Ross Perot started small. Sure, he may have been an entrepreneur and a billionaire and a two-time presidential candidate, but he got his start as a child in door-to-doors sales. One of the things that he sold, as he told us in 2008, was The Saturday Evening Post. In a piece about Rockwell’s autobiography, Perot discussed that background while professing his admiration for the work of the painter, saying, “I first learned about Norman Rockwell while I was selling The Saturday Evening Post magazines door to door, when I was six years old. I admired his paintings of The Four Freedoms and A Scout Is Reverent. Years later I became interested in, and purchased his paintings of, the Homecoming Military Heroes at the end of World War II.”
Perot, who died today at 89, had a career that went far beyond a childhood selling seeds and copies of the Post door-to-door. Born in Texas in 1930, Perot was an enterprising child and became an Eagle Scout. He went to Texarkana Junior College before entering the U.S. Naval Academy in 1949. He married Margot Birmingham in 1956, one year before he left the Navy; they would eventually have five children. He became a salesman for IBM before founding his own company, Electronic Data Systems, in 1962.
EDS took on the computerization of records for the U.S. Government, including Medicare files. Perot took the company public in 1968; its explosive stock growth would put him on the cover of Fortune. In 1984, General Motors bought EDS for $2.5 billion. It wouldn’t be the last Perot company to sell for a huge amount. In 1988, he founded Perot Systems Corporation, Inc. Both Perot and his son, Ross, Jr., would serve as CEO; Dell later bought that company for $3.9 billion in 2009.
Perot would have been famous enough for his business ventures, or for financing a rescue operation for two EDS employees trapped and imprisoned in Iran in 1979. But he permanently entered American consciousness when he ran for president as an independent candidate in 1992, relying on his outsider nature and business acumen to press for issues like balancing the budget and halting the outsourcing of American jobs to other countries. Though he temporarily led both Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush in some polls, he eventually fell behind; Perot withdrew from the race, but re-entered in October, relying on self-financed infomercials on major networks to try to sway the public. Perot eventually took 18.9% of the popular vote (with no electoral votes), losing to Bill Clinton.
In 1995, Perot formed the Reform Party ahead of his 1996 run. While Reform Party candidate Jesse Ventura won the governorship in Minnesota, Perot only netted 8% of the presidential vote. The Reform Party faltered in the next few years due to infighting and an influx of conservative candidates like Pat Buchanan. Perot eventually withdrew from politics, though he would offer endorsements of George W. Bush and Mitt Romney for president.
Perot died from leukemia at the age of 89. In addition to awards he received for philanthropy and military and public service, Perot’s legacy remains the opening of the modern American mind to the possibility of third party candidates. Even if he didn’t win, he showed that it was possible to earn a place on the stage with the two major parties and demonstrated that even if we take certain things for granted, there might always be a different way to do things. We hope that his early experience selling The Saturday Evening Post was a positive one, and helped spur him to greater things.
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