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Voting for the Insiders' Outsider

By Jason M. Solomon

SIX HETEROSEXUAL MEN Named to Cabinet. Drug Testing Mandated Every Morning For Federal Employees. Sideburns Eliminated From the Executive Office Building.

For the first time in American history, a fascist becomes president.

This is what happens in the best-case scenario for the Ross Perot campaign, and as he leads several national polls (including in pivotal states like California and Texas), the idea of a half-businessman, half-general, never-held-public-office-before president seems not so farfetched.

The problem with Perot goes beyond his lack of political experience and his authoritarian tendencies. The question is more fundamental: What exactly does he stand for? And once in office, could we control what he would do?

Perot has long maintained that position papers and seven-point plans are insignificant, and many voters seem to agree. Indeed, writers in such publications as The Washington Monthly have suggested that silver-bullet, Clinton-style specifics may somehow reveal a lack of real substance.

But hard-headedness and supposed courage does not make for substance either. And voting for a strong leader like Perot without any sense of where he would take the country could mean a roller-coaster ride without a place to get off.

IF THERE'S ONE THING that H. Ross Perot is, he's master salesman. From his days as a sales prodigy at IBM to his legendary sale of a school reform plan to the Texas legislature, Perot has built his reputation on using a combination of pressure, money and "commonsense" persuasion to make the hard sell.

Don't get me wrong. Anyone who expects to be an effective president needs to be a persuasive vendor in the marketplace of ideas. And this quality would make Perot--or any candidate who can mobilize support for ideas and actions--a policy-making force to be reckoned with.

But for all his sales feats, Perot is currently pulling off his best job yet--the creation and selling of his own image. Perot as the populist. Perot as the ultimate democrat. Perot as the maverick outsider. Perot as the candidate unsullied by the dirty hands of government. Considering the facts of Perot's career, it's been a masterful sell.

According to Perot and his supporters, the political world is a mess. Gridlock and stagnation rule the day. The only people with voices are the special interests represented by the Washington lobbyists who are corrupting our glorious democratic system. Perot is the White Knight--ready to ride in from his outsider, above-the-fray, private-sector perch and purify democracy.

But a look at Perot's history, as reported in the media in recent weeks, reveals shrewd use of the corrupt system about which he complains.

Perot owes his meteoric rise of the past months to the backbone of politics since 1960: TV. Eschewing usual campaign techniques, Perot has taken his candidacy directly to the people via the studios of Larry King.

But Perot has always known that television was a key ingredient to political success. During the Nixon years, Perot offered to buy a television station and newspaper to help spread the magic of the Nixon message.

Such dealings with government taught Perot something else: When you want to get something done, hire a high-priced lobbyist. Preferably one who held a high government office. Indeed, that was how Perot pushed his school reform package through the Texas legislature. According to Thomas Toch's In the Name of Excellence, Perot brought in one of the state's most powerful lawyers, along with three of the most expensive lobbyists in Austin, known around the capital as "the $100,000 boys." Two of them were former assistants to the speaker of the Texas House of Representatives.

Even his business ventures, contrary to public perception, have been heavily dependent on government. His mutlibillion dollar company, Electronic Data Systems, became a corporate monster by acquiring large government contracts to computerize government records.

And in a remarkable story in The New York Times, reporter Dean Baquet traced how Perot and his son managed to override the judgment of the Federal Aviation Administration and get the federal government to subsidize the building of a high-technology airport on Perot land.

The result: a multiplication of the value of the Perot land. And it was all made possible by a little ride in Perot's private helicopter with then-Speaker of the House Jim Wright, since ousted for ethical violations.

In short, Ross Perot is no outsider. In fact, he's the consummate insider--a guy with the connections, money and savvy to play the game. Indeed, he has often won at the political game, but if you believe his pitch, he has never even been a player.

The message of the Perot story is simple: If you work hard and make a lot of money (or if you stumble upon a lot of money somehow), you too can have the access and political influence you always wanted. If Ross Perot is running against the system and those that corrupt it, then he's running against people like himself.

BUT PEROT SEEMS to have an answer to the money=influence problem which he took advantage of during his career: Appeal to the people. Bypass the lobbyists and special interests. All laudable goals.

But along the way, Perot wants to forget about representative democracy as well. Simplify things. Make it direct. Have national electronic "town meetings," with H. Ross himself as chair of the national town council.

Perot-style town meetings, however, would be no more than a sham. They would be no more than a regurgitation of Perotisms--he'd make sure of that. Why? Perot hasn't really learned to be interested in what the people want--few businesspeople are. The nature of running a business is just fundamentally different from the work of a politician--you care about what makes the most profits and not what's best for the people. And even as corporate executives go, Perot was known to have a particularly autocratic style.

The Perot approach--at least as he tells it--works like this: Identify a problem, find a solution, implement the solution. No nonsense. After all, consensus is for "sissies." And when you're a multibillionaire, you get the feeling you know what you're doing. Ross has his ideas, and he is not running for president to listen to the ideas of others.

Voters like Ross Perot because he's a doer--and as a slick political operator and autocrat, he would no doubt "get things done" as president. But what "things"? If we are going to grant this guy so much power, we should get some idea of what he would do with it.

For example, Perot says he intends to cut the deficit. Like many candidates, he says he'll go after "waste." But to really make a dent in the deficit, he'll actually have to go after programs. What programs would he cut?

Representative democracy is too messy for Perot--and so are the checks that go with it. If we become disillusioned with President Perot, where will we turn? To a cowed Congress? To another White Knight?

So if you're sick of democracy and want a guy who can sell his personal series of fix-it plans to the country, fine. If you want a guy who doesn't mind trampling on the Constitution to achieve his ends, then go ahead and pull the trigger. And if you want a guy whose accomplishments through government illustrate everything--particularly the marriage of money and power--that's wrong with American politics, then Perot's your man.

Just get ready to put your hand over your heart and give a firm salute to the television. The maestro of political manipulation wants our vote. Let's make sure we know what we're voting for.

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