Here’s the parting shot offered by Ross Perot, in an interview a few years ago with The Dallas Morning News: "Texas born. Texas bred. When I die, I'll be Texas dead. Ha!"
No doubt about it, Perot was a Texan. However, the prodigal Texan in me (my chosen label) can still remember some of the holes in the mainstream press coverage of Perot’s gadfly political career — if that was, in fact, the real goal of his crucial first White House campaign. So many journalists simply settled for saying that Perot was a Texan, when they needed to ask what KIND of Texan he was.
You see, Perot wasn’t your ordinary Texan. He wasn’t even your ordinary rich Texan in Dallas.
Perot rose to become a Highland Park Texan. He wasn’t just rich, he was a certain kind of rich within the structures of Texas life. If you want a glimpse inside that world, check out this 1976 classic from Texas Monthly: “The Highland Park Woman.”
To cut to the chase, this kind of conservative Texan — much like the liberal tribe located in Austin — is embarrassed by all those other Texans. Most of all, they are opposed to all of those, well, religious nuts out there in ordinary Texas.
So this leads me to the big question that I kept asking as I read some of the mainstream news obituaries for Perot: Why did he do it? Why did Perot turn on George H.W. Bush — from the Houston version of the Highland Park tribe — and try to take him down? What was the elder Bush’s fatal sin?
Well, let’s look back to a 1992 feature in the New York Times to find some of the information that was omitted from the Perot obits, as well as most of the coverage of his public life. Read this carefully:
Mr. Perot espoused a kind of fiscal conservatism and toward the end of his campaign a strong law-and-order theme. But he also drew cheers when he staunchly defended a woman's right to choose an abortion and when he bashed the religious right. Indeed, in the voter survey, only 34 percent of Mr. Perot's voters said they attended religious services at least once a week, compared with 42 percent in the survey sample as a whole.
Mr. Perot's army seems to include a strong libertarian streak: people seeking a measure of freedom from what they perceive as the heavy hand of institutions, religious as well as governmental. If the fundamentalist right holds sway in the coming battle for the soul of the Republican Party, Perot followers could go elsewhere.
What did Bush do wrong? Why, there may have been other sins (like Gulf War 1.0), but it was crucial that George H.W. Bush betrayed his class by abandoning his support for abortion rights, while taking other steps to court the world of religious and cultural conservatism. You know: Bush might put the wrong kind of Republican judges on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Culturally speaking, Bush had sinned against the values of Highland Park. He had become, among other things, a threat to the world of Planned Parenthood — one of the key organizations that Perot and his wife Margot consistently supported in Dallas. She served, for many years, on the advisory board for the Dallas branch of Planned Parenthood.
Perot was, in other words, a classy Texan — a man with his own historic copy of the actual Magna Carta and original Normal Rockwell paintings hanging in his home. He was that self-made man who earned his Eagle Scout rank in one year and, when his father died, the 25-year-old Perot dug that grave with his own hands.
When Perot hit it big, he demanded that his business disciples follow his rules — conservative suits and short hair. He would not tolerate those who were unfaithful to their spouses. When he was in town, Perot always sat at his home dinner table with his large family and he said grace.
Yes, that is a kind of Texan conservatism, no doubt about it. And some of those details made it into the obituaries. But do those details tell us why he took the outrageous step of attempting to take down Bush, senior, a New England man who was trying to be a real Texan?
Read carefully this section of the Washington Post obituary:
It was his adamant opposition to the Persian Gulf War — in which U.S.-led forces drove Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi troops out of Kuwait in 1991 — that eventually prompted him to challenge the incumbent president and the Democratic nominee. … Calling his grass-roots campaign United We Stand America, Mr. Perot attracted voters from all points on the political compass.
He capitalized on Bush’s failure to live up to his “read my lips” vow not to increase taxes. Speaking as a businessman, Mr. Perot said, “the chief financial officers of a publicly traded corporation would be sent to prison if it kept books like our government.”
Mr. Perot warned about the increasing national debt and, in the most memorable of his many pet phrases, bemoaned passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, predicting it would produce a “giant sucking sound” of American jobs flying to Mexico. He walked a tightrope on social issues. He supported abortion and gay rights (although he said he had never met a gay person) and sex education in schools (including distribution of condoms); opposed reintroducing prayer in schools; and was evasive on gun control.
What kind of conservatism did Perot reject?
You could look all you want in the Associated Press obit for Perot — the story that would appear in most American newspapers — and not see a hint of any of this, not a smidgen of information about this man’s motivations for steering American into the Age of Clintons.
Oh, there was this hint at some kind of defining Perot creed:
His personal office was dominated by large paintings of his wife and five children and bronze sculptures by Frederic Remington. Several original Norman Rockwell paintings hung in the waiting area, and Perot once told a visiting reporter that he tried to live by Rockwell’s ethics of hard, honest work and family.
As you would expect, the Times went deeper in its long Perot obituary — but did not really address the roots of his personal feud with George H.W. Bush.
I thought that this passage was impressive, hinting at a kind of early version of Make America Great Again populism.
Under the banner “United We Stand America,” he spent $65 million of his billions in a campaign that featured innovative half-hour infomercials about himself and his ideas. They were popular, with ratings that sometimes surpassed those of prime-time sitcoms. Ignoring negative newspaper and magazine articles, he laid siege to radio and television talk shows. Switchboards lit up with calls from people wanting to volunteer.
Before long, millions were responding to his calls to cut government deficits, red tape and waste, to begin rebuilding the crumbling cities and to restore his vision of America: the small-town life idealized in Rockwell’s homey portraits of ballpark patriotism, barbershop wisdom and flag-draped Main Street, a world away from corrupt Washington.
There were lots of churches in Rockwell’s vision of America, of course. But never mind.
All of this does raise an interesting final question: Where did this Texan go to church? People from Texas are quick to ask questions like that.
The Dallas Morning News team had that bite of information, even if it was merely one detail in an anecdote about Perot the business entrepreneur. Here’s that passage:
Forbes ranked Perot's self-made quotient as a full-fledged 10. That's because he started his empire on his 32nd birthday as a one-man operation financed with $1,000 borrowed from Margot.
Perot came up with the name Electronic Data Systems while attending Sunday service at Highland Park Presbyterian Church, where he and Margot have been members since moving to Dallas in 1957. He scribbled it down on the back of a pledge envelope.
That’s Texas for you — a specific kind of Texas.
Perot had this crucial early business brainstorm while sitting in a mainline Protestant pew, scribbling on an offering envelope.
This was in Highland Park, naturally.