Running on Empty

Why Perot the "outsider" turned out to be just another politician


There were large lessons in Ross Perot's sudden decision to get out of the presidential race, and one of them sank in right away: that Perot had betrayed his supporters as blithely as any professional politician. Perot's people woke up one July morning to find that the man they'd put their trust in wasn't different from other politicians, only quicker. Years earlier, a taller, cruder Texan who campaigned on a promise of no wider war in Southeast Asia had at least waited until the election was over before starting the war. A smoother, preppier Texan who pledged, "Read my lips, no new taxes," hadn't raised taxes until his term in office was half over. Ross Perot broke faith with America before he was even a declared candidate. As volunteers across the country worked to get the signatures needed to put his name on the ballot, Perot took back his promise to run if they qualified him in all 50 states.

Adding insult to injury, Perot didn't apologize and tried to deny that his supporters had any cause for complaint. The decision not to run, he implied, was actually an act of patriotic self-sacrifice. His recent fall in the polls, he said, made it clear that a Perot candidacy would throw the election into the House of Representatives. Not only did he, as an independent, have no chance of winning there, but the turmoil that would surround the House's choice was apt to disrupt the government. Rather than subject the nation to all the dangers that would involve, Perot said, he was swallowing ambition and bowing out now.

Diversifying his portfolio of excuses, Perot also presented himself as a victim of negative politics. Through friendly reporters he put out the message that he and his family had been extremely upset by a barrage of hostile news stories in June alleging that a paranoid, authoritarian Perot had hired detectives to spy on employees, rivals, tenants, and even his own children. Perot and his family had known intellectually that they'd be targets, the reports observed, but they hadn't been prepared for the ferocity of the process, and they just couldn't take any more of it. The presidency wasn't worth the degradation its pursuit was involving.

Not least, Perot tried to forestall criticism by refusing to rule out the possibility that he might resume his candidacy. This was nonsense—campaigns can't be turned on and off like water in a spigot. But by saying he might get back in, Perot was pressuring supporters to stifle their fury and say nice things about him in hopes of reviving his candidacy. He was also threatening supporters that if they did express their anger, they'd be the ones responsible for his candidacy's ultimate demise, not him. In short, Perot was trying to shift the blame for his betrayal onto his victims.

The gamesmanship fooled no one. Perot backers knew they'd been screwed and were mad as hell about it. In the immemorial manner of a victim of injustice, they proceeded to have a good, long, loud, public talk about the man and his behavior. According to a poll taken the night of the abdication, 56 percent of Perot's supporters felt betrayed. A Florida woman filed a class action against Perot for breach of contract. A street vendor in San Francisco was spitting mad at being left with $750 of "Ross Is Boss" T-shirts in inventory. In Phoenix a woman told the news cameras that the experience felt like a divorce.

Perot's perfidy teaches a lesson about politics in our time.

Perot, with his brilliant business success and outsider's status, was supposed to define an alternative to the usual Washington politics mired in made-for-media postures and the special interests they serve. Perot's pragmatic, can-do, take-charge, enterprise-building, value-creating skills were supposed to bring something new and revitalizing to the national political scene. In fact, however, the alternative Perot presented was empty. In the end, he was just another news celebrity bending in the breezes, cultivating fame and power by saying things he figured the media would cover and the people would like.

Perot's fatal flaw was that he defined and conducted his candidacy through the news media. Rather than going among the electorate, listening to them, talking with them, presenting himself for inspection, and finally winning them over in the time-honored manner of the constitutional politician, Perot went on talk shows to perform the role of the Celebrity Outsider. It was a decision that guaranteed that sooner or later his supporters would be disappointed. A media candidacy is no weapon for an attack on politics as usual.

Media politics is inherently a politics of government intervention and special privilege. It's driven by news stories depicting crises and scandals that require emergency action that can't be informed by—and couldn't stand up to the test of—full deliberation. Attention is fixed on the leader who unilaterally expresses the emotions, takes the actions, and embodies the virtues called for by events. Backstage, unnoticed by a distracted public, the media politician works quietly to turn to his or his constituent's advantage the fine print that governs the practical effects of the legislation or executive actions undertaken in response to front-page dangers.

Media politics is deceptive. It seems popular but is oligarchical. On the surface it is all about political topics reflecting societal needs. Beneath this surface, however, it's mostly about special interests creating or using the events to further themselves at the expense of the community. Media politics appears to be a source of political energy and cultural vitality, but in fact it functions as an engine of decline.

Not least, media politics is opportunistic. Since it operates in the framework not of values and issues and deliberation and legislation but of current events, it requires a politician or citizen to translate himself and his ideas into the language of news. He has to hitch his wagon to the star of a story and hope that, with as much help as he can give it, it gets him someplace he's happy to be. If not, he has to bail out and wait for another accessible story to come along. Media politics is a hit-or-miss proposition, full of false starts and sudden changes of course and periods of inactivity.

Perot's candidacy never got beyond the opportunism problem. Having gotten in the race because events made a winning run possible for him, he got out when events turned against him. Had he stayed in, however, the other problems would sooner or later have materialized. Ross Perot was a betrayal waiting to happen. It's probably just as well that it happened now, when national attention can focus on the lesson the Perot debacle teaches. The lesson is that the way out of the dishonest, exploitative, abusive politics that is wrecking America is to be found in candidacies that genuinely do what Perot's only pretended to—recover America's original liberal, constitutional ideals in ways that are consistent with those ideals, which include deliberation, persuasion, and personal participation in constitutional processes.

While it lasted, to be sure, Perot's candidacy was intriguing and sometimes attractive, not least for the dazzling innovations it brought to the presidential campaign process.

In presidential elections, the media politician campaigns by seeking favorable roles in media dramas, both the short, paid, prescriptive, self-made ones called commercials and the free, discursive, journalist-made ones called news. This is done by conceiving, scripting, and staging actions to enable the press to portray him—and the audience to treat him—as a hero. The hero of a media campaign story is a man or woman of the people, a candidate who takes the stands, embodies the virtues, utters the sentiments, and undertakes the actions that, amid the crises and alarums of the front page, satisfy the electorate and win elections. Media depictions of a candidate's popularity function as self-fulfilling prophecies. By showing the candidate looking good and winning people over to his cause, they invite more people to support him. Alternatively, when the news stories make the candidate look bad, they drive people away from him.

Normally, presidential candidates practice the art of media politics within the framework of the primary campaign. They take positions, raise money, electioneer, and interpret the voters' and party leaders' judgments with a view toward cutting an attractive and masterful figure in the news. The purpose is to gain votes and drive competitors from the field. It's a process that ends up making everyone look bad. Candidates' ideas and personal merits are ignored by journalists obsessed with the question of who's winning and losing. Front-runners are alternately idealized and roughly probed for faults. Losers are ridiculed and ignored. Everyone attacks everyone else, since the easiest way to make headway is to drive voters away from your competitors. The winners emerge only a little less soiled than the losers.

Ross Perot created a completely different way to be a presidential hero this year. As others ran the primary gauntlet and attracted the usual amount of news coverage, he stayed out of the process and went on TV talk and magazine shows as a celebrity. He wasn't running for president, he said. He was a businessman and wasn't exactly without things to do or money to enjoy. However, he said, he'd agree to be a candidate if "the people" wanted it. He thereby positioned himself to harvest the other candidates' negatives while escaping being saddled with any negatives himself. In the meantime, he was quietly funding a volunteer, nonpartisan draft-Perot movement so that about the time the party conventions were launching their nominees, he would emerge from his self-made noncampaign as a full-fledged national candidate with a proven popular base. He'd also enjoy several technical advantages—no taint of previous political associations, a platform tailored to the special circumstances of the fall campaign, maximum public interest in his positions, and of course the ability to buy any amount of television time to supplement or bypass normal electioneering.

It was a brilliant plan, and it came off almost without a hitch. Americans liked Perot a lot.

For one thing, we liked his astonishing accomplishments and winning qualities—the $3-billion fortune, the twangy, down-to-earth charm, the achievement of building a huge company with a good idea and a $1,000 incorporation, the heroic rescue of his employees from the Ayatollah's prison, the gutsy leadership on Texas school issues, the take-no-prisoners ambush of the corporate bureaucrats wrecking General Motors, the staunch opposition to the self-serving betrayals of the Bush administration and Congress.

We also liked what we thought Perot could do for us. After two decades of economic decline under the supposedly best people applying the supposedly best ideas, Americans had had it with the usual presidential types and were ready to take a chance on someone different. Perot seemed to fit the bill. While much of America was slowly destroying itself, he'd been creating value on a fantastic scale. We hoped he'd do the same for us and piece together a strategy for making America as rich as he'd made himself and his employees.

Above all, we liked Perot because he'd been through what we'd been going through as a nation, and because he responded to and emerged from the experience in a way we could identify with easily.

Perot has spent a lifetime in an active love-hate relationship with big, established, powerful, American organizations. From his first job in the Navy through IBM, EDS, G.M., and Perot Systems, he's exhibited a recurrent pattern:

? First he idealizes the organization as the nurturer of his heroic destiny. For instance, dreams of military-style glory appear to have attracted the kid from Texarkana to the Naval Academy even though he never intended a naval career.

? Next Perot becomes horrified by the internal politics that thwart his plans and endanger his ascent. At IBM, he proposed the idea of offering programming services to the companies he was selling computers to, but Big Blue's bureaucracy couldn't be bothered.

? Angry and vindictive—after two years in the Navy, Ensign Perot denounced the service as "godless"—he quits to join or create a new organization in the image of his disappointed ideal. He succeeds beyond anyone's wildest expectations.

? Finally, longing to be vindicated by the big organizations he felt spurned by earlier, Perot returns to them or their people. At EDS, he hired a lot of ex-Marines and ex-Navy people, and he lavished his own selling efforts on the senior executives of the big IBM- and Navy-style organizations that were the bulk of EDS's clientele. With his charisma, Perot wins his way back into the hearts of these people. (G.M. chairman Roger Smith was sure, at first, that Perot was "a G.M. kind of guy.") The disfunctional politics disappear, and the organizations go on to bigger and better things.

It's a wonderful story. We wanted to be part of it.

As a nation, we are stuck just now in the scary early phase of Perot's myth. We would like to live happily ever after in the seemingly heroic, progressive, comfortable, secure world of large governmental, corporate, and educational institutions. But we're awakening to the fact that this destiny is evaporating before our eyes. The wonderful postwar world we've lived so agreeably with for so long is well on its way to disappearing amid a rising tide of aggressive, unprincipled, shortsighted selfishness that has turned our institutions into engines of decline. We identified with Perot because he went through what we're in the midst of and came out a winner without having to reconsider his postwar-era, big-organization ideals.

Perot enlivened this appealing talk-show persona and positioned himself as an outsider who would confront the politics of decline by borrowing a leaf from the conventional media politician and bad mouthing insiders at every imaginable televisual opportunity this year. One of the most frequent locutions in Perot's talk-show lexicon was the phrase sound bite. Usually he deployed it as a noun; sometimes it became an interesting, back-formed verb, as in "Bush is sound-biting that issue." In either form, the phrase was a sneering reference to the collaboration of politicians and journalists in reducing issues, positions, and personae to brief, colorful performances that can be reproduced as five- or 10-second (or one- or two-sentence) passages in news stories. Perot rightly denounced the practice as part of the politics of private advantage and public ruin.

Watching these performances, however, one quickly realized that Perot was himself a master of the sound-bite demagogy he pretended to be putting down. He showed a breathtaking ability to frame his thoughts in simple, colorful, memorable sentences. Perot rose to success this year mainly on the strength of a sparkling talent for political sound bites putting down sound-bite politics.

In this, Perot was no unwilling victim of a mindless press. To the contrary, he obviously liked speaking at sound-bite length. On many occasions this spring he passed up opportunities to address issues in as much detail as he wanted. During an interview with Fortune magazine, he was asked, "How do you feel about the federal government? Is it too big in absolute terms? Ought it to be smaller? Is it maybe involved in aspects of American life where it has no business being? Or is it maybe not involved enough in other areas where it ought to be?" Replied the man who spent the spring ridiculing sound-bite politics: "Interesting question. Never thought about it. Have to think about it."

Many of Perot's sound bites, like this one, had a hostile and condescending ring. This was no happy warrior, trilling encouragingly that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself or heroically summoning his countrymen to their destiny as a great society. Perot presented himself this year as an ungenerous little man in a permanent snit. His one-liners railed and sneered and put people down. The prime targets were the press and George Bush, but no one escaped undiminished. Perot's volunteers were "locusts moving across a wheat field." National problems were personalized and scapegoated.

This, for instance, is how Perot was discussing the merits of the Desert Storm war this spring: "We did recover Kuwait for the emir, but he ran like a rabbit when the war started, he never touched it while it was dirty, and he would not come back in his own country until enlisted men from ordinary homes all over the United States cleaned up his palace and reinstalled his gold faucet fixtures." (Substitute the name "Perot" for "emir" and you have a description eerily reminiscent of Perot's behavior once the attack politics began in June.)

Perot continued, "Now, let me say this. If I'm ever running the store, and you see American enlisted men rebuilding a palace for an emir, you know, just have me shot and call it a mercy killing. I mean, I've lost it. I've lost it. Seriously. Seriously."

Perot was also a severe if conventional critic of Washington's isolation, of what he called the "bubble" separating policy makers from ordinary people. Part of the bubble, he said, is the "best-kept secret in America, 1,200 private jets worth $2 billion, flying government officials around. These folks are our servants. They're flying around like royalty. What are they in such a hurry about? Why can't they fly and act like we do? OK, go to the airport, get in line, lose your luggage, eat a bad meal, have a taste of reality. Now this is important." But not so important that Perot, who gets around in his personal jet, gave himself a taste of airline reality, or acknowledged the hypocrisy of attacking officials in Washington for using the same method of transportation he himself was using.

Perot addressed his personalizing-scapegoating rhetoric to social and economic problems of all sorts. In Ross Perot's America, he declared confidently, "Everyone works," as if there would be no business cycle and no structural change, as if all those without jobs today were unemployed as a result of having chosen a life of indolence and parasitism. Moreover, in Ross Perot's America, he explained on the Larry King show, there would be "a strong family unit…a great mom and dad in every home." With that "we [would] wipe out most of our problems right there"—as if weak or broken families were weak or broken as a matter of preference, or as if a Perot administration could count on being able to restructure and reprogram the large majority of American households that aren't patterned on the Ozzie-and-Harriet model.

Hypocritical and demagogic though it was, Perot's precandidacy worked brilliantly—for a while. As Democrats and Republicans savaged one another in the primaries, he attracted a vast amount of favorable attention and soon surpassed Bush and Clinton. No sooner had he become No. 1, however, than his candidacy collapsed. For it quickly turned out that Perot hadn't thought through, and didn't have a way to deal with, the problems that would flow from political success. In particular, he didn't have a strategy for neutralizing the counterattacks that his opponents were bound to mount against him.

Once Perot became the front-runner in the polls, it was inevitable that the free ride he'd received outside the normal campaign framework would come to an end and that he'd find himself on the receiving end of the same kind of attack politics and negative journalism he'd directed at his opponents. In June the big guns of the Bush and Clinton forces wheeled to begin targeting Perot. With The New York Times taking the lead in rushing to disclose Perot's failings and misdeeds, the effect was immediate and devastating. From the roughly 40 percent support figure he registered in the polls around Memorial Day, Perot plummeted to roughly 10 percent in a month and a half.

The problem wasn't just that Perot was losing a lot of ground fast; candidates have come back from 20- or 30-point summertime deficits. The real problem was that the negative news opened a wound in the Achilles heel of the Perot candidacy—its shallow motivation.

For most of the men and women who run for president, the campaign is a high point in careers whose overriding objective is to rise toward the White House. These candidates naturally give the effort everything they've got, win or lose. For Perot, by contrast, running for president wasn't the culmination of a lifetime of longing preparation. It was a look-see at an intriguing potential deal that happened to come his way. If it worked out, fine; if not, fine, too—there was nothing riding on the run except the few months and (for him) paltry sum he'd put into checking the opportunity out.

Perot, in short, approached the presidency opportunistically. For him, the reason to run was that he could win. If victory became less likely, or if the contest also began to impose costs he found onerous, Perot's motive for making the campaign disappeared. The June attack-politics barrage was designed to exploit this fact. By both dimming his chances of winning and raising the costs of running, the bad-news barrage eliminated Perot's motive to run. It didn't just weaken his candidacy, it vaporized it.

Perot didn't anticipate or protect himself against the Bush-Clinton counterattack because, in the classic manner of the media politician, he's always had a blind spot when it comes to his own relationship to the nasty, aggressive, self-serving side of politics. In the Perot myth, he's a man who instinctively rebels against the dysfunctional politics of large organizations and eventually returns to quell these forces by dint of sheer charm and brilliance. But like all myths, this one is part exemplary truth, part useful lie.

The true part is Perot's revulsion against shortsighted, harmful, exploitative, personal/organizational politics—the undeserved firing, the cynical subservience to a rule-flouting boss, the dismissal of an idea that was Not Invented Here, the witting creation of shoddy products, the campaign for protection against better products made at lower cost. Most of us have seen such behavior up close and personal and let it pass. Perot is different. He doesn't let it pass. He gets mad, speaks out, and doesn't let go.

The false part of the Perot myth is the part at the end in which, having achieved success as an entrepreneur, Perot returns to the world of the big organization, makes the politics vanish, gets things back on track, and wins everyone's admiration. In fact, Perot's encounters with big organizations and the swirling machinations of interest groups have usually taken place on their terms, not his. The encounters have almost always entailed personal and pecuniary benefits to Perot—a better job, a big new client, a huge piece of income, a dashing part in the daily drama of the media, etc. The underlying relationship between Perot and organized interests has usually been the relationship typical of media politics—mutual back scratching under a cover story of confrontation and triumph by the forces of public good over the forces of organized selfishness. Consider the way Perot's 1984 merger with General Motors worked out.

EDS, a $1-billion-a-year computer services company looking to keep on growing fast, was seeking G.M.'s computer business, which was worth as much as $2 billion or $3 billion a year. G.M.'s Roger Smith was attracted to EDS not just by the efficiencies it could effect in his car business, but by the contributions EDS could make to G.M.'s growth and corporate culture as a permanent part of the firm. Smith made an offer: EDS could have the entire G.M. account, instantly tripling its sales, and in return it would merge with General Motors. G.M. would pay $2.5 billion in cash, or over 30 times earnings. Perot's share: $1.4 billion. Perot also would get a seat on the board and have a free hand in running EDS, and the EDS management team would get millions of new EDS-series G.M. common shares with guarantees of a price equal to twice the 1984 market value, giving Perot alone a value of $750 million after seven years. Perot said yes.

Within months, Perot and Smith were at war. Perot, at board meetings, was openly criticizing G.M.'s style and products and urging a more competitive approach. Smith was incensed that Perot and other EDS executives were being paid more than he was. There was unpleasantness in Dallas when Perot refused access to EDS's books to a team of G.M. auditors sent by Smith to conduct an independent audit. G.M. divisional managements, which wrote the checks for EDS's services, were up in arms over the high, cost-plus pricing called for in the contract. They were further enraged when EDS refused to temporarily lower prices amid a company-wide belt-tightening drive under which G.M. renegotiated the prices it paid most suppliers.

Within two years Perot and his top people were out.

It was an outcome anyone with even an inkling of the people and institutions involved could have foreseen from the outset. G.M., as the owner and biggest customer, was going to be in control regardless of anything Smith may have told Perot about having a free hand and helping shake up an ossified megacorporation. Perot, aggressive and arrogant, was bound to step on toes. A deadly explosion, with Perot the victim because G.M. was in control, was inevitable.

Smith may have anticipated or even desired this outcome. For G.M., EDS was the main attraction, Perot just part of the price of admission. Getting G.M. and EDS together in a way that paved the way to Perot's departure may have been, or quickly become, Smith's intention.

It clearly wasn't Perot's intention. Perot didn't anticipate the explosion. As one used to positive-sum deals with big organizations, he expected that as founder and chief executive of EDS he could take a ride on the corporate tiger and not end up just another high-ranking bureaucrat inside. He didn't anticipate or understand the powerful forces he'd be up against. He had no strategy for dealing with them when they materialized. He was blown away by the first big storm to come along.

The deal was a good one for G.M., which rationalized its computer operations and got a fast-growing, high-tech subsidiary. It worked well for EDS, which got vigorous sales growth; today EDS is 10 times bigger than it was pre-G.M. For Perot, by contrast, the deal was a disaster. He lost his job, had no impact on G.M., and got nowhere in the race to succeed Smith. Six years later he's still looking for work and doing almost nothing with the money. Perot lives modestly for a billionaire. He has $2.7 billion parked in T-bills and equivalents, which is a modern version of stuffing it in a mattress.

Thus the book on Perot reads as follows: brilliant salesman, fertile conceiver of new enterprises, intrepid leader, specializing in deals with big, powerful, political institutions that leave him rich and famous, sometimes at the expense of his closest associates, amid much populist posturing.

Perot's weakness for the politics he puts down in others and practices himself was intensified by his reliance on the news media and television.

A media politician contains a large contradiction. On the one hand, he must have a talent for presenting himself as a bold leader who responds heroically to pressing dangers. He must be full of convincing talk about high ideals and steadfast devotion to the community. On the other hand, he must also be effective working backstage and conniving with others to analyze, plan, script, and stage opportunistic public acts and news stories that create occasions for delivering the private privileges that crisis news events occasion and camouflage.

Campaigning as an outsider through the media-politics medium only intensifies the contradiction. Media politics is the ultimate exercise in insiderdom. Nothing about the process or people is innocent. It is a politics of maneuver and hypocrisy and performance, and since the news media don't cover outsiders, it can only be played on the inside.

Thus the media-based outsider is always playing a disingenuous role. He or she mounts a critique of privilege and oligarchy in the name of ordinary people and liberal ideals of freedom, equal rights, limited government, rule of law, and the centrality of the individual. But the medium through which this politics is expressed, oriented as it is to activating illiberal, nonconstitutional emergency powers of government, is always at odds with the message it conveys.

The fact that Ross Perot chose to mount a media candidacy meant he wasn't serious about, and would inevitably betray, the classical-liberal themes he touched on. An outsider candidacy that went public the hard and real way, by organizing and responding to the views of people at the grass roots and forging them into a political movement, might well have succeeded, especially if Perot had stayed with it and invested the time, talent, and money he had available. This is the classic way of making outsiders matter again in a democracy.

The outsider media candidacy, by contrast, essentially feigns opposition to the welfare state from within. Jimmy Carter, the last successful practioner of the genre, demonstrated the pattern, running on Southern charm and modesty and against Washington, then appointing Naderites to the regulatory agencies once he was in the White House. Perot, with his studied lack of specific positions on issues and quiet but persistent flirtation with protectionism and industrial policy, was well on the way to reenacting the Carter formula by the time he dropped out.

Had Perot stayed in and given it his all, he might very well have won. The techniques of the outsider media candidacy are powerful and proven. Perot was a clever and ambitious fellow with unlimited funds. Had he kept on responding to the attacks, counterattacking, and sounding his own positive themes in the massive way his money made possible, he might very well have regained the lead. Attacks by Bush and Clinton on Perot's fuzziness on the issues, though perfectly legitimate, would have gone nowhere or boomeranged, since their own prior fuzziness and lack of principle formed the background against which Perot came to look like a plausible alternative in the first place.

The only thing sure to have stopped a Perot-style candidacy would have been something only a true outsider could have supplied—leadership in helping Americans turn away from the media-candidate myth that common sense and charisma are enough, and in embracing the fundamental lesson of politics in our time: that what is left open and flexible by a pragmatic posture ends up being co-opted and turned to private ends at the expense of the common good, and that the cure for what ails America is a return to a politics based on the classical-liberal principles and constitutional ideals on which the country was founded.

In our time, people have accomplished real and valuable things in public life only the old-fashioned way: by being committed to the projects and the principles underlying them, by taking risks for their sake, by running on them unapologetically, by giving the electorate a clear choice and a corresponding opportunity to establish meaningful directions. The great recent example was Ronald Reagan, who got committed to conservative ideas of anticommunist foreign policy and tax cuts long before they were popular, campaigned for them even at the cost of losing, stuck with them in adversity, and then had the extraordinary pleasure of seeing the nation slowly but massively come around to his own way of thinking. Reagan was far from perfect, but in office he did accomplish the two big things he'd been pushing for all his political career. He thereby demonstrated the crucial difference between a media politician—that is, one who is defined by the evanescent myth of news—and a politician who uses the media process but avoids being co-opted because he's defined by his own values and independent organization.

Because Reagan stood for something positive, however unpersuaded some of us may have been about the substance of some of his positions, he didn't need to be negative. Reagan was unique among recent public figures for his unruffled good nature. Liberal Pat Schroeder once called him in frustration a Teflon president because others' charges and his own failures didn't seem to stick to him. What was protecting him wasn't Teflon, however. It was just the man's natural decency standing out in sharp contrast to the industrial-strength nastiness of public figures in a media-drenched age.

Reagan didn't need to diminish others because he meant to accomplish something positive. He was able to believe the best of people, not merely because he was himself a nice man, but because he was so devoted to his cause that he never gave up on the possibility of winning others over to it. His only real failing was in caring about so few things on his own, and in imagining that the lack of a coherent philosophy disciplining the practical inside politics he undertook in their behalf wasn't a weakness.

Thus the ultimate lesson of Perot's humiliating collapse is the same as that taught by Ronald Reagan's limited, now-fading successes: that in the real world, classical-liberal constitutional principles are highly practical. It's modern pragmatism and the institutions associated with it that don't work.

Contributing Editor Paul H. Weaver is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. His forthcoming book is News and the Culture of Lying, to be published in 1993 by The Free Press.