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Perot only adds to public's cynicism

Published Oct. 12, 2005

So he's back. The Texan who fancies himself the thinking man's Rambo. The outsider who sees himself on a national rescue mission.

At his press conference in Dallas Thursday, H. Ross Perot said he would "accept the request" of his volunteers. "There's only one issue today. What's good for our country."

From the very beginning, Perot has talked about the country as if it were a prisoner of war held captive by the two parties. On Thursday he declared that "the issues" were still languishing, gagged and bound in some hidden cell.

With his bells and whistles, his talk shows and 800 numbers, his volunteers and dollars, his straight talk and his ideas, he wants to single-handedly free democracy from the parties' old grasp. All we have to do is tie a yellow ribbon round the old Perot tree. Again.

Well, I didn't share the Perotphilia the first time around. I don't put stock in maverick billionaires with egos as large as their bank accounts. Especially when they deny those egos. Especially when they portray themselves as mere servants of the people.

Last July though, I saw that Perot had injected something into this campaign. Call it energy if you want, call it excitement. He had engaged the disengaged, won the affection of the disaffected, gotten the jaded to be involved.

Maybe Perot was never more than a name for None of the Above. But the petition-signing, grass-roots activism he incited hadn't been seen since 1968 when students shaved themselves "Clean for Gene" McCarthy.

So I was uneasy when my media mates came down on Perot with such a heavy hand. I think it showed how conservative we have become as professionals _ too much a part of the system.

For all our overt passion for news, new-ness, change, some of us were hostile to the notion that a Ross Perot might really throw the whole process up for grabs. Reporters who had trudged through months of primaries, commentators who had nurtured all the right (and left) contacts in Washington, were not friendly to the new outsider, the nobody.

But then the guy upped and quit one day in July, without a word of warning or apologies to the people who believed in him. The in-your-face New York Post headline screamed: "What a wimp!" I would have added, "What a phony!"

There are moments in life when you learn a lot about a person's character. Across the country, people had left their jobs, upended their lives, to work for Perot. They had put Perot first. Unfortunately, so had Perot.

In a critical decision, he behaved like the most ruthless businessman who closes the factory, abruptly, when the bottom line starts to fall. Workers be damned. If he treated his own people that way, with such personal disregard, how would he treat the country?

Rationalizing his way back into the race, trying to erase the "quitter" image, Perot said that he was re-entering the race only because the people want him to. Who can believe that? This is a man, as unable to listen to detractors as is his 800 number. No matter what a caller wanted to say, the toll-free number only counted approval for his re-entry.

He described himself again as the alternative to the "ego-driven, power-hungry people." But this description has as much credibility as "volunteers" on a payroll.

Maybe the return of Perot was always planned as "an October surprise." Maybe the millions he spent and the ads he canned were savvy preparations for a daring last-minute raid on the election.

But if true, these are not the actions of the democrat who spoke of town halls, direct access, and a "bottom-up" campaign. They are the actions of a secretive autocrat. They don't describe a man who serves the people but a man who manipulates people.

My father used to say that if a man fools you once, he's a jerk. If he fools you twice, you're a jerk. Only he didn't use the word "jerk."

In the case of Perot, the saddest thing is not his capacity to fool himself or others. It's that this outsider promised to bring new people and new hope to the system. Instead he has brought something very, very old: Another large dose of cynicism.

Boston Globe

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