Ross Perot's Passing: A Reminder Americans 'Want Authenticity'

Businessman died Tuesday; legacy of 1992 presidential campaign still resonates

Texas billionaire and populist presidential candidate Ross Perot’s death Tuesday reminded one Duke political expert how important the Texan’s 1992 presidential campaign remains.

“His political legacy lies with the ideals he set forth -- ideals that no national politician has come close to realizing since,” says B.J. Rudell, associate director of Duke University’s Center for Political Leadership, Innovation, and Service (POLIS).

“In the summer of 1992, a plurality of the country craved someone different, someone who wasn’t defined by party labels. Today, at a time when political and ideological purity are celebrated among Republican and Democratic leaders, Perot’s passing reminds us that many Americans hate purity. They want authenticity.”

Perot, who was 89 when he died of leukemia, drew the largest vote percentage of any third-party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, Rudell says. But his performance and impact “were far greater than Roosevelt’s or, arguably, any other third-party presidential candidate in U.S. history," he adds. 

“Unlike Roosevelt, who pulled support largely from former protégé William Howard Taft, Perot captured support from the political and ideological right, left and middle. He was a billionaire who believed billionaires like himself should pay their fair share of taxes. He preached family values before the Republican Party adopted it as a mantra. He was a pro-choice Texan. He was a pro-capitalist businessman. And he made balancing the budget a compelling and popular issue,” according to Rudell.

Voters welcomed Perot’s plainspoken folksiness. Perot was a non-politician who connected with voters not through sound bites, but through plain talk, he says.

“Perot’s entry in the race came at a time when some Republicans felt betrayed by President George H. W. Bush’s reversal on ‘Read my lips: No new taxes,’ while some Democrats felt uneasy about Bill Clinton’s increasing pile of scandals,” Rudell says.

But Perot’s abrupt suspension of his campaign during the summer of 1992 – while leading in public opinion polls -- only to return six weeks before the election likely prevented him from winning the election, Rudell contends.

“Had he stayed in,” Rudell says, “he very well could have become the nation’s 42nd president.”