Ross Perot’s legendary list of lifetime achievements should start with “captured the imagination.”
Brilliant in business, generous and demanding, driven, quirky and colourful, Perot was as hard to pigeonhole as a Texas tornado.
His death at age 89 leaves a broad legacy and some of America’s enduring one-liners born of homespun wisdom.
If it was difficult working for Perot; it was also different, to put it mildly.
Workers at his revolutionary, Dallas-born Electronic Data Systems abided by a meticulous grooming policy that made white shirts mandatory and banned tasselled shoes. Cohabiting unmarried was out.
The rules reflected his background as a Navy officer, training that people said made him manic, even obsessive, about security. Perot was strong medicine, and he wasn’t for everybody.
In Texas one recalls him as an irresistible force in Austin to drag the state out of the dark ages on public education by demanding results. Asked by Governor Mark White to tackle the problem, Perot became immersed in research and lobbying, spending his own money and hiring his own experts. Perot won landmark reforms in the Legislature in 1984, and the legacy of measuring student progress remains today.
In Dallas some may recall that he wrote a $10mn cheque to assure a spectacular new downtown symphony hall. Others may not know of his role, since his condition was putting his friend’s name on the Morton H Meyerson Symphony Centre.
Across America, Perot is best known for big fights and swashbuckling, like his attempt to deliver Christmas presents to POWs in North Vietnam and his relentless push to find MIAs after the war.
One of his noisiest fights was with General Motors, after it acquired EDS. The cultural collision between Perot’s Texans and GM’s traditions was epic, and the auto giant bought out his stake to secure the peace. The deal asked a lot of Perot – keeping his opinion of GM to himself.
Perot may be best known in defeat, running an unconventional yet formidable populist campaign for president in 1992 and again, with less impact, in 1996. The blunt-talking billionaire seemed out of place or off the mark at times, but he stoked debate on his core issues of budget deficits and trade imbalance.
People still refer to “the giant sucking sound” Perot warned about – the sound of jobs leaving country.
Taking in the broader sweep of the man, one could say he was a person who didn’t accept the world as it was. He always believed, or at least his actions said that he believed, that the world could be made better, that great accomplishments were possible. In many ways he did that by capturing the imagination of millions and signalling that the seemingly impossible was achievable. The hard-charging approach drove change and bent the arc of history.
Not everything worked out. Not everything worked out for the better. But a lot did. Perot left a mark, and in the broad sweep of history America is better for it. – Tribune News Service
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