WHEN MARGOT PEROT FACED BARBARA WALTERS ON ABC's 20/20 two weeks ago, it was the clearest indication yet that her 61-year-old husband is taking serious aim at the presidency. For as elusive as Perot has been when it comes to his positions on the issues, he has been even more secretive with regard to his family, refusing to divulge so much as his children's ages and occupations. His wife's TV appearance proved that his yen for secrecy was not born of any fear of embarrassment. Margot Perot, a 58-year-old former schoolteacher, was poised and articulate as she discussed her husband's ambitions and her own "first priority...the family and creating a happy home life for Ross." By the end of the interview, Walters was urging Perot to "keep her."

He hardly needed to be told. As Perot's presidential campaign gathers steam, the family picture the public will finally see will by all accounts resemble the Norman Rockwell paintings that hang on his office walls. Perot, when he's not playing tycoon, seems to be a genuine family man. Says Joanne Roosevelt, a longtime Dallas friend of Margot's: "Once you get to know people, as all the layers are peeled back, often you are very disappointed. But not with the Perots—they are exactly what they appear to be, a happy, loving family."

That is an achievement for which Ross Perot will not lake credit. "Five out of my five kids are too good to be true, thanks to their mother," he says. "She is a world-class mother." She is also a genteel member of Dallas society and the kind of woman who has been described as "sweet and lovely" since her 1951 high school yearbook, which called her "a typical American Girl who will grace the campus of any American College."

Margot, daughter of Gertrude and Donald Birmingham, grew up in Greensburg, Pa., a small town east of Pittsburgh. Her father, a bank president, who lost his job when he suddenly became blind, was a go-getter like her future husband. Undaunted, he went on to start a new career selling home products. He worked until the day he died.

When Margot was an undergraduate studying sociology and anthropology at Goucher College in Baltimore, a mutual friend arranged a meeting with the Texas-born Perot, the country-boy son of a cotton broker and a housewife. "She didn't want to go," says Ross. "I was president of the class [at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis], battalion commander, all that stuff. She'd been dating doctors from Johns Hopkins. After our date, all Margot could [tell her friends] was, 'He's really clean.' " Perot laughs uproariously. "Not good-looking, not a good conversationalist, just clean." But Mr. Can Do became Mr. I Do when he and Margot married in 1956. After Perot's four years in the Navy, they put all their possessions in a car and drove to Dallas, where she became an elementary schoolteacher and he a salesman for IBM.

She banked her salary, and in 1962 when Perot—frustrated by IBM's lack of interest in his ideas for selling computer software as well as hardware—decided to start his own company, she provided the cash he needed. As legend has it, he soon spun that $1,000 invested in Electronic Data Systems into gold and is now rich enough to mount a presidential campaign 33 times over.

While her husband was working six-day weeks, Margot raised their kids, who attended Dallas's most exclusive schools St. Mark's for boys and the Hockaday School for girls. Today, four of the five live within a low miles of their parents well guarded 22-acre Highland Park estate in Dallas. Ross Jr., 33, a former Air Force pilot and champion horseback rider, runs the real estate holdings of the Perot Group and with his wife, Sarah Fullenwider Perot, has three children. Though one Dallas newspaper columnist calls Ross Jr. "very boring." former Fort Worth city councilman Steve Murrin has said he is "a very effective, get-things-done kind of guy." Nancy Perot Mulford, 31, married to a lawyer who works with Perot ally Tom Luce, a high-powered Dallas attorney, also works for Dad. in the venture-capital department, and has just had her second child. Margot dotes on her grandchildren and—hold your breath, Hillary—bakes them cookies regularly. Suzanne, 27, works at Christie's auction house in New York City and is married to a stockbroker. Carolyn, 24, plans to marry a Dallas doctor this August, and Katherine, 21, is a senior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

All five children are reportedly devoted to their mother. In 1981 they donated lead money for a new building at the Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, naming it the Margot Perot Women's and Children's Hospital.

The Perot parents do their share of giving as well. They have donated money to charities like the Salvation Army and the United Way, sometimes anonymously, and Margot spends countless hours on volunteer work. She serves on the local board of the Salvation Army, whose fellow board member Jack Waters describes her as "one of the few in her financial position who actually enjoys getting in there and using her hands and working on a project. She does everything that any of the volunteers would do, digging toys out of the bag at Christmas, working at the toy shop—you name it." Ruth Sharp Altshuler. one of Margot's best friends, has noted that Margot is "as nice to the person with the mop as she is to the queen."

She does little to emphasize her own near royal status in her hometown. She owns a while Jaguar that she drives herself (Ross drives an '84 Oldsmobile), wears a warm-up suit to the hairdresser where she has her hair styled in a simple pageboy, and buys the clothes one friend describes as "quietly elegant" at Neiman Marcus. (She has confided to her hairdresser that she doesn't spend a lot on them.) She and Ross favor chain restaurants like Chili's and local barbecue joints, and though she will occasionally go powerboating with her husband on Lake Texoma, Margot prefers tennis and skiing at their vacation home in Vail, Colo. (They also have a place in Bermuda.)

Hack in Dallas, she stays out of her husband's business, and reportedly none of his $3.3 billion is in her name. She told Barbara Walters that she never gives her husband advice and that she has never sat in a boardroom with him. "I don't think he needs me to do that," she said. If she were to be First Lady, she told Walters, her involvement would fall somewhere "in the middle"—between that of Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton.

According to her friend Joanne Roosevelt, she has something important in common with both women—though the public hasn't seen it yet. "Margot is not a shrinking violet," says Roosevelt. "She is very much her own person."

ELIZABETH GLEICK
ANNE MAIER in Dallas

  • Contributors:
  • Anne Maier.