ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
H. Ross Perot died today at the age of 89. The Texas billionaire will be remembered for challenging the U.S. political system by running for president twice as an independent. NPR's Brian Naylor has this look at Perot's life.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Ross Perot was a version of the American success story. A child of the Great Depression, he had a paper route, was an Eagle Scout, attended the U.S. Naval Academy and served in the Navy. He then got a job selling computer systems for IBM. He left IBM to start his own firm, which processed payrolls and Medicare claims, and sold it to General Motors for $2 1/2 billion. He then formed another company and sold it to Dell for 3.9 billion.
In 1992, Perot tried to translate his business success to politics, launching an independent bid for the presidency. The campaign was as unique as Perot himself. He ran a series of 30-minute infomercials in which he displayed a folksy eccentricity.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
H ROSS PEROT: Since we're dealing with voodoo economics, a great young lady from Louisiana sent me this voodoo stick, and I will use it as my pointer tonight. And certainly it's appropriate because as you and I know, we are in deep voodoo.
NAYLOR: His signature issue was the federal budget deficit. Perot said it was unfair to future generations for the government to rack up huge debts. Here he is on CBS's Face the Nation.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FACE THE NATION")
PEROT: We cannot spend our children's money. We are looking on the edge of a revolution of young people who are starting to realize that we - our generation - have put them 4 trillion in debt. And they don't like it, and they shouldn't.
BRUCE BUCHANAN: The deficit had come up but not as fervently and repetitively as he would bring it up.
NAYLOR: Bruce Buchanan is professor emeritus of politics at the University of Texas.
BUCHANAN: He was, you know, hell-bent on convincing the American people that the two parties were not prepared to take the steps that would be necessary to make this happen, that you needed somebody from the outside that wasn't caught up in the political thicket who could take charge and make things happen.
NAYLOR: Perot took part in three debates with incumbent Republican President George H.W. Bush and the Democratic challenger Bill Clinton. He made his opposition to the not-yet-ratified North American Free Trade Agreement - NAFTA - which both Bush and Clinton supported, another issue.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PEROT: Pay a dollar an hour for your 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.
NAYLOR: Perot, who had led in some polls early in 1992, suddenly dropped out of the race that summer, saying he was concerned a three-way race would be settled in the House of Representatives and later blaming Republican dirty tricks for trying to sabotage his daughter's wedding. Perot returned to the campaign in the fall. To this day, Perot is blamed by some Republicans for Bush's defeat by Clinton. But University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato says that's not what happened.
LARRY SABATO: I think the evidence is overwhelming that Clinton would have won even if Perot had not been on the ballot. The best evidence is that when Perot actually withdrew, which was at the time of the Democratic Convention, Clinton skyrocketed in the polls and essentially inherited most of the formerly pro-Perot part of the electorate.
NAYLOR: Perot ran again in 1996. But this time, his candidacy failed to catch fire. But Perot made his mark in politics, raising issues that would later be adopted by the Tea Party and possibly carving a path for another Washington outsider businessman to mount a credible campaign for the White House. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.