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Some people just have better stories than the rest of us. They’re in the middle of things — big things that we all pay attention to — all of the time. They win, mostly, but not all the time. They make us choose sides. They seem to be in control, to an extent most of us can only imagine. They appear, even while they are alive, to be historical figures.
Ross Perot was one of those.
He’d have been a big deal if he had never done anything outside of business. That narrative started with a star salesman at IBM who quit and founded Electronic Data Systems, the enterprise that made him a vast fortune — a big part of it through the sale of EDS to General Motors. Perot didn’t exactly succeed at GM — he later said it was like trying to train an elephant to tap dance — but he came out of that episode painted as an able executive thwarted by an impossibly bureaucratic corporation. He started Perot Systems after that, a company later sold to Dell for $3.9 billion; without the earlier successes, that would have been the basis of a significant Texas fortune.
It’s the kind of stuff lauded in chamber of commerce halls of fame and business schools and pep rallies for people in sales of all kinds. You know, the material of legends.
And there’s another set of stories: the exploits of a modern adventurer. The big one — a rescue of two EDS employees held in a prison in Iran — was the subject of a book, “On Wings of Eagles” by thriller writer Ken Follett, and of a mini-series by the same name. The short version: Perot hired a retired U.S. Army Special Forces officer with the made-for-TV name of Col. Arthur “Bull” Simons to lead a raid on the Tehran prison where the two men were held. Although it didn’t go the way they’d planned, they managed to break Bill Gaylord and Paul Chiapparone out of the jail and return them to the U.S.
Then there was the public Perot, the one called to lead Gov. Mark White’s 1984 effort to reform public education in Texas. It’s where the phrase “no pass, no play” came into the Texas political lexicon — a reference to a requirement that high school athletes couldn’t play if they were flunking their classes. It required elementary schools to limit to 22 the number of kids in each classroom. It instated pre-K classes for disadvantaged children for the first time. It offered state funding for full-day kindergarten. It set up a merit-pay system for teachers and testing to sort the better ones from the rest. Almost every provision has since been the subject of legislative and bureaucratic skirmishing, right through the legislative session that ended in May. But it framed the debates of the next three decades and broadened the reputation of the noteworthy technology salesman from Dallas.
Which brings us to Perot’s most public defeat, and his most consequential foray into electoral politics: his unsuccessful 1992 bid for the presidency.
Perot filed as an independent in a campaign run by his longtime business associates and political consultants who had worked on previous Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns. He was challenging an incumbent, George H.W. Bush, who moved in the same political and business circles Perot moved in. Perot didn’t win any electoral votes, but he won 19% of the popular vote. And Bush was unseated by Bill Clinton, who became president with 43% of the popular vote — a win many attributed to Perot’s candidacy.
That race forged a trail examined every four years by rich independents thinking of running outside the party system. Perot’s “We the People” theme came complete with charts, political infomercials and an emphasis on fiscal responsibility — as well as opposition to federal budget deficits and national debt. The theme — later pushed by Perot’s “United We Stand” organization — became a Republican cornerstone, evident in the later campaigns of George W. Bush (whose presidential campaign got Perot’s endorsement) and the Tea Party movement that surfaced in 2009.
Any of those three tales would be remarkable and rare if they were about three people. But all of them, not to mention many other threads in the Perot tapestry, were stories about a single person. The 89-year-old Ross Perot, who died Tuesday, lived more interesting stories than most.
Disclosure: General Motors has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.