About six months ago, I was knocking on doors in New Hampshire, pitching a Ralph Nader presidency as the solution to America's problems.
"He's not a politician," I told the citizens of Manchester. "He wants to reform the system."
I was ahead of my time. Since February, the anti-incumbent, anti-Washington, anti-politician mood has coalesced behind one unlikely leader--not consumer advocate Ralph Nader, but Texas billionaires Ross Perot.
Where Nader's raiders failed, Perot's posse has succeeded, at least so far. Perot has gained millions of signatures on petitions to put him on ballots nationwide, and his standing in the polls rival that of President Bush and Gov. Bill Clinton. More importantly, the still-undeclared candidate has gotten thousands of Americans involved in the political system and has given them a cause to believe in.
Convincing regular people to get involved in politics and take over the government was what the Nader campaign was all about. I was all for it, and I still am. Paradoxically, though, watching the Perot campaign succeed with a variation on Nader's message has been profoundly disillusioning.
I first came face to face with Perot at a rally on Boston Common in June. Perot, in a dark three-piece suit, stood and addressed the gathered masses.
"United teams win, divided teams lose," Perot said.
"Our goal should be alabaster cities." Perot said.
"If you've got somebody that's down the street, and you can help `em, right?" Perot said.
It was amazing. who could disagree with Perot? No one can argue for garbage can cities, and no one will tell you that divided teams win.
As Perot was uttering truisms, I was getting uneasy. The anti-politician was sounding like a politician. And the people around me were eating it up.
Perot has hired handlers--Ed Rollins and Hamilton Jordan--who are veterans of the sleaziest campaigns of year past. Perhaps they are partly responsible for Perot's refusal to get specific when it comes to policy questions or proposals.
I got a taste of the famed Perot vagueness and slipperiness last week when I asked the Texas billionaire a question during a live ABC News electronic town meeting.
Roughly, I asked Perot the following:
"Mr. Perot, you have said that as head of Electronic Data Systems, you did not prohibit employees from wearing beards. But in fact, in 1983 a federal judge found that Reggie Dallaire, an orthodox Jewish worker at your company, was fired for no other reason than his refusal to shave his beard. Through 1986, beards, striped shirts and even tasseled loafers were against EDS rules. How do you reconcile these facts with four earlier statements, and what do such strict rules say about your tolerance of people who dress or look or think differently than You,"