Ross Perot, billionaire businessman who ran twice for president, dead at 89

H. Ross Perot, the colourful, self-made Texas billionaire who rose from a childhood of Depression-era poverty and twice ran for president as a third-option candidate, has died at 89.

Perot, whose 19 per cent of the vote in 1992 stands among the best showings by an independent candidate in the past century, died early Tuesday at his home in Dallas, surrounded by his devoted family, family spokesperson James Fuller said.

The cause of death was leukemia.

As a boy in Texarkana, Texas, Perot delivered newspapers from the back of a pony. He earned his billions in a more modern way — by building Electronic Data Systems Corp., which helped other companies manage their computer networks.

Yet the most famous event in his career didn’t involve sales and earnings; he financed a private commando raid in 1979 to free two EDS employees who were being held in a prison in Iran. The tale was turned into a book and a movie.

Perot first became known to Americans outside of business circles by claiming that the U.S. government left behind hundreds of American soldiers who were missing or imprisoned at the end of the Vietnam War. Perot fanned the issue at home and discussed it privately with Vietnamese officials in the 1980s, angering the Reagan administration, which was formally negotiating with Vietnam’s government.

Perot’s wealth, fame and confident prescription for the nation’s economic ills propelled his 1992 campaign against President George H.W. Bush and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton.

Debatable ‘Perot effect’

Some Republicans blamed him for Bush’s loss to Clinton, as Perot garnered the largest percentage of votes for a third-party candidate since former President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 bid. But at least one study later indicated that the Texan had usually fared best in states where Bush had nonetheless emerged victorious in the winner-take-all electoral college system.

During a campaign in which he pulled out of the race in the summer and then re-entered weeks later, Perot spent $ 63.5 million US of his own money and bought up 30-minute television spots. Often speaking in a folksy style, the diminutive Perot used charts and graphs to make his points, summarizing them with a line that became a national catchphrase: “It’s just that simple.”


Perot speaks during a televised debate on Oct. 15, 1992 with U.S. presidential candidate Bill Clinton, right, and then-president George H.W. Bush. (J. David Ake/AFP/Getty Images)

Bush’s son, former president George W. Bush, expressed his condolences in a statement.

“Texas and America have lost a strong patriot,” said Bush. “Ross Perot epitomized the entrepreneurial spirit and the American creed. He gave selflessly of his time and resources to help others in our community, across our country and around the world. He loved the U.S. military and supported our service members and veterans.”

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was among a number of current members of Congress to also pay tribute.


Perot’s second campaign four years later was far less successful. He was shut out of presidential debates when organizers said he lacked sufficient support. He got just eight per cent of the vote, and the Reform Party that he founded and hoped to build into a national political force began to fall apart.

However, Perot’s ideas on trade and deficit reduction remained part of the political landscape. He blamed both major parties for running up a huge federal budget deficit and letting American jobs to be sent to other countries. The movement of U.S. jobs to Mexico, he said, created a “giant sucking sound.”

Perot continued to speak out about federal spending for many years. In 2008, he launched a website to highlight the nation’s debt with a ticker that tracked the rising total, a blog and a chart presentation.

Henry Ross Perot was born in Texarkana on June 27, 1930. His father was a cotton broker; his mother a secretary. Perot said his family survived the Depression relatively well through hard work and by managing their money carefully.

Young Perot’s first job was delivering papers in a poor, mostly black part of town from his pony, Miss Bee. Perot said when the newspaper tried to cut his commission, he complained to the publisher — and won. He said he learned to take problems straight to the top.

From Texarkana, Perot went to the U.S. Naval Academy even though he had never been on a ship or seen the ocean. After the Navy, Perot joined International Business Machines in 1955 and quickly became a top salesman. In his last year at IBM, he filled his sales quota for the year in January.

Fought for release of Vietnam POWs

During the Nixon administration that Perot became involved in the issue of U.S. prisoners of war in Southeast Asia. Perot said Secretary of State Henry Kissinger asked him to lead a campaign to improve treatment of POWs held in North Vietnam. Perot chartered two jets to fly medical supplies and the wives of POWs to Southeast Asia. They were not allowed into North Vietnam, but the trip attracted enormous media attention.

After their release in 1973, some prisoners said conditions in the camps had improved after the failed missions.

Perot was reported to have helped families of servicemen held in Vietnam financially, including John McCain’s. But relations between the two men later cooled over the POW issue when the latter became a powerful senator.

In later years, Perot pushed the Veterans Affairs Department to study neurological causes of Gulf War syndrome, a mysterious illness reported by many soldiers who served in the 1991 Persian Gulf war. He scoffed at officials who blamed the illnesses on stress — “as if they are wimps” — and paid for additional research.


Perot campaigns in 1992 with his wife Margot. He parlayed a loan from his wife into a fortune, building Electronic Data Systems. (Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)

While he could be combative in the political arena, his business acumen was unquestioned.

In 1962, with $ 1,000 from his wife, Margot, Perot founded Electronic Data Systems. Hardware accounted for about 80 per cent of the computer business, Perot said, and IBM wasn’t interested in the other 20 per cent, including services.

Many of the early hires at EDS were former military men, and they had to abide by Perot’s strict dress code — white shirts, ties, no beards or moustaches — and long work days. Many had crew cuts, like Perot.

The company’s big break came in the mid-1960s when the federal government created Medicare and Medicaid, the health programs for seniors, the disabled and the poor. States needed help in running the programs, and EDS won contracts — starting in Texas — to handle the millions of claims.

EDS first sold stock to the public in 1968, and overnight, Perot was worth $ 350 million. His fortune doubled and tripled as the stock price rose steadily.

In 1984, he sold control of the company to General Motors Corp. for $ 2.5 billion and received $ 700 million in a buyout. In 2008, EDS was sold to Hewlett-Packard Co.

Perot went on to establish another computer-services company, Perot Systems Corp. He retired as CEO in 2000 and was succeeded by his son, Ross Perot Jr. In 2009, Dell Inc. bought Perot Systems.

In September 2011, Forbes magazine estimated Perot’s wealth at $ 3.5 billion and ranked him No. 91 on its list of richest Americans.

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

CBC | World News