Ross Perot Is A Wild Card But No Joker


His Life & Times

By Gerald Posner

Random House -- 400pp -- $25

Ross Perot, the towering midget of American politics, can't be summed up in a sound bite. He's one of the most complex, colorful, crafty figures on the American stage today. He has made billions of dollars as a pioneer in data processing and real estate but has lost millions in naive and ill-fated business ventures. He's a savvy and skillful business operator, yet a new book by Gerald L. Posner cites former colleagues who describe Perot as "squirrelly" and "paranoid." Perot, in turn, defiantly tweaks his critics by dancing in public to Patsy Cline's famous rendition of Crazy.

In Citizen Perot, Posner frequently does a brilliant job of capturing the contradictions of the complicated businessman-turned-politician that is Ross Perot. As portrayed by Posner, the Texan can be selflessly generous to employees needing medical help, yet he can reduce loyal workers to tears through vicious tirades. He drove a rental car to a Presidential debate yet had bulletproof sedans built for him to use during the campaign. He rails against the influence of Washington lobbyists yet hired the best lobbyists to help him secure business deals in Texas and around the world. A memorable description is found in an interview with Ken Riedlinger, a longtime executive of the company that made Perot a billionaire, Electronic Data Systems Corp.: "I like Ross. He saved my life a couple of times. But I also hate Ross. Yet I voted for him. And I would probably go back to work for him tomorrow if he asked."

Such mixed messages are central to Posner's generally balanced biography of the Dallas entrepreneur. Perot is a man whose successes and failures are the stuff of legend. And Posner carefully tries to separate fact from myth in a crisply written book that flows effortlessly from anecdote to anecdote while never straying far from its central focus on Perot's complex character.

Posner, whose previous books include an examination of John F. Kennedy assassination theories, Case Closed, and a biography of fiendish Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, retells the familiar Perot tales--the rescue of his EDS employees from Iranian chaos in 1979, his messy battles with General Motors boss Roger B. Smith, and his two-decade crusade on behalf of U.S. prisoners of war in Vietnam. But Posner adds just enough new tidbits to keep the narratives from being rehashes of previous books. His interviews about Perot's daring Iran mission--including discussions with participants and former Carter Administration officials--add significantly to the historical record.

There are two major revelations in the book. One is Perot's assertion that Vice-President Al Gore had "something glistening in his ear" during their debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement, generally viewed as a triumph for Gore, who goaded Perot into embarrassing fits of temper. Perot won't provide Posner with the source for this information that Gore "cheated" in the debate but says he heard about the scheme from "word on the cocktail circuit." Democratic operatives dismiss the allegations as Perot-noia. Posner presents the incident without commentary and permits the reader to decide.

Posner also investigates Perot's controversial allegation that Republican operatives attempted to disrupt his daughter's wedding--which Perot has cited as the reason for his temporary withdrawal from the 1992 Presidential campaign. The author elaborates with what reads like an episode of the Keystone Kops as viewed by a conspiracy theorist. Using interviews with all of the participants, Posner neutrally tells a bizarre tale in which a man named Scott Barnes--a shadowy operative who had previously worked with Perot on behalf of Vietnam War POWs--shows up on the doorstep of a Bush campaign official, purportedly with dirt on Perot. The Bush aide, Jim Oberwetter, appears baffled and nervous. At Barnes's suggestion, the two men walk outside, where a hidden camera filmed the meeting. "Oberwetter was so nervous that when he saw a woman fiddling with a pack of cigarettes, he wondered if the pack hid a tiny camera," Posner writes. Soon, Oberwetter is the target of an FBI sting operation. In the end, the feds found no wrongdoing by GOP operatives. But Perot remains convinced that his campaign was victimized by Republican dirty tricks. While the incident has been recounted before, Posner fleshes it out with superb detail and psychological insights into its central characters.

While Citizen Perot is meticulously researched, the book also contains a number of factual errors that will make Texas and Arkansas historians cringe. Among them: misidentifying legendary Texas politician W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel as an Arkansas senator and misspelling the names of former Texas Governor Price Daniel and ex-Clinton White House Chief of Staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty.

As Perot's new Reform Party gathers to ratify its nominee on Aug. 18 in Valley Forge, Pa., some of its members say Perot is not the right man to take their third party to the next level. They'll find plenty of ammo in Posner's account. But diehard Perotistas, too, will find much here to bolster the case of Boss Ross. Posner doesn't forecast the fate of a second Perot Presidential candidacy. But his well-written biography proves that the quirky Dallas billionaire is the most unpredictable candidate in the 1996 Presidential field.

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