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An Uncommon Man Teeters on the Edge of Populism

By John A. Cloud, Crimson Staff Writer

We need Perot," Jesse Hubbard says plaintively, "because he can beat the Establishment. He has the money to beat the Establishment."

Hubbard founded the statewide Perot petition drive in Kansas last spring. Now, the 46-year-old Dillard's department store employee from Paola County has dropped out of the movement's state leadership, but still backs Ross Perot.

For Hubbard, like so many other Perot supporters, the main issue is the deficit, but a vote for Perot will touch a deeper, more personal concern.

"I went to the debate in St. Louis," Hubbard recalls. "Someone asked me, 'Who are you?' I said, 'I'm Jesse Hubbard. I'm here for my man.'...They were all these high-up mucky-mucks. I'm a nobody. They couldn't believe that someone would let me get in there. They didn't care about the debate. It was just a status-symbol thing," he says.

Hubbard rails against both parties, but reserves particular venom for Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, the Democratic nominee and likely victor today. "Whenever I see [Clinton], I get a queasy feeling in my stomach," he seethes. "He's so slick. He just tells people what they want to hear."

Hubbard's reasons for backing Perot stand in sharp contrast to those of many other Perot proponents. Take Rusty Korman. Korman, 40, earns more than $125,000 a year in a jewelry business in Austin, Texas.

He says he was "real idealistic" in college, when he supported Sen. George S. McGovern, as Clinton did. He still considers himself a liberal but thinks Clinton won't do enough to stem the "orgy of consumerism" he thinks has led America to its economic and moral troubles.

Last spring, Hubbard and Korman were among those Perot bedeviled to form an old collection of supporters--those for and against abortion rights, members of both parties, people from all regions and backgrounds.

But Perot's army is perhaps not as unusual as his behavior this election year. Perot flirted with formally entering the race for months, appearing on television talk shows spinning cracker barrel wisdom about "our nation," "our children," "our problems." He abruptly left the race on the day Bill Clinton accepted his party's nomination, leaving many to think Perot tacitly endorsed what he then called "the revitalized Democratic Party."

Then he entered the race last month, just in time for the debates--and just in time to charge the Republicans with bizarre conspiracies to discredit him and his family.

But even after Perot's mercurial conduct, he is poised to garner the votes of perhaps 21 million Americans today, if last week's polls prove correct. Still, that may be one of the smallest ironies in a movement full of them.

Indeed, it is these ironies that seem clearest as the Texas entrepreneur's quixotic bid for the White House ends--for better or worse. Ironies that run thicker than Perot's twangy Texas accent, thicker than the tumbleweeds that drift outside his hometown of Texarkana, Texas.

In incarnations that contain varying degrees of truth, Perot is both a folksy speaker and a spinner of international conspiracy theories. He is both a computer entrepreneur and a Bubba-like rebel. He is both a Texarkana boy delivering newspapers on a bicycle and a dashing rescuer of two employees from the depths of revolutionary Teheran. Most visibly, he is both a billionaire and a populist.

And it is these ironies which, in the last week of the campaign, most clearly wedged Perot supporters from Perot detractors.

I don't think there's a populist bone in his body," says Alan Brinkley, a Columbia history professor and author of Voices of Protest, a study of Louisiana Sen. Huey P. Long and Father Charles Coughlin, two early-century populists.

"Perot's own behavior has been the opposite of a populist," Brinkley says. "He's been insulated from media and insulated from the people.... He's entirely a candidate of media packaging. He's made himself into a series of sound bites unmediated by any other group. Yes, there's the occasional rhetoric, but it's not populism."

But tell that to August A. "Gus" Toda, the secretary of the Massachusetts United We Stand organization. United We Stand is the nationwide Perot alliance formed after Perot dropped from consideration in July and before he reentered the race in October.

"You betcha it's populist," Toda declares. "Last spring, I was astounded at the wide political spectrum of the people involved. We had people from the Jerry Brown campaign working side by side with people who were working for Patrick Buchanan," he says. Toda claims to have 10,000 active volunteers in Massachusetts now.

The constant refrain of Perot organizers like Toda is that Perot has brought in Americans never before involved in the political system. Tethered by concerns about the national debt and energized by Perot's personal style and direct appeals, a broad range of people feel for the first time that they can effect change, the organizers say. And his ability to spark this feeling is what makes him a populist, they insist.

"There has been no person better at communicating with ordinary people," Toda says. "He talks a language people understand. He has a real interest in what people say and think and do. We haven't seen this kind of man in government in a long time. Bush sounds like a Yalie and Clinton sounds like someone who went Oxford. George Bush doesn't even understand people."

"We have people in their 40s who've never voted," Toda adds. "I never have. [Politicians] have been bums since I was an adult."

As if reading from a script, Perot cheerleaders from every corner of the nation echoed Toda last week. "If you ever were in here, you would find everybody," says Bonnie Wendel, a campaign worker in Topeka, Kan. "I see a welder, a consultant, a bank worker, people with real estate, unemployed people, a man in the race car bus. Very few of them have ever been involved in politics before."

"It's pretty damn grass roots," gnarls Korman,the jewelry store owner. "I'm looking at afireman, an out-of-work computer guy, some highschool students. It's an incredibly interestingmix of people. It's an unbelievably diverse crowdof volunteers. If there's one area that's lacking,there's not as much minority involvement as Iwould like."

The hard-core Perot supporters and organizersseem to be lost white Baby Boomers, the middleAmerica fortysomethings who didn't become yuppiesand yet didn't slip into poverty. They witnessedboth Watergate and Jimmy Carter's failure, andthey give mixed reviews of Ronald Reagan.

They hold at least one thing in common: Theydislike the two major political parties. For them,"populism" and "grass roots" aren't aboutcoalition-building, the traditional job of apolitician. For them, grass-roots "Perotism" meansvitalizing new groups of Americans.

"He's brought out a sleeping giant in people,"Korman says. "There's a lot more despair out therethan some would like to believe...It takes someonefrom outside the political system. Or it will takea call to arms."

But Perot's detractors--especiallyCambridge's own Eastern academics--view the Perotmovement with a much more cynical eye.

That a corporate giant who has influenced thehighest levels of government for 25 years hastouched a populist cord of individual politicalpower not pawed since the days of Huey Long seemsjust too incredible for many of these folks. Forthe detractors, Perot's decision to drop out andthen enter the race later changed everything.

"In the beginning, at least--in the spring,that is--there was a very visible populist elementto the Perot movement," Brinkley says. "Thatremains an element for the long-time supporters.But what's happening now has more to do with thedynamics of the campaign rather than anyparticular elements of Perot movement. [There are]increasing fears raised by the Bush campaign aboutvoting for Clinton, and there's a deep reluctanceto vote for Bush. [Perot] is convenient andattractive--largely because of the debates."

Perot organizers interviewed last week didadmit that the dynamics of the campaign in thelast month have been different than last spring.

"It's run more top-down now," Hubbard says."But," he adds quickly, "it's still a bottom-upmovement. It's 98 percent grass roots."

But many cynics wonder which "people" arerumbling from the bottom for Perot.

"If populism involves an appeal to the masses,that's what Perot is attempting to do," saysTrumbull Professor of American History Donald H.Fleming. "But his constituency, as far as one canfigure it out, isn't working people. It doesn'tsound to me like the people--the 'plainfolks'--are offered anything by Perot."

For Perot's critics, the oxymoronic idea of a"radical middle," as the Perot movement has beendescribed, isn't one that can be likened to theempowerment of the poor by past populists.

"It's never been clear to me that his appeal isto the plain folk--people at the bottom of theeconomic and social ranks," Fleming says.

So who are they?

"I don't know. Dentists. People from theprofessional ranks and above the working class,"Fleming muses.B-10

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