H Ross Perot in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the US, April 5 2012. Picture: HANDOUT/ REUTERS
H Ross Perot in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the US, April 5 2012. Picture: HANDOUT/ REUTERS

New York  — Ross Perot, the Texas  billionaire who offered his business background and homespun wisdom to US voters as a third-party candidate for president in 1992 and 1996, has died. He was 89.

He died on Tuesday at his home in Dallas, according to a statement from the family. The cause was leukemia, according to James Fuller, a spokesman for the family.

Whether on education reform or US foreign policy, a company’s balance sheet or the federal budget, Perot had no shortage of prescriptions over the years, delivered with certainty, simplicity and his Texarkana twang.

“If someone as blessed as I am is not willing to clean out the barn, who will?” he said during his 1992 campaign.

Before taking American politics by storm, Perot did the same to American business. He sold the first firm he founded, Electronic Data Systems, to General Motors  for $2.6bn, and the second, Perot Systems, to Dell   for $3.9bn. He amassed a net worth of $4.4bn, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

Perot began calling out US leaders on the federal budget deficit in 1988, describing the problem as a “crazy aunt that we keep in the basement” that someday would break out and cause havoc.

He stepped up his critiques in 1991, as an economic recession and rising unemployment rate were puncturing the approval ratings of the Republican president, George HW Bush.

Election drive

By the end of that year, an anti-incumbent movement in Florida had spun off an effort to draft Perot for president. His on-again, off-again campaign would provide one of the great spectacles in modern politics.

It began with a February 20 1992, appearance on CNN’s Larry King Live show. Asked whether he would run for president, he answered with a flat “no”. By the end of the hour, he had boasted about his strengths (“creating jobs and fixing things”), bemoaned the nation’s mind-set (“See, we understand sports in this country, don’t understand business”) and finally suggested he might run, if “you, the people, are that serious” and “register me in 50 states”.

Over the next three months, as Bill Clinton, the former Arkansas governor, emerged as the Democratic challenger to Bush, Perot helped his supporters compile the signatures needed to get him on state ballots. He dominated the political discussion and soared in polls, even as he was criticised for offering few details on what he would do as president, beyond holding electronic town halls and attacking the budget deficit.

‘Cannot win’

In July, he stunned his backers by saying he wouldnot run after all. “I have concluded that we cannot win in November,” he said, citing, among other considerations, “the revitalisation of the Democratic Party”.

Perot reversed himself again, announcing on October  1 — 33 days before the election — that he was back in. He shared the stage with Bush and Clinton in three televised debates that month, offering a memorable turn of phrase when he predicted that the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) would create a “giant sucking sound” as it pulled US jobs south to Mexico.

The late Ross Perot, an honorary member of the Special Forces regiment, attends a graduation ceremony in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the US, April 5 2012. Picture: RUSSELL KLIKA/US ARMY/ JOHN KENNEDY CENTER/REUTERS
The late Ross Perot, an honorary member of the Special Forces regiment, attends a graduation ceremony in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the US, April 5 2012. Picture: RUSSELL KLIKA/US ARMY/ JOHN KENNEDY CENTER/REUTERS

In an interview with CBS’s 60 Minutes that aired nine days before the election, Perot said the real reason he had dropped out in July was that he had learnt of a plan by Republican leaders, whom he would not  name, “to have a computer-created false photo of my daughter, Carolyn, that they were going to give the press shortly before her wedding to embarrass her.” He offered no proof.

Popular candidate

On election day, Perot and his running mate, James Stockdale, a former US Navy vice-admiral, received 19.7-million votes, or 18.9% of the popular vote. Though not good enough to win any state’s electoral votes, their total was more than any other third-party presidential candidate since Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive “Bull Moose” ticket took more than 27% in 1912.

An exit poll by a group of news organisations found little evidence that Perot’s presence had influenced the result. The poll, focusing on second choices of Perot voters, found that only Ohio might have shifted from Clinton to Bush had Perot not been in the race, and Ohio alone would not have been enough to give Bush a victory.

Bush did not agree. “I think he cost me the election, and I don’t like him,” he said in “41”, a documentary that HBO aired in 2012. Bush died in November 2018, at 94.

Perot remained active politically, criticising the Nafta accord in a November 1993 debate with then-vice-president Al Gore on Larry King Live. Congress adopted Nafta soon after.

Second campaign

Perot ran again in 1996, this time as the nominee of the Reform Party, which he had founded the previous year. He received 8.1-million votes, or 8.4%, as Clinton defeated Republican Bob Dole to win a second term.

In 2012, he told USA Today that the continued swelling of the national debt — then $16-trillion, up from $4-trillion when he challenged Bush and Clinton — was testament to the truth of his message.

“I didn’t get done what I hoped I’d get done,” he said. “Whether I got elected or not, I hoped they’d all get busy and straighten it out.”

Henry Ray Perot was born June 27  1930, in Texarkana, Texas, the last of three children of Gabriel Ross Perot, a trader of cotton and cattle, and the former Lulu May Ray. At 12, he let his parents change his middle name to Ross, in memory of their first son, Gabriel Ross Jr, who had died at three of meningitis. Perot’s older sister, Margaret Elizabeth, was known as Bette.

Young salesman

Perot achieved the rank of Eagle Scout and learnt salesmanship while young, selling Christmas cards, garden seeds and copies of the Saturday Evening Post.

He attended Texarkana Junior College for two years and was elected president of the student council in his second year, according to his 1996 memoir. He won appointment to the US Naval Academy, graduating in 1953. He then served in the Navy for four years.

He joined International Business Machines  in Dallas and became a top  salesman, reaching his 1962 sales quota in a matter of weeks. He went out on his own that year, borrowing $1,000 from his wife, Margot, to incorporate Electronic Data Systems, an early provider of computer hardware and data-processing services.

To maintain his income, he worked part-time as a data-processing consultant for the health insurer Blue Cross-Blue Shield of Texas.

EDS contracts

His two jobs converged in the mid-1960s, when the US enacted Medicare and Medicaid and directed waves of new healthcare claims to state insurers such as Blue Cross-Blue Shield. Perot won the Texas Medicaid and Medicare processing contracts for EDS — a deal struck without competitive bidding, an arrangement later investigated by Congress — then went on to win contracts from 10 other states.

By 1968, EDS had 323 full-time employees, annual net profits of more than $1.5m  “and a growth curve so fantastic as to make investment bankers’ mouths water”, John Brooks wrote in The Go-Go Years (1973).

In 1968, Perot took EDS public. His banker at RW Pressprich & Company, which underwrote the offering, was Kenneth Langone, who would later achieve fame as co-founder of Home Depot.

Initially priced at $16.50, EDS shares rose to $23 on the first day of over-the-counter trading and to $160 in 1970, at which point Perot’s 9-million shares were worth about $1.45bn.

“Probably no other man ever made so much money so fast,” Fortune magazine wrote in a 1968 profile.

Financial setbacks

He lost a chunk of it in one day — April 22  1970 — when EDS shares plunged to $85 and his net worth, on paper, dropped by almost $500m. He lost more when his bids to save two ailing Wall Street brokerages, FI DuPont, Glore Forgan & Company  in 1970 and Walston & Company in 1972, ended in failure.

Still, when Forbes ranked the 400 richest Americans for the first time in 1982, Perot made the list, with an estimated net worth of $325m.

The 1984 sale of EDS to GM earned Perot $1 billion and a seat on the board as the Detroit carmaker’s largest shareholder. EDS, as a unit of GM, was to streamline the carmaker’s fragmented computer systems.

It would prove to be a fraught marriage, with Perot ridiculing the company and its then-chairman, Roger Smith.

“The first EDSer to see a snake kills it,” Perot told BusinessWeek in 1986. “At GM, first thing you do is organize a committee on snakes. Then you bring in a consultant who knows a lot about snakes. Third thing you do is talk about it for a year.”

GM called off the relationship by paying Perot $700m  for his stock and his resignation from the board. EDS was spun off by GM in 1996, then acquired by Hewlett-Packard  in 2008 for $13.2bn.

Strict discipline

Perot ran EDS with military-type discipline and sometimes pursued a one-man US foreign policy.

In 1969, he tried to deliver two planeloads of Christmas dinners and gifts to American prisoners of war (POW) in Vietnam, only to be turned away by North Vietnam. He later said that then-president Richard Nixon had asked him “to embarrass the North Vietnamese into changing the treatment” of POWs, and said he considered the effort a success.

In 1979, a mission arranged by Perot and led by a retired US Army special forces officer, Arthur Simons, rescued two EDS employees imprisoned in Tehran. The daring private raid became the basis for novelist Ken Follett’s On Wings of Eagles (1983).

School standards

Appointed in 1984 by Texas governor Mark White to lead a committee on public-school reform, Perot led the push that resulted in statewide student testing, the start of pre-kindergarten programmes and the state’s no-pass, no-play rule, which limited sports and other extracurricular activities by students who fail courses.

In 1988, Perot returned to information technology by founding Plano, Texas-based Perot Systems, which became immersed in the growing field of digitising medical records. Dell was the world’s second-largest personal-computer maker, with hopes to expand into computer services, when it bought Perot Systems in 2009, a deal that earned members of the Perot family almost $400m, according to company filings.

With the former Margot Birmingham, whom he married in 1956, Perot had five children — Ross Jr, Nancy, Suzanne, Carolyn and Katherine.

Ross Perot Jr, founder of Dallas-based developer Hillwood Properties, and his sisters helped guide the family’s philanthropy, which included a $50m gift in 2008 for construction of the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas.