Ross Perot

updated 12/28/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/28/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

He was never, as he claimed, all ears. Always a better talker than listener, he knew from the very beginning of his improbable quest for the presidency how to deliver the message that so many Americans longed to hear about their couch-potato nation. In Perotspeak as dead-on, energizing and relentlessly positive as the latest high-performance-sneaker ad, he told it like it should be, and he made intractable problems sound, once more, tractable: "Now don't quit in the middle! Let's figure out what has to be done and just do it, do it, do it!" As he never tired of saying: "It's just that simple." With his engaging homilies and stern but reassuring manner, crew-cut Ross Perot, 62, seemed the ultimate patriarch from the golden age of Sitcom America. Father knows to save the country.

Perot lit up the electorate by casting himself as just that kind of national daddy. Helped by popular disdain for the inarticulate George Bush and doubts about the slightly too bushy-tailed Bill Clinton, Perot's extraordinary bid for the White House laid bare a deep longing for a leader who would make us eat our spinach. Barely three months after that now famous night of Feb. 20, 1992, when he first announced his willingness on CNN's Larry King Live! to run for President, the Dallas billionaire had ridden to the top of the polls by preaching his gospel of tough love—tax hikes, budget cuts and all-around fiscal discipline. Tens of thousands of volunteers toiled to get him on the ballot in all 50 states.

In the beginning, press accounts of Perot's life were mostly flattering, focusing on his boyhood in Texas, his schooling at Annapolis, his rise to great wealth and, of course, the legendary 1979 commando mission to Iran that he bankrolled to rescue two employees. But then the father figure showed some disturbing signs of dysfunction. A darker portrait emerged—that of a bare-knuckle businessman with a fondness for private investigators and conspiracy theories. Increasingly under siege, Perot suddenly took a dive. His stunning announcement on July 16 that he was dropping out of the race broke the hearts of his supporters. But in Perot's case, to be gone was not only not to be forgotten but was not to be gone either. Three months later he was back in the race, playing the presidential debates like a drum and attracting huge audiences to his grimly fascinating infomercials. Then he stumbled again, going public just a week before the election with wild allegations that he had withdrawn from the race earlier because he had learned that Republican dirty tricksters had planned to disrupt his daughter's wedding. Yet even that bizarre episode didn't deter 19 percent of the electorate from voting for Perot, making him the most successful third-party candidate since Teddy Roosevelt in 1912.

It is debatable how many of the 19 million people who cast their ballots for Perot did so simply to send a protest. Whatever the case, Perot has said he intends to bankroll his organization, United We Stand, America. And with a personal fortune of as much as $3 billion, it seems unlikely that this gadfly will buzz off anytime soon. As he says, "It's just that simple."

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