Both the factors spelled doom for the Bush campaign. But that was not all. A fellow Texan was publicly floating the idea of an independent effort for president.
During the spring of 1992 our callers began to ask, “Who the heck is this H. Ross Perot?”
He’s the Texas businessman best remembered as the person who funded an operation to rescue two of his employees from an Iranian prison in 1979 during the Iran hostage crisis. It was daring and expensive, but he said his employees deserved nothing but his best efforts to save them from possible death. American hostages held at our embassy in Teheran remained captive for 444 days.
[It is interesting to note the hostage crisis spawned a new television news program ABC’s Nightline with Ted Koppel. The veteran newsman remained the host of Nightline until his retirement and signed off for the last time from the late-night news program for the last time November 22, 2005, ending his quarter of a century of broadcasts.]
Perot graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis in the early1950s. After he left the Navy he was a sales representative for IBM. In the early 1960s he founded his own company, Electronic Data Systems (EDS). It was one of the earliest companies of its type supplying data service.
EDS’s largest customer was General Motors. He sold out to GM in 1984 but retained some financial interests in EDS.
He didn’t approve of the way it was run so after a long battle with GM management, Perot sold out his remaining interest in EDS to GM for nearly three quarter of a billion dollars.
For the remainder of the 1980s, H. Ross Perot became an oil man in Texas and dabbled in high stakes real estate.
Late in the 1960s Perot gave significant financial support to the National League of POW/MIA Families. In 1968 he flew them all over Southeast Asia in his own Boeing 727 to promote their cause which was to persuade the North Vietnamese to cease the torture of their prisoners of war.
As we learned in Chapter Two, the wife of Admiral James Stockdale was one of the leading voices in the formation of the MIA/POW group. Hence the admiral’s sense of loyalty to Perot and his saying yes to him to be his presidential running mate in 1992.
The heroic actions of Admiral Stockdale and the groups publicity shamed the North Vietnamese to stop most of their torture of American POWs.
While he was a sound businessman who had been able to grow his company from nothing to a nearly billion dollar empire, he also possessed quixotic qualities. It was this side of his personality which worried supporters of George Bush the most.
H. Ross Perot was no Texas Prairie Dog. Pit Bull was a more apt description of the man.
Before the summer of 1991 most Democrats had written off the presidential campaign of 1992. New York governor Mario Cuomo, House Majority leader, Richard Gephardt (who ran for the nomination in 1988), and Senator Albert Gore of Tennessee (who also had run in 1988) were among the big names who shied away from a race against President Bush. The president’s popularity was so great it seemed mounting an effective campaign against him would be futile.
A number of Southern Democrats gathered to form an organization with the aim of reforming the Democrat Party. Its goal was to have the party present a more moderate image. The Democrat Leadership Council wanted the party to shift away from the its traditionally liberal positions.
Many of the more traditional Democrat callers offered views their party had drifted away from them and they in turn accounted for a large part of Ronald Reagan’s base. While they were not necessarily in the majority they made up a large group that could easily be influenced into voting Republican in any election if the Democrat was perceived to be very liberal. Such was the case in 1984 and again in 1988.
The DLC was founded in 1985 by, among others, Senators Chuck Robb of Virginia, son-in-law of Lyndon Johnson, and Sam Nunn of Georgia, a conservative who was chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, and the somewhat conservative Democrat governor of Iowa Tom Vilsak.
Two other founders were Senator Albert Gore of Tennessee and an obscure governor from Arkansas, William Jefferson Clinton.
Clinton and Gore were viewed as far more moderate than previous Democrat icons such as George McGovern, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, and Ted Kennedy. Since the states they represented held rather traditional views on many social issues they went along to get along on many of those issues. Both had been Pro-Life, supporters of the second amendment rights to bear arms, and seemed more fiscally conservative than most Democrats.
As was the case with Michael Dukakis who was governor during the same general period as Bill Clinton, he benefited from the tremendous economic growth of the Reagan years and was able to balance the books of Arkansas without a tax hike.
The image of being a conservative was not the reality of his governance. Social services declined during his years as governor and Arkansas school children tested as forty-ninth in the nation trailing everyone except, by a small margin, Mississippi, in math and reading skills.
When he eventually became president he spoke of how he always resented segregation and went so far as to lie about how offended he was when African-American churches were set afire by bigots in Arkansas when he was growing up. Research indicated not a single such incident occurred in Clinton’s lifetime. He was a supporter, early in his political career, of Arkansas Senator William Fulbright, an ardent supporter of racial segregation.
Clinton’s personality was such he was a genuine charmer.
During the future president’s primary campaign in January of 1992 I heard him speak in Nashua, New Hampshire late on a Sunday morning. My family was skiing at Attitash Mountain in Bartlett, New Hampshire, in the White Mountains about a hundred miles to the north.
The event in Nashua as I recall was a brunch engagement. Many television stations from Boston joined New Hampshire stations in covering the appearance.
After Clinton spoke I went on to Attitash where I met up with my family. While there I mentioned to a local friend I had heard the Arkansas governor speak in Nashua. He told me Clinton was in North Conway shortly at a forum near the train station. It was in an old inn and the crowd was mostly local businessmen.
What caught my eye (actually ear) was in both Nashua and North Conway the candidate responded to questions concerning the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The Nashua crowd was mainly union type blue collar workers. In Nashua he said he opposed NAFTA. In North Conway he told the mostly business group he supported NAFTA, and gave a number of reasons for his support.
Unions were dead set against NAFTA. Small businessmen were either supportive or neutral. In the span of only a few hours I heard the candidate take two entirely different stands on one issue. Quite a trick.
My friend, supported former Massachusetts Senator Paul Tsongas. The senator had strong union support, pointed out Clinton could get away with something like that because the Nashua audience would never learn of his North Conway remarks. The business people would never learn what he said in Nashua either.
I later learned from a political consultant that only the early remarks made early in an event will be on the news. He said Clinton likely knew who might ask a NAFTA question so he held off calling on that party until the end of the event, thus assuring his response would not air. Most of the video cameras were already being packed up to chase down some other candidate when NAFTA came up.
That night, back home, I watched the eleven PM news intently to see if the NAFTA question was aired on Boston television news. It was not.
By January, Paul Tsongas was the only potential obstacle in Clinton’s path to the nomination. The other candidates were poorly funded and did not have strong organizations.
As expected the Iowa caucus went to Senator Tom Harkin, a favorite son. That was the end of the line for Harkin who was likely the most liberal of the candidates.
While the former Massachusetts senator carried New Hampshire, Clinton finished a strong second. That eliminated the cast of secondary candidates and made it a Clinton versus Tsongas race.
Shortly afterward Paul Tsongas’ health became a question in the campaign. Then Clinton won overwhelmingly in Illinois. That was the final blow for all the other candidates, including the Paul Tsongas.
Former California governor Jerry Brown was the last opponent of Governor Clinton still standing. Governor Moonbeam (as conservatives referred to him) became the liberal alternative. Too little, too late. He merely became a foil for Clinton the rest of the way.
Journalist Pat Buchanan challenged President Bush in the GOP primaries and did well in New Hampshire. In all he garnered about three-million votes.
Buchanan’s campaign pushed the president further to the right than he had planned to go. Some speculated the move to the right caused the president to lose some moderate votes to Governor Clinton in the general election. No one has ever been able to support that contention with facts.
The final election became a three horse race. H. Ross Perot became recognized as a serious candidate because he was able to gain ballot status in all states and of course, his millions, which he was willing to spend in the race. He actually led in some polls before he withdrew in September.
The teams in the sweepstakes were President George H.W. Bush and Vice-President Dan Quayle, Governor Bill Clinton and Tennessee Senator Al Gore, and H. Ross Perot and Medal of Honor recipient, Admiral James Stockdale.
Every U.S. presidential election campaign is an mixture of issues, images and personality. This election was no exception.
Consider the personality differences:
Bush/Quayle: Bush was a World War II hero who was shot down in combat and his running mate who used family ties to land in the Indiana National Guard as a means of evading Vietnam.
Clinton/Gore: Clinton was a Vietnam War protester in England while a Rhodes Scholar, he even attended anti-American rallies in Moscow while visiting there. His running mate wrote for a military publication and served a short time in Saigon as a reporter for the same publication.
Perot/Stockdale: Perot was a Naval Academy graduate who served in peacetime. His running mate a POW who was tortured and demonstrated courage nearly beyond belief.
The tickets were clearly very different. George Bush tried to use character and experience as the cornerstone of his campaign. Conservatives were divided four ways:
It seems as though Perot and fishing were the biggest recipients of conservative effort. President Bush received the same help from conservatives as President Ford did in 1976. Not much.
A similarity here with 1976 is the Democrat was each was a southern Governor and Baptist. Both had been given little chance at the Democrat nomination only to explode on the political scene during the primaries.
Bill Clinton ran as an outsider and making thinly veiled attempts to cast himself as another John F. Kennedy. He used his youth and vigor against the older statesman who appeared tired. New ideas versus the old.
His experience as governor of Arkansas for twelve years gave him enough stature to understand how to be an effective executive. His lack of foreign affairs experience mattered little since the Cold War had been won and the world was relatively quiet. Foreign affairs and dealing with military matters are traditionally Republican strengths, maybe they had been successful enough in those areas to work themselves out of a job.
At that time we had very few calls regarding foreign matters and the military on talk radio. The interest was mostly on domestic matters, especially jobs and the economy.
In the meantime Ross Perot focused on the pending NAFTA agreement and campaigned heavily on that. His charts regarding the economy became ubiquitous. They reminded us of a life insurance man acting as a financial “adviser” selling us life insurance as financial instruments.
In retrospect, had Perot had any type of comfortable demeanor, his campaign may have been more universally accepted even after his withdrawal and reentry. His lack of people skills came through and our callers simply never warmed up to him personally.
Another line of comments was a frustration with the choices we had for president. Liberals didn’t view Clinton as liberal, conservatives said Bush had never been a conservative. They cited his campaign in 1980 as revealing he was simply an establishment Republican in the Rockefeller mold.
And what of Ross Perot? No one could quite figure him out.
William Jefferson Clinton recalled the charges that Michael Dukakis was soft on crime, an issue which helped George Bush in 1988. Was he one of those soft-on-crime, bleeding-heart liberals or the kind of candidate who could win back the Reagan Democrats? Would he be vulnerable to a Willie Horton commercial, or is he solid for law and order?
That question was answered in January of 1992, shortly before the New Hampshire primary.
Keep in mind the courts have ruled, on different occasions, that we can’t execute someone who can't understand that he's being executed, or why.
Clinton had been pressed on the issue of clemency for Ricky Ray Rector.
Rektor had murdered a popular small town policeman in cold blood. It was a vicious crime which cried out for the death penalty.
One small problem - Rektor had turned the gun on himself in an attempt to commit suicide. He failed, but he blew away a portion of his brain, effectively lobotomizing himself.
No clemency from Bill Clinton. He allowed the execution.
After the execution it was reported we all learned what Rektor’s mental state really was. After eating his last meal he gave one of his guards his piece of pie to hold for him until he returned to his cell. Hardly a man who not only didn’t understand why he was about to be executed, he didn’t have the capacity to even understand he was about to die.
An Associated Press dispatch after the execution made the following observation: "The execution could help Democratic presidential candidate Clinton distance himself from his party's soft-on-crime liberal image, said some political observers in New Hampshire . . . ."
Bill Clinton, a tough man on crime.
Public opinion polls, found among President Bush’s chief vulnerabilities education, health care, jobs and transportation. Where Bush offered an economic program based on lower taxes and cuts in government spending, Clinton proposed higher taxes on the wealthy. He promised increased spending on education, transportation and communications that, which he believed would boost the nation’s productivity and growth and thereby lowering the deficit.
Similarly, Clinton's health care proposals to control costs called for much heavier involvement by the federal government than Bush’s.
Clinton ran a vigorous campaign, always on the attack. Bush on the other hand had lost credibility with conservatives and many other voters on one of the key issues of the Reagan era, taxes. When George Bush discussed tax cuts eyes glazed over and no one believed him any longer.
In the meantime, Ross Perot continued with his “sucking sound” campaign and his charts. Still not the stuff of a political revolution.
The slogan suggested Bush was out of touch with the times. Clinton successfully used the theme of change throughout the campaign, as well as in a round of three televised debates with President Bush and Ross Perot in October.
“It’s the economy stupid” was the centerpiece of the balance of the election. Neither Bush nor Perot could get past the slogan to any degree.
Ross Perot actually had a lead in the polls for some weeks. That was unheard of for an independent candidate. Only former president Teddy Roosevelt, in 1912, when he ran as a Bull Moose candidate had more success. Bull Moose was a nickname given the Progressive party when Teddy declared himself as fit as a Bull Moose to run again.
The Bull Moose Party was not your run of the mill conservative Republican outfit. Its platform called for:
One other thing, Roosevelt embarrassed his nemesis in the GOP, William Howard Taft, by garnering 88 electoral votes to 8 for Taft.
In some ways Perot was much like T.R. in that he split the Republican Party. Perot’s pull was to the right while Teddy Roosevelt’s draw was to the left.
Much of Perot’s support was due to a lack of confidence in the president and fears “Slick Willie” was indeed slick. The nickname had been given to him by Paul Greenberg, the Pulitzer Prize winning columnist of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette of Little Rock.
In September Ross Perot said he feared his daughter was to become the victim of some sort photo manipulation in an effort to damage her reputation and thus get him to pull out of the campaign. He implied it was a dirty trick planned by the Bush forces.
Ross Perot’s popularity plummeted. On October 1st he reentered the campaign, never to regain the momentum he had when he withdrew.
When November arrived it was not who would win but by how much. Clinton had a landslide in electoral votes, 370-168. However, none of the three candidates received a majority in any state except Clinton and his 53% in his home state of Arkansas.
The incumbent president, George H.W. Bush did not have a majority in a single state. The final percentages for the national popular vote was Clinton 43.5%, Bush 37% and Perot over 19%. The balance of the votes were divided by a host of other candidates.
For weeks following the election talk radio buzzed about the election. We discussed the Perot factor almost without end. Could George Bush have saved his presidency if Perot had stayed out after he dropped out? What if Perot had never entered? Was Bush the victim of two tough opponents clearly focusing on him? What if Pat Buchanan hadn’t run in the primaries? Did Ross Perot’s supporters encourage Buchanan’s effort to disrupt Bush’s campaign?
And the biggest question of them all, was Ross Perot in it solely to defeat George Bush?
We could debate those questions even today and never reach a resolution except that maybe without Perot, Bush could have won.
Then again………. Call me!