DALLAS — H. Ross Perot rose from a childhood of Depression-era poverty to become a self-made billionaire who twice ran for president with a mixture of folksy sayings and simple solutions to America’s problems. His 19% of the vote in 1992 stands among the best showings by an independent candidate in the last century.
Perot died of leukemia Tuesday at his home in Dallas surrounded by his family, family spokesman James Fuller said. He was 89.
As a boy in Texarkana, Texas, Perot delivered newspapers from the back of a pony. He earned his billions in a more modern way, however. After attending the U.S. Naval Academy and becoming a salesman for IBM, he set out on his own — creating and building Electronic Data Systems Corp., which helped other companies manage their computer networks.
The most famous event in his storied business career didn’t involve sales or earnings. In 1979, Perot financed a private commando raid to free two EDS employees who were being held in a prison in Iran. The tale was turned into a book and a movie.
“I always thought of him as stepping out of a Norman Rockwell painting and living the American dream,” said Tom Luce, who was a young lawyer when Perot hired him to handle his business and personal legal work. “A newspaper boy, a midshipman, shaking Dwight Eisenhower’s hand at his graduation, and he really built the computer-services industry at EDS.”
“He had the vision and the tenacity to make it happen,” Luce said. “He was a great communicator. He never employed a speechwriter — he wrote all his own speeches. He was a great storyteller.”
Perot first attracted attention beyond business circles by claiming that the U.S. government left behind hundreds of American soldiers who were missing or imprisoned at the end of the Vietnam War.
Perot fanned the issue at home and discussed it privately with Vietnamese officials in the 1980s, angering the Reagan administration, which was formally negotiating with Vietnam’s government. Looking out for the health care needs of veterans became a long-time concern of Perot.
Perot’s wealth, fame and confident prescription for the nation’s economic ills propelled his 1992 campaign against President George H.W. Bush and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton. In June of that year, a Gallup poll showed Perot leading his major-party rivals.
Perot dropped out in July, however, saying later that he did so to prevent Republicans from sabotaging his daughter’s wedding. He rejoined the race less than five weeks before the election, but his popularity had fallen. Critics said he had a penchant for embracing conspiracy theories. He finished third in the popular vote and was shut out in the Electoral College.
Still, Perot recorded the highest percentage for an independent or third-party candidate since President Theodore Roosevelt’s second-place showing in 1912. Some Republicans blamed Perot for causing Bush’s defeat by splitting the anti-Clinton vote, although exit polls were inconclusive.
During the campaign, Perot spent $63.5 million of his own money. He bought 30-minute television spots during which he used charts and graphs to make his points, summarizing them with a line that became a national catch phrase: “It’s just that simple.”
Perot’s second campaign four years later was far less successful. He was shut out of presidential debates when organizers said he lacked sufficient support. He got just 8% of the vote, and the Reform Party that he founded and hoped to build into a national political force began to fall apart.
However, Perot’s ideas on trade and deficit reduction remained part of the political landscape. He blamed both major parties for running up a huge federal budget deficit and supporting trade deals that allowed American jobs to be sent to other countries. The movement of U.S. jobs to Mexico, he said, created a “giant sucking sound.”
Perot continued to speak out about federal spending for many years. In 2008, he launched a website to highlight the nation’s debt with a ticker that tracked the rising total, a blog and a chart presentation.
Perot’s themes — that Washington is corrupt, wastes taxpayer money and ignores the working class — have been repeated by other candidates since and helped Donald Trump win the presidency in 2016.
In Dallas, Perot left his mark by creating the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, helping finance the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, and being a major benefactor of The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. He also provided help to families dealing with medical expenses or other challenges, according to those who knew him.
“He gave a lot to other people in public ways, but he also did it in private ways that nobody saw. There were thousands of stories just like that,” said Meyerson, a longtime senior executive in Perot’s longtime companies.
Henry Ross Perot was born in Texarkana on June 27, 1930. His father was a cotton broker; his mother a secretary. Perot said his family survived the Depression relatively well through hard work and by managing their money carefully.
Young Perot’s first job was delivering newspapers in a poor, mostly black part of town from his pony, Miss Bee. He said when the newspaper tried to cut his commission, he complained to the publisher — and won. He said he learned to take problems straight to the top.
From Texarkana, Perot went to the U.S. Naval Academy even though he had never been on a ship or seen the ocean. After the Navy, Perot joined International Business Machines in 1955 and quickly became a top salesman. In his last year at IBM, he filled his sales quota for the year in January.
In 1962, with $1,000 from his wife, Margot, Perot founded Electronic Data Systems. Hardware accounted for about 80% of the computer business, Perot said, and IBM wasn’t interested in the other 20%, including services.
Many of the early hires at EDS were former military men, and they had to abide by Perot’s strict dress code — white shirts, ties, no beards or mustaches — and long workdays. Many wore crewcuts like Perot.
The company’s big break came in the mid-1960s when the federal government created Medicare and Medicaid, the health programs for seniors, the disabled and the poor. States needed help in running the programs, and EDS won contracts — starting in Texas — to handle the millions of claims.
Forbes magazine this year estimated Perot’s wealth at $4.1 billion.