush Role,” Wall Street Journal, April 14, 1992.

  5. 29

    Terry Lemons and Jane Fullerton, “Perot Called Clinton About Mena Inquiry,” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 19, 1992.

  6. 30

    The Washington Post, March 29, 1992, p. C–7.

  7. 31

    Tucker, D Magazine, p. 51.

  8. 32

    David Jackson, “Controversial Quotes Hurt Perot,” Dallas Morning News, April 18, 1992.

  9. 33

    Mason, Perot, p. 125.

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