The crowd at the National Press Club on Mar. 18 had come to hear some plainspoken prescriptions for the nation's ills. But Texas business legend H. Ross Perot opened with a zing aimed at George Bush, asking listeners if they'd eaten their broccoli. "Last thing I read, it cures cancer," he said. "I think we ought to all try it."
Bush would probably rather eat a carload of his least-favorite veggie than see Perot get serious about his latest enthusiasm: an independent bid for the Presidency. The pint-size populist knows this is the longest of long shots. "Any student of history says this won't work," Perot concedes cheerfully. But the Dallas-based chief executive of Perot Systems Corp. has flashed a green light to supporters who want to get him on the ballot in all 50 states this fall.
Bush isn't laughing at this quixotic quest. One national poll shows Perot getting 9% of the vote, enough to cost Bush such key battlegrounds as Texas and California. Perot's individualism and blasts at intrusive government are likely to appeal both to entrepreneurs and to Reagan Democrats. "Any businessman who has $2 billion to spend and wants to run for President, you better take him seriously," says Bush adviser Charles Black. "The people he appeals to would be in our column."
`PURE OXYGEN.' The prospect of snatching victory from Bush may be driving Perot. The unconventional billionaire deeply dislikes Bush's country-club pragmatism. Some associates say Perot has never forgiven Bush for scoffing at derring-do plans to free U.S. captives in Vietnam. "If Perot denies Bush the Presidency, he'll be on top of the world," says a long-time Perot associate. Adds a prominent Texas Republican worried about Perot's motives: "He hates George Bush."
In a year in which Washington experience is regarded as a moral blight, Perot has appeal. He's the visionary who founded Electronic Data Systems Corp., sold it to General Motors Corp. for $2.6 billion, but found himself unable to work within GM's bureaucratic morass. "He's not part of the crap that got this nation in this mess," says Jack Gargan, president of Throw the Hypocritical Rascals Out, a Tampa-based anti-incumbent group. "He's a shot of pure oxygen."
QUONDAM HAWK. Perot's hard-to-classify politics combine East Texas populism with high-tech wizardry. Among his ideas: electronic town meetings, where voters vent their feelings through computer-linked televisions; paperless tax returns for most Americans; and a constitutional amendment requiring a referendum to raise taxes. Perot was a hawk during the Vietnam war but blasted the gulf war as a misguided crusade to rescue a corrupt emir.
After being blindsided by Pat Buchanan, Bush's aides aren't taking any chances. Should Perot decide to go for it, the White House will attack him as an egotistical eccentric whose liberal views on abortion and civil rights put him more in tune with Jesse Jackson than with Middle America. "He's got to understand he's a fringe candidate," warns another longtime Bush strategist. And Perot's notoriously thin skin could get him into serious trouble in the rough-and-tumble of a campaign.
Perot's opponents often underestimate him, however. In Texas, he mobilized grass-roots movements to stiffen drug penalties and reform the state's school system--trampling a lobby no less potent than high school football coaches. He may have little chance of winning the White House, but that's not the game. If Perot is willing to expend his formidable fortune and energy, he has the power to make life miserable for President Bush. And that might be satisfaction enough.