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Colorful Self-Made Billionaire Ross Perot Dies At 89

Associated Press
H. Ross Perot, whose 19% of the vote in 1992 stands among the best showings by an independent candidate in the past century, died early Tuesday at his home in Dallas surrounded by his devoted family, family spokesman James Fuller said.

H. Ross Perot died Tuesday morning at age 89, of leukemia. He was born in Texarkana and became a bigger than life entrepreneur and Texas billionaire. Perot ran twice for president – first as an independent and then as a third party candidate.

He was also a philanthropist. His legacy in Texas stems in part from the millions he gave publicly and even anonymously.

As a teenager, Henry Ray Perot changed his name to Henry Ross Perot, and went by H. Ross Perot for the rest of his life.

Credit Associated Press
Associated Press
Ross Perot, center right, attended a ceremony to celebrate the placement of the final beam in the construction of the museum near downtown Dallas on March 10, 2011.

Morton H. Meyerson was hired by Perot in the 1960s to work at Perot’s new company Electronic Data Systems. "He always thought very big," he said. In time, Meyerson became the president of EDS. "He imagined a multibillion dollar company at a time when people like me would have been imagining a $10 million company. It was radical scale differences."

Meyerson says Perot launched EDS with $1000 from his wife Margot. It took off after winning contracts from health care providers like Blue Cross Blue Shield.

“He was shocked by what happened in this contract because it was vastly larger than anything that had been done before," Meyerson said. "And it actually shocked me. One month was equal to a year’s revenue. Multiply those numbers — they are astronomically large.”

Meyerson says in addition to financial success, EDS pioneered the concept of global outsourcing. In 1984 General Motors bought EDS for $2.5 billion.

Perot’s story changed again in 1992, when he ran for president as an independent candidate. He campaigned against the nation's growing deficits and debt and criticized the North American Free Trade Agreement. In a debate with President George H.W. Bush and candidate Bill Clinton, Perot said NAFTA would take American jobs.

"You can move your factories south of the border, pay a dollar an hour for labor, hire a young – let’s assume you’ve been in business a long time, you’ve got a mature workforce, have no health care, that’s the single 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’ll be a giant sucking sound going south."

Perot got 19% of the votes, the most of any third party candidate in nearly a century. Republicans say he cost George H.W. Bush the re-election. Perot ran again four years later pulling just 8% of the vote. His legacy might’ve been sealed, but Kern Wildenthal knew better. The President Emeritus of UT Southwestern Medical Center says Perot gave millions North Texas institutions.

"He wanted the medical school here in Dallas to be as good as any," Wildenthal said. "And we were young and small and needed to compete with Harvard and Stanford and Johns Hopkins. He became convinced this little medical school really did have a chance to join the big boys."

Wildenthal figures Perot gave $100 million to institutions like UT Southwestern. He also helped veterans in need.

"There was nobody else like him and they broke the mold when they made him, he said. "He was brilliant, tenacious, really cared about other people — his family first and foremost — but many others as well, was impatient and wanted change quickly. But above all he wanted to do good for others and did that through actions and philanthropy."

Family spokesperson James Fuller says Perot was surrounded by his devoted family when he died this morning.

Perot's death has spurred an outpouring of remembrances across the country and here in North Texas.

Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson said the city has lost an icon. In a statement, the mayor described the way Perot personified the American dream and worked to make Dallas, the state and the country better.

The Perot Museum of Nature and Science, named in honor of Perot and his wife Margot, issued a statement calling him a Texas giant. Sen. Ted Cruz says Perot fought for what he believed in and that his national grassroots movement changed politics forever.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott released a statement, saying that Perot "exemplified what it means to be a Texan and an American. ... His charitable work and his support of the United States Military and its veterans will forever be remembered."

Perot was born in 1930. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and worked for several years at IBM. He went on to make his fortune in the tech industry, founding computer services company Electronic Data Systems in 1962 and Perot Systems in 1988.

He ran for president in 1992 as an independent, with the campaign slogan "Ross for Boss." He emphasized his political outsider status in the lead-up to the vote. "Now, just for the record, I don't have any spin doctors, I don't have any speechwriters. Probably shows," he joked during the campaign.

Perot won nearly 19% of the popular vote in the race, which was ultimately won by Bill Clinton.

"He burst on the scene as something of a phenomenon," NPR Washington editor and correspondent Ron Elving reports, adding that Perot received "the most votes for anyone other than the Republican or Democratic nominee since Teddy Roosevelt back in 1912." He performed particularly well in rural counties, Elving says, though he didn't win any states.

Perot founded the Reform Party and ran for president again in 1996. "I have no desire to be in public life, as far as having to live up there in a bubble and put up with all this stuff, you know, I think I'd rather have heart surgery without anesthetic, but having said that, if the members in 1996 insist that I run again, I will do it for them," he said prior to the vote. "If that's what we have to do to shock the system, and to get the changes, we'll do it."

He won more than 8% of the popular vote.

Both times he ran, his platforms were "centered on campaign reform, protecting American workers from outsourcing, and cutting the national debt," his website states. Perot was particularly outspoken against the North American Free Trade Agreement, and frequently referred to the "giant sucking sound" it would create.

In 2000, Perot opted not to run and the Reform Party went through a nominating process — and Elving notes that "one of the people who got interested in that and briefly ran in it was Donald Trump."

Yet the most famous event in his career didn't involve sales and earnings; he financed a private commando raid in 1979 to free two EDS employees who were being held in a prison in Iran. The tale was turned into a book and a movie.

Credit Associated Press
Associated Press
Ross Perot is shown on a screen in a paid 30-minute television commercial, during a media preview in Dallas on Oct. 16, 1992.

Perot first became known to Americans outside of business circles by claiming that the U.S. government left behind hundreds of American soldiers who were missing or imprisoned at the end of the Vietnam War. Perot fanned the issue at home and discussed it privately with Vietnamese officials in the 1980s, angering the Reagan administration, which was formally negotiating with Vietnam's government.

Perot's wealth, fame and confident prescription for the nation's economic ills propelled his 1992 campaign against President George H.W. Bush and Democratic challenger Bill Clinton. Some Republicans blamed him for Bush's lost to Clinton as Perot garnered the largest percentage of votes for a third-party candidate since former President Theodore Roosevelt's 1912 bid.

During the campaign, Perot spent $63.5 million of his own money and bought up 30-minute television spots. He used charts and graphs to make his points, summarizing them with a line that became a national catchphrase: "It's just that simple."

Perot's second campaign four years later was far less successful. He was shut out of presidential debates when organizers said he lacked sufficient support. He got just 8% of the vote, and the Reform Party that he founded and hoped to build into a national political force began to fall apart.

However, Perot's ideas on trade and deficit reduction remained part of the political landscape. He blamed both major parties for running up a huge federal budget deficit and letting American jobs to be sent to other countries. The movement of U.S. jobs to Mexico, he said, created a "giant sucking sound."

Perot continued to speak out about federal spending for many years. In 2008, he launched a website to highlight the nation's debt with a ticker that tracked the rising total, a blog and a chart presentation.

As a child, his father was a cotton broker; his mother a secretary. Perot said his family survived the Depression relatively well through hard work and by managing their money carefully.

Young Perot's first job was delivering papers in a poor, mostly black part of town from his pony, Miss Bee. Perot said when the newspaper tried to cut his commission, he complained to the publisher — and won. He said he learned to take problems straight to the top.

From Texarkana, Perot went to the U.S. Naval Academy even though he had never been on a ship or seen the ocean. After the Navy, Perot joined International Business Machines in 1955 and quickly became a top salesman. In his last year at IBM, he filled his sales quota for the year in January.

In 1962, with $1,000 from his wife, Margot, Perot founded Electronic Data Systems. Hardware accounted for about 80% of the computer business, Perot said, and IBM wasn't interested in the other 20%, including services.

Many of the early hires at EDS were former military men, and they had to abide by Perot's strict dress code — white shirts, ties, no beards or mustaches — and long work days. Many had crew cuts, like Perot.

The company's big break came in the mid-1960s when the federal government created Medicare and Medicaid, the health programs for seniors, the disabled and the poor. States needed help in running the programs, and EDS won contracts — starting in Texas — to handle the millions of claims.

EDS first sold stock to the public in 1968, and overnight, Perot was worth $350 million. His fortune doubled and tripled as the stock price rose steadily.

In 1984, he sold control of the company to General Motors Corp. for $2.5 billion and received $700 million in a buyout. In 2008, EDS was sold to Hewlett-Packard Co.

Perot went on to establish another computer-services company, Perot Systems Corp. He retired as CEO in 2000 and was succeeded by his son, Ross Perot Jr. In 2009, Dell Inc. bought Perot Systems.

In September 2011, Forbes magazine estimated Perot's wealth at $3.5 billion and ranked him No. 91 on its list of richest Americans.

Credit Associated Press
Associated Press
Ross Perot addresses the Senate Select Committee on POW-MIA Affairs on Capitol Hill on Aug. 11, 1992, in Washington. Perot accused some government officials of covering up existence of American prisoners, alleged by him, to be left behind after the Vietnam War.

It was during the Nixon administration that Perot became involved in the issue of U.S. prisoners of war in Southeast Asia. Perot said Secretary of State Henry Kissinger asked him to lead a campaign to improve treatment of POWs held in North Vietnam. Perot chartered two jets to fly medical supplies and the wives of POWs to Southeast Asia. They were not allowed into North Vietnam, but the trip attracted enormous media attention.

After their release in 1973, some prisoners said conditions in the camps had improved after the failed missions.

In 1979, the Iranian government jailed two EDS executives and Perot vowed to win their release.

"Ross came to the prison one day and said, 'We're going to get you out,'" one of the men, Paul Chiapparone, told The Associated Press. "How many CEOs would do that today?"

Perot recruited retired U.S. Army Special Forces Col. Arthur "Bull" Simons to lead a commando raid on the prison. A few days later, the EDS executives walked free after the shah's regime fell and mobs stormed the prison. Simons' men sneaked the executives out of the country and into Turkey. The adventure was recalled in Ken Follett's best-selling book "On Wings of Eagles" and a TV miniseries.

In later years, Perot pushed the Veterans Affairs Department to study neurological causes of Gulf War syndrome, a mysterious illness reported by many soldiers who served in the 1991 Persian Gulf war. He scoffed at officials who blamed the illnesses on stress — "as if they are wimps" — and paid for additional research.

Perot received a special award from the VA for his support of veterans and the military in 2009.

In Texas, Perot led commissions on education reform and crime. He was given many honorary degrees and awards for business success and patriotism.

While he worked at Perot Systems in suburban Dallas, entire hallways were filled with memorabilia from soldiers and POWs that Perot had helped. His personal office was dominated by large paintings of his wife and five children and bronze sculptures by Frederic Remington.

Several original Norman Rockwell paintings hung in the waiting area, and Perot once told a visiting reporter that he tried to live by Rockwell's ethics of hard, honest work and family.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.