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The Rescuer

1.

There never was a company quite like EDS (Electronic Data Systems). It filled an opening created by an explosive technology early in the 1960s; but its founder, Ross Perot, did not recruit for technological skills. Himself trained as an electrical engineer at the Naval Academy, he had been in the middle of his class academically. He valued other qualities, in himself and others, and sought specific types for his business venture. As he said when I interviewed him recently in Dallas, “I never had any of the ideas I used, but I used them with a focus and relentlessness that is somewhat unique. What I bring to the table is that I make things work.”

Perot wanted men who were, like him, doers rather than thinkers. They should be married, though he intended to take them away from their wives for long stretches of time. He favored men with military experience, preferably combat experience—an odd qualification for people who would mainly be computer programmers and operators. Like J. Edgar Hoover, he liked to recruit people from religious schools. He put them in uniform—dark suits, white shirts, plain ties, short hair, smooth-shaven. He encouraged secrecy. The firm’s very name was vague, and he explained its business, noncommittally, as “facilities management.” He wanted others to know as little as possible about his unit’s activities. Even his closest associates should not be certain what their fellows in the company were earning. You might think he was setting up a paramilitary operation—and, in a way, he was.

The gap Perot meant to fill was more a manpower problem than a technological one. Perot had been an IBM salesman, selling the company’s computers to people who were clamoring for this new wonder—who, in fact, had trouble getting the computers they wanted, so far was demand running ahead of supply. Perot, who quickly met his selling quota under these conditions, saw that the computers already in service were being used for only some of their capacity, and not even efficiently, to do the work for which they had been programmed. Tailoring the software to each business’s peculiar needs, then entering all the requisite information into the program, was immensely time-consuming. The in-house programmers of most purchasers were setting up their systems tentatively, in stages, over a long period. If new programmers were hired for the initial, labor-intensive part of this process, they would have to be laid off as soon as timesaving goals were reached.

Perot saw the obvious and acted on it. If he brought in a team of specialists for fitting the computers to individual company needs, he could, by a crash effort, cut the initial programming time, eliminate the need for in-house operators, and then maintain the system for a prestated fee, while his initial team moved on to new companies. He could even set up systems for those people still waiting for their own computers, renting other companies’ idle machines, so the system would go into instant operation when the computer arrived.

When he started, Perot owned not a single computer himself; but he knew where to find underused computers he could rent, for a fee, in off-hours, piggybacking on those who had bought larger computers than they would, for a while, be using to capacity. This piggybacking operation gave EDS its hit-and-run atmosphere, suggestive of commando raids. When Perot found the right computers with idle time, or the company that wanted results fast, he dispatched his acquiescent warriors to mount nighttime assaults, or to work round the clock. The computer he was using, or the company to be serviced, might be in a distant city. When he planned a system, his “eagles” (as he called them) would absorb huge amounts of paperwork, getting to know the relevant business’ needs as well as its own officers did. “We built our industry doing in ninety days what people said would take eighteen months.” The eagles, in their Holiday Inn eyries, lived four to a room, two working while two cycled into the room’s two beds. When the first woman was, against initial resistance, admitted to the team, she had to prove her commando nature by scaling, one night, a wire fence interposed between her deadline and an idle computer.1 The multiple-activity EDS troops did whatever was needed at the site to which they were dispatched—analysis of business needs, creation of computer systems, programs and operation of the computers.

An air of risk forged camaraderie, as Perot improvised, bending rules and (sometimes) laws. He was using IBM software, blocking more ambitious IBM sales as he got better service out of existing equipment, raiding IBM-trained personnel. He gambled that IBM, haunted by SEC misgivings over a computer monopoly, would not dare take action against a small competitor in its takeoff stage. IBM did create a five-man team to warn against Perot’s predatory ways—but that backfired when Frito-Lay, the potato chip company, gave Perot one of his first large contracts for rationalizing the distribution of perishables in different price markets. The Frito CEO thought anyone who scared IBM must be onto something.

A more serious legal challenge would be mounted against Perot by the Social Security Administration (SSA), which was put in charge of the burgeoning new Medicare and Medicaid Programs. Perot was in the right place when legislation introduced these programs—for reasons he does not like to remember. The Perot myth has him leaving IBM early in 1962 to set up his own business on $1,000 belonging to his wife. Actually, he went to work for his friend Tom Beauchamps as a data-processing consultant at Blue Cross of Texas. He would continue to hold this part-time job (bringing him $20,000 a year when the SSA looked into the matter) for the first six years of EDS’s existence.2 He worked in his Blue Cross office in the morning and used it as a command post for EDS’s scattered activities in the afternoon. “We always worked on the customer’s premises because we could not afford our own office space.” The company was also “piggybacking” off Perot’s Blue Cross office.

In 1966, while he was still an in-house data systems man, he sold Blue Cross the services of his external company, EDS. By the time the SSA learned of this strange arrangement, which involved government money, there were no records of the way the contract was negotiated. Although Blue Cross was supposed to get SSA approval of large contracts, it did not even give notice of this one. HEW would later record: “We were informed by the plan representatives that no written record of the negotiations between the plan and EDS was available. We were also informed that no competitive bids were obtained.”3 Perot’s desire for secrecy had prevailed.

By the time Texas Blue Cross was negotiating a larger contract with Perot in 1967, an ex-employee of Blue Cross informed the SSA that Perot still worked for the firm contracting with his own company. The protests of SSA made Perot resign, finally, in December of 1967, just one month before EDS won its new contract.4 He had surrendered one point, only to present SSA with another challenge. Unlike other contractors with the government, he refused to show the SSA his books. “He did not want to share his knowledge, his know-how, with the government.”5 He had been privy to all the details of the Blue Cross operation, but he refused to reciprocate—though every other contractor in his position had submitted to this condition.6 When, at last, seeking new health contracts in other states, Perot did open his books, the government found them empty. He had turned over the accounts of a subsidiary set up to deal with the federal government—EDSF—which reported no profits because it turned all its earnings back to the parent company (EDS), whose books were still sealed.7

Perot was able to defy the government while raking in millions of dollars from government contracts because he was the first on the scene when a flood of new policies, rules, and claims had caused an immense traffic jam. Perot had the earliest systems, the trained troops, the inside knowledge that made it impossible for others to work up competitive bids. If he got the job done, state insurers had no time to fulfill normal requirements in the contracting procedure. He was left to make his own rules. Thomas Tierney of the SSA admitted to a House subcommittee that, so long as the flood of demands was dealt with, “I do not care where the money was going.”8 As Representative John Buchanan added, wryly: “They [EDS] developed the expertise first, and they had plenty of taxpayer’s money to help them.”9 The health insurance contracts boosted Perot’s operation daily, before others had any chance to get off the ground. In 1968, his company had nineteen full-time employees to recruit programmers and other experts, “or about eighteen more than most software companies that size.”10

Yet Perot was still short of capital. He had plowed his earnings back into expansion. Having started with no computers or office space, he had to create a large training center, with up-to-date equipment, to deploy his new workers rapidly. He had rewarded his first eagles with company stock, which was not being valued because it could not be traded. At the height of the go-go 1968 market, he went public in a carefully studied and controlled way, and his issue sold “at more than a hundred times earnings, the highest price yet.”11 This made him, overnight, a multimillionaire.

The myth of Ross Perot, and of EDS, was now taking shape. It would reach its zenith in 1979 when Perot hired a soldier of fortune to lead a rescue of two EDS executives being held hostage, in the early stages of the Iranian revolution, by the Bakhtiar government. The important thing about this effort—which succeeded with luck, since it coincided with a riot that freed all the prisoners—was that Perot sent EDS employees to save their fellows. He even went himself, to scout the prison, using the pretext that he was delivering NBC tapes from a rented plane. “I just dropped the tapes off in the customs area—they were used to the sight.” The whole company shared in the risk, reliving its earliest days of clandestine “strikes” at targets of opportunity. “I had two choices, either leave them there, and let them die, or go and get them. I went through the list of my people, and got all the guys who had best records in terms of—this was ‘79—a lot of young officers who came back from Vietnam, you see, they had been off the battlefield for ten years. And I’ll never forget those conversations. They had wives, children, house payments, all the responsibilities. They were successful young engineers, and I thought maybe one out of five would want to do it. Every single one I talked to volunteered.”

Perot, who stage-manages his own image with great skill, hired thriller-writer Ken Follett to celebrate the exploit in a book with the Perotian title, On Wings of Eagles. Perot kept approval rights for both the book and the TV miniseries made from it. Follett had to be artfully evasive about EDS’s relations with those around the Shah, people Perot subsidized through the Mahvi Foundation he used as his middlemen. But Perot had now acquired an identity—the Rescuer—that he has tried to fill ever since, going after POWs, MIAs, and other hostages with money and secrecy, sometimes in collusion with Oliver North, sometimes with nutty spotters of mythical MIAs.12 He was beginning to specialize in fiction.

2.

Perot, like most inspirational storytellers, has a gift for improving facts to make a point. Todd Mason, his unauthorized biographer, shows he twisted the story of a straightforward military contract to make EDS look like a fearless enemy of bureaucratic procedure.13 If he will do that to boost others in his company, we should not be surprised when he embroiders his own exploits—though he insists he speaks nothing but the plain truth. When Ken Follett told someone he was interviewing for On Wings of Eagles that Ross “when telling a funny story will cheerfully alter the facts,” word quickly got back to Perot, who called Follett at once and demanded more reverence toward his versions of the truth.14

Even before his embellishings, Perot’s childhood is the stuff of Norman Rockwell pictures. He did not quite go to a one-room schoolhouse, but he was not far shy of doing so. The eponymous Patty Hill School (kindergarten through sixth grade) was run by a devoted teacher who was both traditional and progressive. The day started with Bible recitation and included discussion of current events (prickly stuff during the Depression). Classes ranged in size from about ten pupils down to four, several classes clustering in the same room. “Miss Hill had only one assistant to handle the forty or fifty in the whole school,” according to Hayes McClerkin, who was a year behind Perot. “There was only one bathroom for everybody, and you could count the day a success if you didn’t pee in your pants even once.”

The little school trained its pupils well. McClerkin, who lived on the Arkansas side of Texarkana’s main street, became speaker of the Arkansas House and a 1970 candidate for governor. (Perot has recently called McClerkin to check up on the current governor of Arkansas.) A classmate of McClerkin’s, Fred Graham, became the legal correspondent for CBS. McClerkin, Graham, and Perot form an extraordinary cluster in a town that had produced no one famous since Scott Joplin grew up there in the nineteenth century.

Perot went to Miss Hill’s School for the same reason McClerkin did—they were too young, by some months, to enter the public school. When Perot left the private school, he jumped a grade—not, he modestly says, because of his academic performance, but because Texas had just added a twelfth year to its school system and “those of us in between were skipped ahead.” Dorothy Speed, who taught him in the ninth grade, remembers: “He was very, very quiet and retiring—he always had the answer, but you had to call on him to know that. Teachers who had him at that level are amazed at how he turned out.” Ellene Johnson, who taught him government, says: “He was not talkative. He was not an outstanding student, but he was a good one. He wasn’t interested in government at that stage, only in journalism—the yearbook and the school paper.”

When I relayed this comment to Perot, he recoiled energetically from the idea of ever having been a journalist (not a profession he thinks well of). “I only worked on the yearbook.” Mrs. Johnson says his older sister, Bette, was the outgoing Perot, whose good grades and “outstanding personality” made her more memorable than her quiet brother. Perot was precluded by his size and age from the most sacred of Texas high-school activities—football.

Early on, Perot decided that his storybook childhood needed some touches more expressive of Texan values. He has often claimed that he started breaking wild horses for his father at the age of eight, earning one dollar per broken horse (and several breaks to his own nose). He also claims he had a very loving mother, however—and it is hard to imagine any mother letting a tiny eight-year-old mount wild horses. When I asked the Texarkana Gazette reporter who writes on Perot’s childhood if she had tried to verify this story, she said, “Yes.” How? “I asked Ross. It’s absolutely true. Besides, his nose is broken.” That recalls Mark Twain’s proof that a miracle took place near a tree: “Well, there’s the tree.”

Josh Morriss, who lived in the same block as Perot, says, “We were on the edge of town and we kept some horses—I had a Shetland pony.” But he does not recall people breaking wild horses. Nor does Hayes McClerkin. “Mr. Perot was rather large to be thinking of wild horses. They kept some riding horses, like pets, you know.” The thirteen-year-old Ross was a great collector of animals, as one can tell from his Boy Scout merit badges. He put off till later things like metalwork and woodwork. Instead, in the single month of October 1943, he got his badges in poultry keeping, hog and pork production, animal industry, and bird study. The yard was populated enough without introducing wild horses.

Perot also claims he rode his horse into the black section of Texarkana to deliver papers where no one had been able to before. The quiet student was a hell of a fellow by his own account, making friends with the whores along his paper route, demanding special payment for dangerous paper delivery. But J.B. Rochelle, now a doctor in Texarkana, had delivered papers in that neighborhood before Perot did. Others saw Perot riding a bike on his paper route. Hayes McClerkin says, “I’m sure Ross may have ridden his horse on some occasion—given the state of the roads, it would have made sense—just as I’m sure his father drove him at times, in bad weather, to deliver his papers.” McClerkin’s version fits better the picture of Texarkana that Perot himself has drawn at times. So far from it being a dangerous place, “we never worried about safety—though my mother fed hobos off the trains, we never locked doors.” The town was so sleepy and devoid of excitement that “people used to hang out at the train station and the bus depot to see the people going through.” On a Saturday night families parked on the main street to gossip with each other.15

Perot’s legend has him making Eagle Scout in record time, a year and a half, though Hayes McClerkin did the same without forging an epic of the tale. Perot built a very handsome Boy Scout Center in Texarkana, just behind the National Guard armory on the edge of woodsy Spring Lake Park. A sculpted eagle medallion is on the outer wall, like the one Perot hung in his EDS office, with that company’s first slogan: “Eagles Do Not Flock. You Have to Find Them One By One.” Displayed in the Scout Center lobby are all Perot’s cards, certificates, and badges, from Cub Scout to Eagle, and his leatherwork pouch, his Indian-bead belt.

His Scout handbook is there. The woman at the desk took it out of the case to show me how thoroughly worn it was by his thumb. I once worked in a seminary bindery, where I saw many very worn missals and prayer books, but never anything like this. The books I saw were worn at the top and in various places as the user sought favorite passages. Perot’s book is worn uniformly in the middle, in a shallow half-moon as regular as (though much larger than) one of the index indentations in a dictionary. The neatly scooped-out area runs only half-way through the book. Well, as Twain would say, most shrines contain manufactured relics.

Perot went to Texarkana Junior College, housed in a building in the same block that contained the town’s junior high and high-school buildings. Perot, who was class president, effectively lobbied the administration to move the college away from its humiliating physical subordination to the high school—and its football stadium. He was showing the leadership traits that made him class president at Annapolis despite his mediocre grades. (Josh Morriss, his neighbor who preceded him to the Naval Academy, still wonders how Perot passed the height requirement.)

Perot was a midshipman during the Korean War, and he confided to Hayes McClerkin, during one summer vacation, that he meant to enter the Marines. This astonished McClerkin, since Marine lieutenants were being devoured by the fighting. Perot said, “If you get out of it at all, your chances are good of making general.” But the war ended shortly after Perot was commissioned an officer, and he was soon unhappy with the Navy. He told a Newsweek reporter that he transferred from one ship because the captain demanded irregular perks.16 Yet Perot would show a lively sense of his own perks as a rich and prominent businessman. When his daughter was stopped in 1988 for speeding and officers found a pistol in her car, they let her go with just a verbal admonition after learning her father’s identity. The next day, Perot summoned the police to his office, where they expected to be thanked or congratulated or rewarded. Instead he raged at them for daring to interfere with his daughter’s driving at all. 17

3.

Some people, while granting Perot’s success in the business world, have questioned whether business techniques are appropriate or effective in the political sphere. But it is not certain that Perot, outside the extraordinary circumstances of EDS’s initial coup, is an effective business leader. He has certainly continued to make money, but mainly by selling the rights to his first company—to public investors in 1968, to GM in 1984 ($2.5 billion), and again to GM in 1986 (when he surrendered his personal stake in EDS for $700 million). This money has been well invested, especially in real estate. But tending a portfolio is not the same as running a business—especially as Perot had defined leadership at EDS. On this score, nothing he has done approached his original success.

There was, for instance, his loss of $97 million invested in the brokerage firms of duPont Glore Forgan and Walston and Company (1971–1974).18 Perot responded to pleas from the Nixon administration to prop up the New York Stock Exchange, and he would later—to get a tax break—present his efforts for duPont and Walston as patriotic ventures. But EDS stockholders were not told their officers were taking on a $100 million exercise in altruism. The contemporary evidence suggests that Perot thought he could use duPont to get a model for better computerizing other brokerage activities—as he used Texas Blue Cross to create models for use on other state health programs. The poor state of the market helped sink the duPont exercise. For whatever reason. Perot’s first major investment after EDS was a huge and costly flop.

Then there was Perot’s failure at General Motors. A myth grew up after GM’s purchase of EDS in 1984 that the auto company wanted to use Perot’s leadership to remake its corporate identity, and that Perot went along because he wanted to rescue Detroit from Japan’s depredations. Both parties would, for a while, lend support to this version of the purchase. But things had begun far more conventionally. At the time of the mergers-and-acquisitions binge, Roger Smith of GM decided he wanted to diversify GM and take out the insurance of acquiring a profitable company. Salomon Brothers, the investment bankers, prepared a list of prospects (a “menu” or “shopping list”) with twelve companies on it, including Hughes Aircraft, which GM also purchased. EDS, which seemed on the verge of a new giant contract with AT&T, looked as if it were growing faster than the other companies, and Salomon was authorized to make a quiet friendly bid.

Perot was not eager to sell, but he entertained the offer, at first, to see if he could at least get a contract for computer work at GM. The cover story invented to keep the negotiations secret was that Perot was visiting Detroit to consider an EDS job for GM—and the cover story was partly the real story in Perot’s eyes. He liked to use any contacts with a large system to scout up business—as he had used his insider’s job at Blue Cross to set up health system codes.

It was Perot’s tactic, as well as his real instinct, to play hard-to-get. The longer the negotiation was prolonged, the more valuable information he was acquiring. But this tough stand played to an amazing streak of masochism in Roger Smith. An accountant who had risen to the top in Detroit by his deskwork at the ledgers, Smith was painfully aware that he lacked the flamboyant skills of Detroit’s swash-buckling leaders. He thought he could purchase some flair—a vain hope that led to the disastrous courtship of Horst-Dieter Esch, the playboy director of Germany’s IBM Holding, who drained $40 million dollars from GM in the early 1980s, before going to jail for fraud.19

Perot’s objections led to an escalation of concessions on Roger Smith’s part, recorded in the amazing FAX messages they sent whizzing back and forth at the height of negotiations. Perot wanted all the advantages of being owned by a great corporation and no limitations of his former autocratic hold on EDS. He wanted to keep selling separate stock, taking on new contracts, keeping his books secret from the parent company, while getting a monopoly on GM’s computer operations. He wanted, that is, to have a deal like the one he began with, when he was inside Texas Blue Cross, getting paid by it, yet running a company that contracted with it from an autonomous position. But when the SSA found out about Perot’s equivocal status, they forced him, in long-fought and grudging backdowns, to make a few concessions. Smith, by contrast, seemed anxious to grovel before Perot. Each demand was greeted with an appreciative yip of joy. It was at this point that Smith began to talk of EDS less as a profit-margin acquisition and more as a kind of disciplinary headmaster that would come into Detroit and force a stagnant middle management to shape up. He was lovingly preparing for his own punishment. Without knowing it, he was also preparing for Perot’s.

By giving in to most of Perot’s demands, Smith lured the cocky autocrat into demanding more than he could handle. In the past, EDS had serviced companies by arriving with more programming manpower and computer expertise than in-house processors could muster. That situation was stunningly reversed at GM. Though the automotive company had computer problems that needed solution, its range of functions was far greater than EDS had ever dealt with. GM used computers to help design, engineer, and test automotive functions. It was experimenting with robotics, with cybernetic systems, using technology still being invented.

Perot, who had stressed discipline, aggressiveness, salesmanship, and bravado over esoteric skills, sent a macho team of ill-equipped people into the GM organization, where those already on the job could not tell which was the newcomers’ more obnoxious quality, their bossiness or their ignorance.20 Perot, as usual, blamed others rather than his “eagles,” and offended all parts of GM by wide-ranging criticism of GM production, sales, and service. He had been brought in as a gadfly and disciplinarian, but the outrage at his arrogance made Roger Smith heed his own officials’ reports on the trouble Perot was making. Lawyers were looking for ways to let Smith back off from the ill-considered FAX commitments. The frustration on both sides could only be eased by Perot’s departure; but he made sure that GM paid dearly for it.

Perot left EDS behind, and GM tried to protect its original purchase by demanding that Perot not criticize the treatment of EDS, or set up a competing business. Perot quickly defied both bans. He had inserted a clause he thought of as his “free the slaves” clause, saying any of his executives could follow him out of GM. He presented this as a way that they could cooperate in new ventures with him, including his charitable and patriotic endeavors. But he got an exception to the noncompete ban for these employees.

Perot had tried to protect himself from the kind of raids he originally made on IBM talent and systems. EDS employees could not go to other processing firms without a long interval, or take their secrets elsewhere. He even demanded that employees pay back their training costs if they left before a stated minimum of service. This, like his stock options, forged “golden handcuffs” by which he tried to retain employees.21 Yet even with these soft manacles, frequent burnout and high turnover were always problems in his driven organization. He thought good people would stay with him for the challenge and adventure, but even his first team of EDS managers, hired in their mobile twenties, began to desire stability and predictability as their children reached college age; and newer recruits had never shared in the lean, mean glory of EDS in its commando days.

So, when Perot tried to free his eagles, he called on them to rejoin him, but few of the top men came. Morton Meyerson, whom Perot had made EDS president when he moved to the chairman’s position, refused to help Perot set up the new business. DeSoto Jordan, an EDS lobbyist, was considered the traitor, since he did follow Perot. Even Paul Chiapparone, one of the hostages Perot rescued from Iran, refused to leave GM—Perot, in retaliation, refused to attend a dinner Chiapparone organized on the anniversary of his escape.22 EDS was supposed to change the corporate ethos of GM. Instead, it adopted more normal corporate behavior, and it is flourishing—more so than Perot Systems, the new Perot business. Perot Systems made $200 million in revenue last year—but EDS revenues were $7 billion. Lester Alberthal, one of the eagles who stayed to lead EDS, says now: “For the first twenty-two years of our existence, EDS the company really didn’t have an image. All of the image-building was around what Ross wanted for Ross.”23

4.

The approach or ascent, the gradus ad Rossium, is exquisitely calibrated. You enter Suite 1700 of Perot’s business office on the north rim of Dallas through one-way visibility glass doors. Seen but unseeing outside, you have much to see as you come through the doors into the anteroom, overlooked by a guard at a high desk. There is a huge artist’s model of the seated Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial, a flag flown on the Capitol on the day of the moon landing, an autographed page by FDR, a quadriplegic’s painting of a country schoolhouse dedicated to Perot. On the office table there is a book, The American Eagle.

Buzzed through a second set of glass doors, you go down a long room separated into two corridors by a huge bronze eagle in the middle. In fact, seen in glimpses to the left, in receding rooms and corridors, there is a bewilderment of eagles, sculpted in bronze or in wood, painted in oil or in water-colors. Jacques-Louis David may have been slyly tweaking Napoleon when he filled his painted Distribution of the Standards with hundreds of represented eagles, and never a real one. In the same way, one hopes for a satirical decorator’s hand in this flapping of eagle’s wings amid the kitsch; but it soon becomes apparent that everything here has been personally chosen and placed and tended by the man celebrated in many of the items on display.

Ross Perot,” he snaps when he comes out to shake hands—the same two words he will snap into the telephone during my hour with him, through presumably his secretary, whom he is answering, knows his name by now. He takes me into his office, a museum within the museum, with more of the omnipresent Norman Rockwell paintings. Frederic Remington cowboys writhe in bronze all around the room, breaking wild horses (but not their noses). At one table Perot pauses reverently, since it is a shrine to Colonel Arthur “Bull” Simons, who led the Iran rescue team for EDS. Set in a table mount is Simons’s heavy gold ring with a bull’s head jutting out from it. “I had one of these made for each member of the rescue team—if you find these guys anywhere, in their sleep, they have that.” I ask about a Rommel-era set of desert goggles on the table. “He wore those when he released the survivors of the Bataan death march in the Philippines.” Even Ken Follett, writing the book Perot had to approve before it saw print, permitted himself a discreet Jeeves-like cough of warning over Perot’s credulity where the Bull is concerned. “Perot had never checked out this [later, Vietnam] legend—he liked it the way it was.”24 A World War II–era compass is “the one he [Bull] carried on all his raids and rescues for thirty-five years.”

When we settle down, Perot is not behind his desk, but knee-to-knee on comfortable chairs bunched before the desk. Up close, his face is larger and more interesting than it looks floating a foot or so below other heads when he moves about in public. The liquid smear of the nose across his face gives it character, and emphasizes the difference between his eyes. The right eye, under a sloping lid, is comparatively passive; but the left one widens as he pops up his lid in a kewpie-doll expression of surprise-pleasure. It says, even more often than his tongue does, “Isn’t that interesting?”

We have barely settled down before we are up again and touring the room. I had asked what book had the deepest influence on him. “I can’t think of a single book that had the greatest impact.” But he shows me the books, mainly in sets, that he does have. “Just about everything here is by or about America”—Robertson’s history of America, eighteenth-century edition; the complete Theodore Roosevelt (“Here’s my favorite book”—TR’s letters to his children). He ducks into a further room to bring out a copy of the book he thinks so much of that he gives it away to visitors, “the summary of Dr. and Mrs. Durant’s big volumes of history, in only eighty pages.” The Lessons of History (1968) is proof that simplisms can be further simplified ad infinitum. Though the married team ground out their eleven volumes of world history in the middle of the twentieth century, they expressed a quaint old Social Darwinism unchanged from the 1890s. In the book Perot admires I later read:

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. 1

    Todd Mason, Perot: An Unauthorized Biography (Dow Jones-Irwin, 1990), pp. 50–51. Mason, a Business Week reporter, has the best account of EDS’s early days, though much of his book is marred by scrambled chronology and a bombastic style (“Fate is the outer skin on this metaphysical onion,” p. 253).

  2. 2

    House Subcommittee on Government Operations hearings on federal health programs, September 30, 1971, p. 55.

  3. 3

    Subcommittee hearings, September 28, 1971, p. 28. Cf. p. 34 on Blue Cross’s “lack of written negotiations with EDS and the lack of competitive bids.”

  4. 4

    Subcommittee hearings, September 28, 1971, p. 31; September 30, p. 90.

  5. 5

    Subcommittee hearings, November 9, 1971, p. 89.

  6. 6

    Subcommittee hearings, November 9, 1971, p. 126.

  7. 7

    Subcommittee hearings, May 31, 1972, pp. 428–431.

  8. 8

    Subcommittee hearings, June 1, 1972, p. 478.

  9. 9

    Subcommittee hearings, June 1, 1972, p. 449.

  10. 10

    Arthur M. Lewis, “The Fastest Richest Texan Ever,” Fortune, November 1968, p. 169.

  11. 11

    Lewis, Fortune, p. 169.

  12. 12

    For North’s feckless use of Perot’s money to buy back hostages, see Mason, Perot, pp. 238–239. North claims that Perot said he would reward him lavishly if, absolving Reagan of authorizing the role of arms to Iran, he (North) went to jail (Oliver L. North with William Novak, Under Fire, HarperCollins, 1991, pp. 15–16). Perot denies this. He is, at the moment, a very busy denier. For Perot’s being duped by the missing-prisoner industry, see Mason, Perot, pp. 242–246. See also Bruce Franklin, M.I.A., or Myth-making in America (Lawrence Hill, 1992), pp. 50–64.

  13. 13

    Mason, Perot, pp. 95–96.

  14. 14

    Albert Lee, Call Me Roger (Contemporary Books, 1988), p. 149.

  15. 15

    The picture of Perot in grade school befriending whores is out of character for the man who, as an officer in the Navy, would write his congressman asking for release from the Navy because it subjected him to “drunken tales of moral emptiness [and] passing out penicillin pills” for venereal disease. See AP dispatch, “Perot Sought Release from ‘Godless’ Navy,” Chicago Tribune, May 24, 1992.

  16. 16

    Newsweek, April 27, 1992, p. 21.

  17. 17

    Chris Tucker, “Perot’s Biggest Battle,” D Magazine, June 1992, p. 69. Cf. Laura Miller, “Tell Police You’re Special,” Dallas Times Herald, July 17, 1988. Perot’s daughter told police her family had special permission to provide their own security—a claim a police investigation invalidated. See also Lawrence E. Young, “Decision Not To Arrest Perot Relative,” Dallas Morning News, July 14, 1988.

  18. 18

    Doron P. Levin, Irreconcilable Differences: Ross Perot versus General Motors (Little, Brown, 1989), p. 46. Levin, who covered GM for the Detroit bureau of The New York Times, is the best historian of Perot’s later business ventures.

  19. 19

    Levin, Irreconcilable Differences, pp. 133–135.

  20. 20

    The head of GM’s research lab sniffed that he had “more Ph.D.s in computer sciences in a single department than EDS had in its entire organization” (Lee, Call Me Roger, p. 163). Perot, who had mocked academic credentials saying Edison and the Wrights did not need them, moved one of his favorite Norman Rockwell paintings into his Dallas office, the one that has a young World War II veteran telling awed relatives his war stories—to remind GM visitors that “we used to whip the Japanese,” and could do it again “in the car business” (Lee, p. 166).

  21. 21

    The requirement that employees pay back their training costs seems to have violated Michigan law. See the AP dispatch “Perot Backed Illegal Employee Payback Scheme,” Chicago Tribune, May 25, 1992.

  22. 22

    Mason, Perot, p. 6.

  23. 23

    Wendy Zellner, “H. Ross Perot Who? EDS Is Doing Just Fine On Its Own,” Business Week, December 23, 1991, pp. 86–87.

  24. 24

    Ken Follett, On Wings of Eagles (Morrow, 1983), p. 61.

  25. 25

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

  26. 26

    Durants, Lessons, pp. 48–49.

  27. 27

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

  28. 28

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

  29. 29

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

  30. 30

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

  31. 31

    Tucker, D Magazine, p. 51.

  32. 32

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

  33. 33

    Mason, Perot, p. 125.

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