Tuesday’s death of high-tech pioneer and unorthodox but engaging two-time presidential candidate Ross Perot at age 89 constitutes passage of not only an authentic American patriot and philanthropist but an individual who represented the best of Texas in everything from innovation to independence to ready delivery of chicken-fried witticisms. And while he had maintained a low profile in the years since his grassroots presidential pursuits, his life story has much to emulate and many lessons to learn.
For all the good he did in business, philanthropy and education, H. Ross Perot remained controversial. Republicans have long blamed him for siphoning off enough votes in the 1992 general election to allow Democrat Bill Clinton to win the White House (though our friend, Baylor University history professor Barry Hankins, convincingly disputed this creaky notion within these pages in 2015). Others blame Perot’s brand of pie-chart populism for paving the way for the tea party in 2009 and Donald Trump’s presidential juggernaut in 2016.
Yet Perot’s patriotism was the genuine article, not prostituted to bash individuals of color or target immigrants or political rivals. It was sealed by service to country. He entered the Naval Academy in 1949 and served a bumpy stint in the Navy till 1957. Along the way this diminutive but utterly indomitable Texarkana native helped develop the honor concept at the Naval Academy to deter cheating. He remained a vigorous defender of prisoners of war. He never saw them as losers.
In the best tradition of America, Perot was a self-made man, starting up EDS, a successful information technology services company, as a one-man outfit after recognizing widespread ignorance about computers in the business world. He became a multi-millionaire after taking the company public in 1968 and later became a Texas billionaire. Success and the trappings of power never corrupted him or undermined devotion to family. He and wife Margot met on a blind date when he was a midshipman. They were together till the end.
Yes, many fellow Texans groused about Perot’s high-profile 1983-84 reforming of public education in Texas, particularly the no pass/no-play policy that compelled athletes to hit the books. Teacher unions voiced outrage over required competency testing of every teacher, despite the fact any educator worth his or her salt should have aced it. Reward: significant pay hikes. None of this was popular, but Perot had guts — particularly in taking on football in Texas.
Perot even influenced local history, suggesting in a Baylor chapel address on March 10, 1971, that a delegation from Waco travel to Paris, site of ongoing peace talks on the Vietnam War, and petition North Vietnam to treat our military personnel humanely and share information about others missing in action. So began the saga of the “Waco Dozen” whose pleas on behalf of POWs proved more successful than many might have imagined. For Ross Perot, service to country meant service to others. His example in so many different endeavors demonstrates how far we’ve fallen in what we now expect in business acumen, family values, political integrity and just plain American leadership.