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Avoiding personality questions lets Perot hide his own flaws

I found it intriguing that Ross Perot described women reporters who prepare rigorously for interviews and ask difficult questions _ what we in the trade call "doing our jobs" _ as "trying to prove their manhood."

I'm intrigued because his manhood is precisely what Perot has refused to reveal to the American people. I don't mean the sort of manhood that some might find reflected in his collection of military memorabilia or his hobby of sicking investigators on folks who have annoyed him.

Nor am I talking about what we saw last week: a man who left the presidential race because, he said, he had no wish to be disruptive, who found himself weary of life outside the spotlight and so re-entered the fray. A man who surely knows that the chance of victory is nil and the opportunity to disrupt still considerable.

In fact, maybe "manhood" is not what I'm looking for at all. Personhood comes closer. Humanity. Who you are.

Perot likes to say those issues have no place in this race. "We're talking about performance here and not personality," he said when he announced for president, as though the two were mutually exclusive. He's helped in this by a country tired of the cult of personality, the photo op, the Christmas-card portrait.

Perot took widespread disillusionment with bloated government and inflated image and turned it into an either/or scenario. Either you can be the CEO of the USA or you can be an official portrait. Not both.

That's just wrong. In certain European nations they have split the roles; they have a prime minister to do the country's business and a king or queen to be the figurehead on the Ship of State. But in America one person must attempt to do both. Personality is a key to character, and character the bedrock of leadership.

Like the displaced carny working the whizbangs and gizmos of Oz the Great and Powerful, who bleats from his hiding place, "Pay no attention to the man behind that curtain!" _ Perot wants to keep who he is separate from his political ambitions. It is obvious why this is so. When the curtain to the Perot character is pulled aside, you find a man who stands in front of a room full of African-Americans and calls them "you people."

You find a man who hired legal pit bull Roy Cohn to sandbag the Vietnam Memorial project because he hated the design. You find a man whose company dismissed an employee for wearing a beard in violation of a corporate ban on facial hair. You find a man who has a penchant for private investigators and vendettas, who has been alleged to have undertaken a disinformation campaign against his own daughter's boyfriend.

You find a man who suggests that women reporters who do their jobs the way they are meant to be done are somehow suspect. Talking with Barbara Walters on Friday night, Perot said that the manhood crack had been distorted. "It has nothing to do with the problems facing the country," he added.

And he's right. It has nothing to do with the deficit or jobs or the national debt; it's a blip on the screen compared to those things. All it shows is a little bit about how Ross Perot deals with being challenged, and a little bit about how he stereotypes women. Those little bits add up. By the end of an election, we've amassed enough of them, like people putting together a jigsaw puzzle, to tell whether we can respect a candidate or not.

Our deep disenchantment is not only the result of the economy, the bureaucracy or the insularity of the Beltway boys. Although we say we've given up on heroes, I bet there are more than a few of us who still yearn for the kind of president we can envision on the front of a nickel or the side of a mountain. Giants. Or, at the very least, good guys.

Perot is neither, with that grim grin, its friendliness belied by the hard points of his eyes. His candidacy will be rejected because he has become just what he decried, a politician who perpetrated a con job on the people for the sake of his own high opinion of himself _ and then tried to do it again.

But his failure will represent something bigger than that as well, a tacit understanding that while personality cannot rule the race for the White House, it should play some part. Perot wants to keep personality out of the campaign for his own sake, not for ours. In the shadow of his big talk and big bankroll, his character, when revealed, seems small.

New York Times News Service