One of the most interesting things about Ross Perot the businessman is that he owns an estimated 20 percent of Next Inc., the computer company founded by Steve Jobs after he left Apple. At birth, Next wasn't given much chance for survival. Jobs's vision, the conventional wisdom held, was inspiring but out of date. The world had no niche for a new line of computers.
Perot's multimillion-dollar vote of confidence gave the company both capital and credibility. Next is still struggling, but the knee-jerk cynics quieted when Perot stepped in. His money transformed Next from the refuge of an obsolete visionary to the property of two legendary entrepreneurs. It recast Jobs from deposed corporate chieftain to ever-promising whiz kid.
Such is the power of the Perot mystique—and the Perot millions. Perot the legend recalls a different time, not so long ago, when giants built a new American industry on optimism, ingenuity, and tiny slips of silicon.
In those days, the business sections of bookstores stocked titles that evoked a sense of grandeur: The Soul of a New Machine, Fire in the Valley. Today, we have Den of Thieves and Merchants of Debt. And today, Ross Perot is running for president.
Perot the politician is not, however, Perot the legend. And at the heart of his campaign is a contradiction—a repudiation of the very culture and policies that produced it.
In his populist quest for the White House, Perot, like the Democrats, is running against the 1980s. Unlike the Democrats, of course, he doesn't talk about greed; that would be absurd for a billionaire. Rather, he attacks the dynamism of the decade, the changes that it wrought on American industry, and the government policies that made those changes possible.
"I think the big problem in the '80s, was we had all this silly stuff we called deregulation," he told TV Guide.
"Our real problem is our giant companies, like IBM, are downsizing. General Motors is downsizing," he said on 20/20.
"Junk bonds are by definition junk," he told Phil Donahue.
Yet Perot's campaign is built, quite literally, on the businesses that transformed America in the 1980s. It was through CNN that he found his supporters and declared his potential candidacy. And it's on MCI lines that his phone banks receive calls from Perot enthusiasts.
In a decade in which competition shook loose the corporate structures of such behemoths as IBM and General Motors, entrepreneurs Bill McGowan and Ted Turner built new, lean organizations that broke up monopolies and reinvented U.S. communications. These creations relied on strong-willed founders, new technologies, and deregulation—the same deregulation that permits talk shows to book presidential candidates without facing the chaos of "equal time." Both MCI and CNN took on staggering amounts of debt—Drexel-placed junk bonds in MCI's case—to finance their growth. Considered in this light, the Perot campaign seems to have a bad case of self-hatred.
Perot's paradoxical relationship with the 1980s becomes easier to understand when you remember that, despite his investment in Next, he belongs on the other side of the great computer divide from Steve Jobs. Perot's is the white-shirted, hierarchical culture of IBM, a world of giant mainframes run by central controllers—not the bohemian, fluid culture of Silicon Valley, where desktop machines put power in the hands of individuals.
And despite his love of technological fixes for political gridlock, Perot's revolution is a rebellion against change, against the dynamic culture that produced CNN and MCI and Steve Jobs. On the "wedge issues" of the 1990s, he stands on the side of centralism and stasis, not choice and change.
Against the "borderless world" of free trade, international businesses, instantaneous communications, and large-scale immigration, Perot poses a warlike obsession with foreigners (in his litanies of denunciation, he attacks not lobbyists, but "foreign lobbyists"), opposition to free trade with Mexico, and nationalist industrial policy. Rather than push for educational innovation and parental choice in Texas, he backed central decision making to enforce bureaucratically set standards; in the education-reform debate, he stands with the authoritarians, not the pluralists.
And on that most telling issue, national service, Perot supports universal conscription. The military model is his ideal.
"They take these same people, bring them into the military, take them through basic training, turn boys into men, girls into women. They teach them honesty, they teach them integrity, they teach them moral and ethical values, they teach them teamwork, and then they go out and practice, practice, practice. And the result is what you saw in the Middle East," he told CNN's Larry King a year before declaring that he might run for president.
"Let me give you a suggestion: Public service; every young person in this country gives two years of his life in public service. Can you imagine how that would change this country? I don't mean all in the military; across the board….We would change this country forever. If you and I had had that experience as young people, we would have known as young people what government could and couldn't do, among other things, right? We would have always voted and we would have been much more committed to this country."
This conscription would apply, he said, to "every young person. And nobody could cop out."
Perot the businessman can understand the value of investing in Next. But Perot the politician doesn't understand the value of letting an 18-year-old Steve Jobs serve himself rather than the government.
The personal-computer revolution and the national prosperity it engendered were made possible by the end of the draft, a policy change that allowed kids like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates to drop in and out of college, to fiddle with computers, and to reinvent the world. That revolution wasn't planned, it wasn't directed, and it wasn't very tidy. Companies rose and fell, went in and out of business, hired people and laid them off. Like the rest of the '80s, the personal-computer revolution was messy. It was private, it was apolitical, and it lacked "leadership." Yet it made us rich and it made us free.
We will not recover our optimism, or our country, by handing a mandate to a man who would be Boss—however legendary, however rich. The source of wealth lies not in the corridors of power but in the hearts and minds of men and women free to live without leaders.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Political Paradox".