Ross Perot, anti-establishment billionaire and the best-performing third-party presidential candidate since Theodore Roosevelt ran in 1912, has died at the age of 89.
Perot, who won 19 percent of the vote in 1992’s presidential election, died at his Dallas home due to leukemia, his family told reporters on Tuesday.
Born in Texarkana, Texas, in 1930, Perot had a strange, colorful, and occasionally conspiratorial life (and billions made after founding Electronic Data Systems in 1962) that took him around the world — like Vietnam, where he attempted a humanitarian mission to fly food and medicine to American prisoners or war in 1969, and Iran, where he staged a commando raid to rescue two of his employees from prison in 1979.
But it was his presidential run in 1992, on which he spent $65 million of his own money, that made Perot famous.
As I wrote for MTV News in 2016, Perot, who made much of his money from government contracts, argued that the problem with America was too much government spending.
His plan was simple: rein in spending, reduce the federal deficit, stop gun control and the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and get more people involved in politics through “electronic town halls” where every American could decide how their lawmakers should vote on bills by pressing a button on their remotes at home. Perot wasn’t particularly personable (in an interview with MTV News, he said to people who used drugs, “You’re a burden to society, and you’re selfish”). But in 1992, at least, he seemed sane, knowledgeable, and, to Americans lacking enthusiasm for a second Bush term or a Clinton presidency, like the perfect option.
As the 1992 election continued, Perot gained the support of millions of Americans who felt unable to cast a ballot for either then-President George H.W. Bush or Democratic candidate Bill Clinton and by June 1992, he was leading the race.
In July 1992, he dropped out of the race, only to reenter in October, just weeks before the general election. After claiming he was dropping out because of poor polling, he returned to the campaign trail and then claimed that the Bush campaign had blackmailed him with compromising photographs of his daughter to keep him out of the race. (This was not true.) His affinity for some conspiracy theories was palpable throughout the campaign:
In addition, the Perot campaign got the FBI to launch a sting operation on the Bush campaign to find out if they’d been tapping into Perot’s phone calls. Perot had already said (in a debate on live television!) that the Vietnamese had sent a team of Black Panthers to kill him in 1969.
He participated in debates against Bush and Clinton, and paid for 30-minute infomercials on network television to air the last week of October in which he pointed at graphs to explain the faults he saw in Clinton and Bush’s economic policies.
And on Election Day, Perot, who had gone for months without campaigning and had relaunched his campaign with just weeks to spare, won 19.7 million votes (for comparison’s sake, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader won 2.8 million votes in the 2000 presidential election in which he was considered a “spoiler” candidate.)
Ross Perot ran again in 1996, winning 8 million votes as a candidate for the Reform Party, arguing that his “highest priority is to restore trust and confidence in government.”
But his 1992 campaign was perhaps his greatest legacy — a campaign built outside of major party superstructures and funding, one where more than a million people called into a Ross Perot phone bank in just one week to help him get on the ballot in every state, and one aimed squarely at the “establishment” candidates who were too busy, in Perot’s view, adding to the federal deficit.
Perot’s 1992 campaign has echoes in today’s politics — one in which an “outsider” candidate with money to burn argued that he alone could take on government “gridlock” for the benefit of real Americans.
“The American people are good,” Perot said in early October 1992, “but they have a government that is a mess. Everybody in Washington makes excuses. Nobody takes responsibility even when they have direct responsibility.”