Perot: Always In A Hurry To Turn The Page
Second of two parts profiling presidential candidate Ross Perot ------------------------
DALLAS - Ross Perot and his wife were flying across Asia to London, and the Dallas businessman had brought along enough work for what he thought was an eight-hour flight. The trip took 17 hours, and Perot was restless.
Margot Perot was reading "The Winds of War," and Perot wanted in on the book.
"Margot would read a page, tear it out and give it to Ross," recalled Tom Meurer, a former Perot aide whose wife was on the plane. "Ross reads faster than Margot, and he kept saying, `Hurry up, Margot. Read the next page.' "
The book on Henry Ross Perot is that he can hardly ever wait to turn the page.
He was an Eagle Scout by age 13, a millionaire in his 30s. He works at a breakneck pace, demanding action and loyalty of those around him. He disdains inefficiency, once described his company's philosophy as "Ready, fire, fire, fire," and likes to quote Winston Churchill's dictum: "Never give in. Never give in. Never. Never. Never. Never."
His favorite hobby is racing a souped-up speedboat at 135 mph, sometimes chasing his helicopter-flying son across a Texas lake.
He even talks fast.
For most of his life, Ross Perot has been in a hurry. He badgered his way into the Navy, then couldn't wait to get out. He set sales records at IBM, and found the pace too slow. He sold his company to General Motors Corp. and took a seat on the GM board, but when the giant automaker was slow to reform, consented to an acrimonious buy-out. He burst onto the national political scene last spring with talk of joining the presidential race and just as quickly bailed out when he thought he couldn't win.
Now he's back, and for a man who idolizes Churchill, the Boy Scouts and Norman Rockwell, who covets the myth and the legend he has become, it is simply the biggest, most expensive crusade in a long list of public and private endeavors, each one seeking a broader stage.
"You like to have the action. You like to have the projects. You like to have two or three fights going on. That's what keeps things exciting. That's what he likes to do," Perot's son, Ross Jr., once said of his father.
It is no easy task to define Ross Perot, a man of seemingly conflicting images:
-- Is he a "temperamental tycoon" or a brilliant businessman?
-- Is he dictatorial, or merely aggressive?
-- Is he obsessed with espionage, conspiracy and security, or simply a father concerned about his family's safety?
-- Is he intolerant, or just strong-willed?
-- Does he break rules and insist on getting his way, or does he fight for just principles and hold out from compromise?
-- Does he quit when the going gets tough, or have the common sense to know when it's time to change course?
Maybe all of this, and more.
Perot can be folksy, homespun, charming and downright funny, yet he can also be terse and prickly, pushy until he gets his way. He portrays himself as clean-cut, proper and God-fearing, often quoting hymns, yet associates say he curses and swears in the office.
He has been described as autocratic, yet wins high marks for listening to many sides and building coalitions. He claims the highest regard for individual privacy and Constitutional principles, yet has arranged surreptitious investigation of rivals.
"I think the most remarkable thing about Ross is that he hasn't changed one iota in the 20 years that I've known him," said longtime Perot lawyer Tom Luce. "Obviously his thinking emerges and changes and matures. But his personal characteristics, he hasn't changed one iota."
Friends say the Perot rarely seen by the public is a practical joker whose idea of a stunt is sending a pregnant-looking woman to a friend's door the day after his marriage. He once donned a suit of armor and rode a white horse around a parking lot at a birthday party with employees.
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON
He was born in Texarkana, Texas, the descendant of French traders from Louisiana, named Henry Ray Perot and known as Ray until fifth grade. That's when his parents, Gabriel Ross and Lulu May Perot, changed Ray's name to Ross. They wanted a namesake in the family after their first child, Gabriel Ross Perot Jr., died of spinal meningitis.
Perot's father was a cotton broker with a gift for gab. "That's where Ross gets his ability to tell stories," said Milledge Hart III, one of the first employees at Electronic Data Systems, the company Perot founded. "But in terms of who's the better salesman? Ross is better than his father ever was."
His was a childhood straight from the easel of Rockwell. Hanging in young Ross' bedroom was a Rockwell calendar showing a Boy Scout in prayer. He delivered newspapers, played the accordion, rode horses.
"Ross is not a fearful man," said Perot's onetime scoutmaster, 82-year-old Sam Shuman. "If you use the word guts, he's got guts. He's not scared to try anything."
After high school, where Perot was an undistinguished B-student, he attended Texarkana Junior College and was elected student-council president. Infatuated with the Navy, and eager to attend school at a place where they paid students, Perot pestered Sen. W. Lee O'Daniel for appointment to the Naval Academy.
He was perhaps too naive to realize he had neither the connections nor the credentials for the honor. But when O'Daniel was packing up to leave Washington, an aide said he had one appointment to Annapolis left.
"Does anyone want it?" Perot, who heard the story from the aide, quotes O'Daniel as saying.
"Well, we've got this boy from Texarkana who's been trying for years."
"Give it to him," the senator said.
At Annapolis, Perot again became class president, and was an average student, ranking 454 out of 925 in his class.
Hart, whose parents were friends with Perot's folks, remembers the first time he met Ross. Hart was a plebe at the Naval Academy; Perot a senior, ready to set up his fellow Texan for a fall.
"There was a lot of hazing of plebes, especially from Texas. This little guy walks in and says, `My mother told me to look after you,' " Hart said. "Then he left. There were four first classmen outside the room, and he says to them, `There's a plebe from Texas in there, guys.' That was my introduction to Ross."
Once at sea, Perot served on a destroyer and an aircraft carrier from 1953 to 1957. By 1955, the 25-year-old lieutenant was seeking a discharge, in part because of what he saw as slack morals, in part because of disagreements with a senior officer. Higher-ups denied his request, saying "no hardship exists."
FROM IBM TO EDS
Back home in 1957 with an honorable discharge, Perot became
an IBM salesman while the computer industry was in its toddler years. He soon recognized that some companies needed computer services but couldn't afford the gigantic expense of an IBM mainframe, and that some companies bought computers but didn't use them all the time.
So Perot left IBM in 1962 and created a way to share - EDS.
For a fee, EDS would pick up a company's data at night, rent time on another company's computer and process the data overnight.
As the company grew, Perot advertised in Hawaii for military officers on their way home from Vietnam, and recruited a crack army of salesmen and engineers. He didn't have an office, so he convinced clients that EDS workers should be "on-site."
The classic entrepreneur, Perot had created a new industry. His company grew at a phenomenal rate, enriched largely by government data-processing contracts. By 1968, when the company went public, Perot was a Texas legend - the man who made the biggest fortune in the shortest amount of time.
"His headlights are always on high-beam," Meurer said. "He can see out about six or seven moves ahead."
He ran into repeated trouble trying to work the government to his advantage in matters of public contracts, taxes and special privilege. Nothing he ever did was proven illegal, but Perot's blunt pressure sometimes seemed to push business ethics to the edge.
By 1969, Perot was on the worldwide stage, trying to fly Christmas dinners and medical supplies to U.S. POWs in Hanoi.
It was the first of his numerous public exploits: He later launched a rescue mission designed to free two employees jailed in Iran, led a war on drugs in Texas for a Republican governor, then a war on substandard public education in Texas for a Democratic governor, and labored passionately for Vietnam veterans and soldiers still listed as missing in action.
"What Ross is really great at is the vision," said Luce. "He really is a classic leader. He is the guy who develops the vision, pulls together the team and then lets you go off and do it."
Perot as problem-solver has been the most recurring theme. Presidents have called on him for everything from covert help in freeing hostages to passing on messages to Japanese officials during business trips. Dallas police asked him to conduct his own review of their activities when they were confronted with a citizens review board they dreaded.
It hasn't all been goodwill. Perot has tangled with city officials over zoning and tax assessment issues, even whether he could install a helicopter landing pad at his home. He threatened to pull a $2 million contribution from the Dallas Arboretum because he didn't like the direction the lakeside park was taking.
"He was the 900-pound gorilla trying to sit wherever he wanted to," said Michael Jung, a Dallas lawyer who served on a city task force on the issue.
After a pair of police officers stopped Perot's daughter-in-law for speeding and scolded her for illegally carrying a concealed handgun, Perot summoned the two to his office. The officers expected to be thanked by Perot for letting his daughter-in-law go, but were berated for allegedly being rude, according to police.
Even Perot acknowledges his double-edged personality. "I don't think anybody who knows me," he has said, "thinks I'm too good to be true."
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