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PRINT September 1992

AMERICAN MYTHS

H. Ross Perot

LAST FALL, WHEN IT WAS widely reported that nearly two-thirds of the nation’s eligible voters were dissatisfied with all the announced presidential contenders, candidate None-of-the Above began to morph from neo-Nazi David Duke to paleoconservative Pat Buchanan to crypto-Republican Paul Tsongas to inside-out-meister Jerry Brown to wind up in the unlikely form of billionaire supersalesman H. Ross Perot.

Stung by a flurry of Republican attacks, frozen out by the media’s capricious boredom, the thin-skinned Texan withdrew from the race before he declared his candidacy. The last straw, one suspects, was the firestorm that greeted his ill-fated NAACP speech—Perot must have felt he’d been attacked for just being his downhome self. Quite a change from the heady days of spring; back then, with the Democratic and Republican nominations boringly decided, the media could not get enough of him. Even by early summer, however, this ultimate negation had found its negation (a reversal of fortune signaled less by the surge in Republican Perot-bashing and the July evanescence of his campaign staff than by a deflationary mid-June front-page exposé in the Sunday New York Times’ superbly unconscious new “Styles of the Times” section: Perot “may talk big about sissies and manhood and world-class campaigns, but he is the smallest major contender in a Presidential race in many years”).

Profoundly nihilistic, Perot-mania draws upon a deep, deep hatred for the pieties of established politicians, particularly as expressed by smoothies as practiced as George Bush and Bill Clinton—the former the most cynical man ever to occupy the White House, the latter a most eager and promising student. An expert in computers and electronic communication, Perot materialized as the beneficiary of a projection so intense it demanded nonspecificity. He might almost have been dreamed (after a surfeit of Welsh rarebit) by the editors of Telos as that “populist” force who could mediate the tension between State and Market, Democrat and Republican.

This Texan shone like a star on the fission of his contradictions: a candidate who remained doggedly unannounced, a modest publicity-hound, a multibillionaire everyman (who told Time he was willing to spend $200 million to buy the presidency . . . for the people). Those who contemplated Perot for longer than half a minute realized that he was even more—a hero of the marketplace who made his fortune on government contracts, an apostle of straight talk who spied on his enemies, a self-proclaimed maverick who practiced the same inside-outside jujitsu as the more primitive Jerry Brown, a candidate whose vaunted “electronic town halls,” suggesting something like government by Nightline, would hand even more power to the media he abhors. But what did it matter. Perot—the careful custodian of his own prepresidential museum-cum-library—was running for folk hero.

In presidential terms, Perot was not only the anti-Bush. His successful 1979 rescue mission to free his employees held in Iran made him the negation of Jimmy Carter. It also provided the basis for a two-part movie, On Wings of Eagles, telecast by NBC in May 1986—the same ultrajingo spring that brought Top Gun and the U.S. downing of two Libyan jets. Because Perot had been spurned by the Nixon White House, he effectively effaced Watergate. He was a benign J.R., whose positive spin on the once-maligned Dallas values of big bucks, puritanical conformity, hatred of government regulation, and bellicose patriotism would heal the lingering trauma of the Kennedy assassination in that city, even as his willingness to raise the cudgels for the POW/MIA cult signaled an awareness that Vietnam remains the loss that haunts the American psyche. Is it a coincidence that Richard Crenna, the actor who “trained” Rambo, played Perot in On Wings of Eagles? (Crenna also supported his alter ego’s candidacy.)

Historically, the enthusiasm for Perot’s can-do plutopopulism recalled the similarly brief boomlet around Henry Ford before the 1924 election. But our history is the movies. Thus Entertainment Weekly saw Perot and thought Nashville. True, the 1975 Robert Altman film does posit an independent candidate; yes, the fires of Perotmania were lit in the city of the Grand Old Opry; sure, there’s no denying that country stars as politically disparate as Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, and Johnny Cash were early apostles. In the American mind-set, however, the Perot scenario is more like an electronic update of Frank Capra’s election-year fable Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Columbia, 1936).

Albeit a lanky dude (Gary Cooper) who responded by playing the tuba when told of his $20 million windfall, Mr. Deeds also had rescue fantasies. First, he had to confound the slick lawyers and heartless newspapermen—not to mention the urbane sophisticates who mocked his greeting-card sentiments—before he could be more or less drafted as the leader of the deserving have-nots. The two-fisted Mr. Deeds was identified with the New Deal and supported by the New Masses, even though Capra and Columbia boss Harry Cohn were then admirers of Mussolini. Of course, as old Capra heroes go, Perot would no doubt prefer to cast himself as the Eagle Scout hero of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington—the preferred guise of American saviors as varied as Oliver North and Oliver Stone (in the guise of his fictional “Jim Garrison”).

The first wave of Perotmania coincided with the maudlin tributes to the departure of Johnny Carson. Small wonder that Dennis Miller, the onetime Saturday Night Live! newsreader then attempting a crossover to talk-show host (a candidacy itself now history), would publicly volunteer his support. Even elder statesman Norman Lear let it be known that he was, at the very least, “intrigued” by Perot. As the Carson desertion left America bereft, so the media felt free to stoke the fires of Perot’s candidacy and to speculate on its unforeseen consequences. The May 24 New York Times reported Hollywood director John Milius (the right-wing provo responsible for Conan and Red Dawn) on the phone to Bush-supporter Clint Eastwood, outlining the following scenario: “Perot wins the popular vote, but the electoral college throws it out and tries to impose Clinton, so the American people go crazy and take to the streets with guns. The Government sends in the Marines, but the Marines won’t fire on Americans. We have a real revolution in this country, at last.”

Yow! The least one can say is that in this first post–cold war campaign the gravitational laws that kept the two parties in their respective orbits have been knocked for a loop. Small wonder the White House press secretary called Perot a “monster.” Perotmania suggests the affection that greeted the similarly cute-ugly E.T., who materialized out of hyperspace a decade ago during the similarly troubled summer of ’82. Indeed, as with E.T., Perot supporters imagined a telepathic relationship—articulating faith in the Texan’s “integrity,” praising him for being “forceful,” crediting him with “standing for something”—though what that something was, mainly, was selling himself.

J. Hoberman contributes this column regularly to Artforum and writes film criticism for The Village Voice, New York. Vulgar Modernism, a collection of his essays from the ’80s, was published recently by Temple University Press, Philadelphia.