Perot's Ideas Take Wing -- Even Sesame Street Likes `H. Ross Parrot'
WASHINGTON - Are we gonna talk about it, or are we gonna do it?
Ross Perot has done it. He's become immortal.
The billionaire from Texas - hostage rescuer and populist hero of telephonocracy - has been canonized in the medium he loves most: television.
On April 5, Sesame Street will introduce a new character, "H. Ross Parrot," who, armed with chart and pointer, teaches kids the alphabet.
Which raises the question: Do Democrats and Republicans demand equal time? Bill Clinton has been in the White House two months, but Ross Perot is still on the campaign trail, which Sunday leads to a half-hour on NBC at 8 p.m., when Americans will be asked 17 questions on reforming government.
He's running hard, enhancing his image as what political analyst Kevin Phillips calls "the national watchdog," and using his nationwide grassroots advocacy group, United We Stand, America, to tap into voter discontent and fill a war chest at $15-a-head for . . . what?
To paraphrase Perot's former running mate: Who is he NOW, and what is he STILL doing here?
"He's a significant factor for change," said Sen. Harris Wofford, D-Pa., who's been told his own long-shot victory over Dick Thornburgh helped inspire Perot. "I don't want him to go away. I think he's a force pushing us on to a strong economic strategy."
Is he just holding Clinton's feet to the 19-percent-of-the-popular-vote fire he fueled with the issues of the deficit and political reform?
Or is he trying to solidify an organization that might run roughshod through the disunited GOP in 1996, as Phillips suggested?
Should the White House pay homage or simply pay attention?
Democratic National Committee Chairman David Wilhelm says: "The motivation behind the Perot voter is not only something we shouldn't fear but something we should embrace."
Perot, who spent an estimated $60 million of his own fortune and was repaid by the 1 in 5 voters who pulled the lever for him, is delivering the same message. Only now, as Newt Gingrich, the House Republican whip, said, he's "earned the right to say it."
For the last five weekends, Perot has crisscrossed the country making public appearances. Earlier this month, he testified before a joint House-Senate panel working on congressional reform, raising the ire of some members who thought him patronizing.
At the University of California-Santa Barbara last Friday Perot drew more than 6,000 people, more than either the Dalai Lama or Jesse Jackson, previous record-setters.
"We've even done things that are a bit of a reach for us," said Perot spokeswoman Sharon Holman, citing appearances on talkies - Joan Rivers and Regis and Kathie Lee.
"I don't know about Arsenio," Holman said, alluding to Clinton's sax appeal during the campaign, though she admitted a wax recording of Perot playing accordion in grade school exists.
At the busy United We Stand headquarters in north Dallas, the phone "rings off the wall," according to a volunteer.
A request for a membership total is refused, but Holman does acknowledge that more than 2.4 million written solicitations have been mailed out and that a large percentage are returning with checks, adding to a total plumped by a 1-800 telephone number and three telemarketing firms.
One Texas woman sent in an envelope filled with old 3- and 4-cent postage stamps, saying that she couldn't afford the cash, but would these stamps do? They did.
The United We Stand people say the goal is not to become a third political party. They will not even concede that Perot himself, because he ran for president, must be seen as a politician.
The intent is for Perot to pay the bills until the organization becomes self-supporting, which might be in a month, a year or perhaps, never. The argument is that no one can complain about how Perot is spending United We Stand money when it is coming from his own pocket.
Perot wants to hire executive directors in every state to lead a spunky membership that will bring its fanatic zeal into play in a valiant campaign to reform government at all levels.
But at this point, that is headquarters happy talk. All is not well in the field.
United We Stand has named paid executive directors in a few states, but a bundle of Perot backers have dropped out, complaining that there is simply too much bureaucracy and inexperience at headquarters.
"The basic problem was the lack of organization in Dallas and the lack of knowledge in Dallas as to how to put an organization together, and the lack of knowledge in politics in general," said Cindy Schultz, a political veteran from Wisconsin who dropped out of the Perot camp last week.
Despite the organizational problems, the public support for Perot has Democrats alert.
"The way to address the challenge raised by Ross Perot is to do things that are important and relevant to Perot voters," said Wilhelm of the DNC, an architect of the Clinton campaign. Phillips, whose latest book, "Boiling Point: Democrats, Republicans and the Decline of Middle-Class Prosperity," terms Perot "the first billionaire populist in U.S. political history," said Clinton is wisely aping Perot.
"Perot has made an end-run around the established media with his town meetings and talk shows, so Clinton is starting to change," said Phillips.
Wofford, who is close to Clinton, said the president and Perot may not be speaking directly to compare views, but "they are in communication through the talk shows."
Phillips also argued that Perot's grassroots lobby has positioned him to remake the GOP as a party candidate, a power broker or disloyal opposition.
James Carville, a key Clinton strategist during the campaign, summed up Perot this way: "He's very adept at making a lot of noise without saying very much. He has good political skills - a fondness for the camera and sound bites."
Sound bites? Here's a squawk from Sesame Street's H. Ross Parrot:
"Enough talk! You're the boss! I'm just a parrot named Ross! So let's do it!! Are you ready to say the alphabet talkin' 'bout it?"
-- Material from the Chicago Tribune is included in this report.
Copyright (c) 1993 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.