America has lost one of its most legendary — and controversial — political giants. Henry Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire who ran two disruptive independent campaigns for the U.S. presidency in the '90s, died on Tuesday after a five-month battle with leukemia. Perot was diagnosed in February and the month after nearly died from a secondary infection.
Perot is best remembered for winning 19 percent of the popular vote as an independent in the 1992 presidential election — better than any third-party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912.
The 5´6˝ businessman, known for his drawl and implacable personality, focused largely on fiscal issues in his bid against President George H.W. Bush and then-Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton.
Among Perot’s most prominent platforms was his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which during the 1992 race had yet to be ratified.
He famously condemned the agreement during the second debate in 1992: “If you're paying $12, $13, $14 an hour for factory workers and you can move your factory South of the border, pay a dollar an hour for labor, ... have no health care — that's the most expensive single element in making a car — have no environmental controls, no pollution controls and no retirement, and you don't care about anything but making money, there will be a giant sucking sound going south.”
Along with stopping the transfer of American jobs overseas, Perot believed in balancing the budget, reducing the national debt, and giving tax breaks to new businesses. He also opposed U.S. involvement in the Persian Gulf War.
The two-time presidential hopeful supported gay rights, abortion access, and stricter gun controls such as bans on assault weapons, though his campaigns placed less emphasis on social issues.
One of Perot’s most ambitious, albeit controversial, proposals was the establishment of electronic direct democracy via “electronic town halls,” in which voters would see issues presented to them on television and vote on them directly through telephone or an electronic device.
Perot’s anti-establishment and working-class appeal made him popular with voters who considered themselves moderate. At the peak of his popularity in June of 1992, he led the race, with polls placing his support at 39 percent, versus 31 percent for Bush and 25 percent for Clinton.
In July, however, Perot dropped out of the race, claiming that he did not want the House of Representatives to decide the election if the results ended in an electoral college split.
When he re-entered the race in October, Perot alleged the true reason for his withdrawal was that the Bush campaign had threatened to sabotage his daughter’s wedding by releasing photographs altered so as to make it appear that she was involved a lesbian relationship.
But his popularity didn’t recover from the dive it took when he stepped out. Nevertheless, Perot maintained enough of a base to win 8.4 percent of the popular vote in the 1996 race.
Since then, the lifelong Texan had only occasionally spoken out on politics. He endorsed George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election and Mitt Romney in both 2008 and 2012.
Perot had a feud with Republican Senator John McCain. The billionaire criticized the lawmaker for divorcing his first wife, whom Perot helped (at the request of McCain’s mother) after she was in a serious car accident.
“After he came home, he walked with a limp, she [Carol McCain] walked with a limp,” Perot recollected. “So he threw her over for a poster girl with big money from Arizona [Cindy McCain, his current wife] and the rest is history.”
Perot also believed that McCain hid evidence of live POWs left behind in Vietnam, whom Perot attempted to rescue. Similarly, Perot organized the rescue of two of his employees who were imprisoned in the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
As a young man, Perot served in the U.S. Navy. He went on to become a top salesman for IBM before founding Electronic Data Systems, in which General Motors bought a controlling interest for $2.4 billion in 1984.
Prior to his presidential run, Perot founded Perot Systems (which Dell acquired for $3.9 billion in 2009) and placed a $20 million investment in Steve Jobs’ NeXT software company.
Perot is survived by his wife of 60 years, Margot, along with five children and 16 grandchildren. He was 89 at the time of his passing.