Ross Perot, Billionaire Businessman And Former Presidential Candidate, Dies At 89

Jul 9, 2019
Originally published on July 9, 2019 4:17 pm

Updated at 5 p.m. ET

Ross Perot, the colorful Texas billionaire businessman who ran twice for president, first as an independent and then as a third-party candidate, died early Tuesday at his home in Dallas. He was 89.

Perot, who had battled leukemia, was surrounded by family members when he died, his family said in a statement.

"In business and in life, Ross was a man of integrity and action," the statement read. "A true American patriot and a man of rare vision, principle and deep compassion, he touched the lives of countless people through his unwavering support of the military and veterans and through his charitable endeavors."

Henry Ross Perot was born in 1930 in Texarkana, Texas. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and worked for several years at IBM. He went on to make his fortune in the tech industry, founding computer services company Electronic Data Systems in 1962 and Perot Systems in 1988.

In 1979, he famously financed a rescue mission for two employees of Electronic Data Systems who had been detained in Iran.

He ran for president in 1992 as an independent with the campaign slogan "Ross for Boss." He emphasized his political outsider status in the lead-up to the vote. "Now, just for the record, I don't have any spin doctors. I don't have any speechwriters. Probably shows," he joked during the campaign.

Perot won nearly 19% of the popular vote in the race, which was ultimately won by Bill Clinton.

Ross Perot, shown here during a 1992 campaign commercial, made cutting the national debt a centerpiece of his presidential runs.
AP

"He burst on the scene as something of a phenomenon," NPR Washington editor and correspondent Ron Elving says, adding that Perot received "the most votes for anyone other than the Republican or Democratic nominee since Teddy Roosevelt back in 1912." Perot performed particularly well in rural counties, Elving says, though he didn't win any states.

During his 1992 campaign, he ran TV campaign ads that stretched half an hour long. "I love the fact that people will listen to a guy with a bad accent and a poor presentation manner talking about flip charts for 30 minutes, because they want the details," he said during a presidential debate.

Perot founded the Reform Party and ran for president again in 1996. "I have no desire to be in public life, as far as having to live up there in a bubble and put up with all this stuff, you know. I think I'd rather have heart surgery without anesthetic, but having said that, if the members in 1996 insist that I run again, I will do it for them," he said prior to the vote. "If that's what we have to do to shock the system and to get the changes, we'll do it."

He won more than 8% of the popular vote.

Both times he ran, his platforms were "centered on campaign reform, protecting American workers from outsourcing and cutting the national debt," his website states. Perot was particularly outspoken against the North American Free Trade Agreement and frequently referred to the "giant sucking sound" it would create.

In 2000, Perot opted not to run, and the Reform Party went through a nominating process — and Elving notes that "one of the people who got interested in that and briefly ran in it was Donald Trump."

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement that Perot "exemplified what it means to be a Texan and an American." He said that the businessman's rise showed that Perot was "an exemplar of the American dream."

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We are following news this morning that Ross Perot has died. The self-made billionaire and two-time independent candidate for president was 89 years old. Perot died where he was born - in the state of Texas. He was a political outsider whose charm and charts helped make him a viable contender in the 1992 election.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROSS PEROT: Now, just for the record, I don't have any spin doctors. I don't have any speechwriters - probably shows.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving joins me now to remember Ross Perot. So, Ron, Perot has - he had been well out of the public eye for many years. But can you take us back? Explain who he was in politics in the '90s, why his groundbreaking campaign got so much traction.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Rachel, he burst on the scene as a something of a phenomenon in 1991, 1992, first talking about running for president and then announcing it on the Larry King television talk show on CNN in February of 1992. By June of that year, he was leading in the Gallup poll. He was the No. 1 candidate for president in June of that year over President H.W. Bush - George H.W. Bush, who was the incumbent president - and over Bill Clinton, who would, of course, eventually win two terms as president. But Ross Perot was No. 1 in that June and a very serious threat to become an independent presidential winner.

MARTIN: I mean, he got a big piece of the pie. How many people ended up voting for him?

ELVING: In the end, more than 19 million people voted for him. That was almost 19% of the vote back in those days. That was the most votes for anyone other than the Republican or Democratic nominee since Teddy Roosevelt back in 1912. And he didn't win actually any states, so he doesn't show up in the Electoral College, but he did finish second in a couple. And he was the leading vote getter in many rural counties. So in that sense, he was already beginning to anticipate some of the politics that have come since.

MARTIN: So speaking of which, there are some notable parallels between Ross Perot and our current president, are there not?

ELVING: Oh, indeed, there are. In fact, when Ross Perot, after losing in 1992, founded the Reform Party and had - first was their candidate in 1996, did not do nearly as well in that second outing. Less than half as many people voted for him. But then in 2000, the Reform Party actually had a nominating process. And one of the people who got interested in that and briefly ran in it was Donald Trump. He eventually was not the nominee of the Reform Party, but he actually did get interested in it, and they had a lot of issues in common, including opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement, particularly as it pertained to Mexico.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PEROT: Now, when you've got a 7-to-1 wage differential between the United States and Mexico, you will hear the giant sucking sound. There's a political lesson. There's a business lesson.

MARTIN: Which, of course, we have heard echoed by Donald Trump since the '90s really. I mean, he's been consistent on that. There's also a stylistic similarity to the two. I mean, what was - it was such a big deal to have this guy come in and say the two parties are broken. They're just talking off talking points, and I'm going to give it to you straight, and that's what has drawn so many people to Donald Trump...

ELVING: That's right. The phrase...

MARTIN: ...The perception of the talking straight, anyway.

ELVING: That phrase, he tells it like it is, that was popular back in 1992, and it reemerged with Donald Trump's campaign in 2016. And both of them were independently wealthy. They had billions of dollars, and they both were excellent sales persons. They had made their reputation in business selling things. And they were excellent at selling things to a particular audience right from the very beginning. And that audience, interestingly enough, was not particularly like them in terms of economic power but very much like them in terms of their nostalgia for an America that was whiter (ph) and somewhat more rooted in the past than the America of that particular time.

MARTIN: What happened to Ross Perot when he was no longer in the center of the political conversation?

ELVING: He did take something of a role in the 2000s where he supported George W. Bush, the son of the man that he had opposed. He supported him in 2004 over John Kerry and did not support the independent candidacy of the guy who would come out of the Reform Party. That disappointed a lot of his supporters - probably did not have a huge impact on the 2004 election.

MARTIN: NPR's Ron Elving remembering the life and legacy of former presidential independent candidate Ross Perot, who has died at the age of 89.

Thanks, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.