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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,"
Perot ducked the question. He said that in the early days of his company, his employees had to dress a certain way in order to compete with IBM salespeople and in order to get through the doors of large corporations. He said that in 1983, the president of EDS was a Jew. And he said that he personally knew nothing of the Dallaire incident, and that he planned to look into it the very next day.
But Perot didn't answer the questions about his own inconsistencies. He didn't answer the question bout his own tolerance. He didn't defend the rather odd corporate strictures of the company where he made his billions.
And Perot ducked other people's questions, too. Again and again, the undeclared candidate responded to questions with statements that were beside the point.
Here's another paraphrased example from the ABC town meeting:
Questioner: Mr. Perot, you have said that abortion is a woman's choice. But what specific laws or measures would you support that would protect a woman's right to choose?
Perot: I have said it before and I will say again, abortion is a woman's choice.
The day after the show, a friend told me that he found the program boring. "How often can you watch the guy sit there and not answer the questions? my friend asked.
Corporate culture is the operative concept here, I think, Perot wants to run government like a good business, carefully analyzing problems in terms of cost and benefits, consulting experts and controlling costs.
The analogy works, to a degree. Certainly, if our government is run like a business, it should be run like a good business, not a bankrupt business.
But someone should tell Perot that government is different from business, and that government and business interests can differ, as in a labor negotiation, a minimum wage law or an environmental regulation.
The analogy tells you something about the difference between Nader and Perot. Perot was building companies while Nader was fighting to get them to make their products safer for consumers. Perot is clearly a fan of the American corporate culture. His company banned striped shirts, for heaven's sake. Nader, on the other hand, thinks corporation is a major problem in America.
We grow up corporate, Nader would say in his stump speeches, railing against Tony the Tiger and network television, praising good nutrition and reading. Nader says large corporations have too much influence over the government, and he advocates specific structural reforms to counteract those influences.
Perot has profited handsomely from corporate influence (look at EDS and its Medicare contracts). And more importantly, Perot is corporate to the core. His press spokesperson, quick to refuse comment, responds to questions like the public relations flack of a Fortune 500 company. the candidate himself talks about revolutionizing American politics in 90 days, as though he were issuing some sort of quarterly report.
It's all a very strange culmination of he trend Joe McGinniss called "the selling of the president." We are at the stage when we seek a computer salesperson as our national leader.
It makes me queasy, and it makes me wish the Perot followers had listened to Ralph Nader back in February.
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