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Famous Texans H. Ross Perot

"Made more money faster. Lost more money in one day. Led the biggest jailbreak in history. He died. Footnote: The New York Times questioned whether he did the jailbreak or not." --answer Perot gave to the Dallas Morning News in 1981 when asked to write his own epitaph.

Best known for: Dallas computer billionaire, philanthropist, and independent (Reform Party) candidate for U.S. president in 1992 and 1996.

Born: June 27, 1930, in Texarkana, Texas

Family: Parents: Ross and Lulu May Perot; Sister: Bette; Wife: Margot Birmingham from Greensburg, Pennsylvania; Children: Ross, Jr., Nancy, Suzanne, Carolyn, and Katherine.

Education: Perot attended public schools and Texarkana Junior College. He entered the United States Naval Academy in 1949 and graduated in 1953. While there, he was class president, chairman of the honor committee, and battalion commander.

Profession: Founder of Electronic Data Systems (EDS) in Dallas.

Career: At age seven, Perot started working at various jobs throughout his childhood, including breaking horses, selling Christmas cards, magazines, and garden seeds, buying and selling bridles, saddles, horses and calves, delivering newspapers, and collecting for classified ads. After graduation from the Naval Academy, Perot served at sea for four years on a destroyer and an aircraft carrier.

In 1956, he married Margot, whom he met while at the Naval Academy. After being discharged from the Navy in 1957, Ross and Margot settled in Dallas where he went to work for IBM’s data processing division as a salesman. By the early 1990s, the couple owned two homes in the Dallas area, one on a twenty-two-acre estate in a posh neighborhood. Despite his wealth, Perot was known to drive a ten-year-old Oldsmobile. He bought a Jaguar for Margot, however.

Margot taught school during the early years of their marriage. In 1962, she loaned Perot $1,000 from her savings account to start EDS, a one-man data processing company. It cost at least that much to incorporate in Texas. Perot, at the time, had two regular paychecks and his wife had a third. The company ultimately became a multi-billion dollar corporation employing more than 70,000 people.

In 1969, Perot began to become more deeply involved with the "military-industrial complex," a term President Eisenhower coined nine years earlier while warning Americans about unwarranted influence in government. In what would become known in later decades as a hostile takeover, Perot attempted to take control, through a stock swap, of the Collins Radio Company, an Iowa-based CIA and military contractor with a division in the Richardson suburb of Dallas. A slump had hit the aerospace industry and Collins was having cash flow problems. In January, Perot approached Collins with merger plans that called for Perot assuming control of any combined company. Arthur Collins, the company's founder, was strangely determined that Perot not take over his company.

On March 24, EDS announced it was seeking at least 1.4 million Collins common shares to add to the 75,000 it already held. If successful, EDS would own fifty-one percent of the Collins outstanding shares. Perot was certain it would work with the consent of the ten institutional stockholders who controlled more than a million shares of Collins. Within weeks, Collins feared that the only way to prevent the takeover was by merging with, it seemed, any other company but Perot's. Exploratory talks were held with Harris-Intertype Corp., Burroughs Corp., Control Data, University Computing Co., and McDonnell Douglas. But a month after the EDS announcement the large stockholders, including Chase Manhattan Bank and Morgan Guaranty Trust, sided with Collins. Perot had no choice but to withdraw the tender offer.

Having avoided the only sure investment in his ailing company, Collins continued his apparent "anyone-but-Perot" merger search. In 1971, after talks with TRW fell through, North American Rockwell (which later became Rockwell International) finally stepped in with an investment offer that was finalized in September. Despite its initial promise to keep Collins management intact, Rockwell replaced Arthur Collins as president at the end of the first quarter of fiscal year 1972. Collins resigned January 14, 1972, and started a new company. In the end, he lost control of his thirty-nine-year-old company. After a three-year struggle, Collins succeeded only in saving it from Perot. Much might still be learned about Perot and CIA influence in Dallas business circles by further study of this largely forgotten, odd episode.

The same year Perot  tried to take control of CIA contractor Collins Radio, he also became involved in activities that led to more direct covert operations. In 1969, the Nixon administration asked Perot to determine what action might be taken to improve the treatment U.S. prisoners of war (POWs) were receiving in Southeast Asia. Perot continued to work on ways to help the POWs until the they were released at the end of the Vietnam War in 1972. According to Frank Snepp, a former CIA officer posted in Saigon, "Perot later acknowledged that the Vietnam mission was an insider deal from the start, conceived with the secret blessings of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger as a way of maintaining the appearance of action on the POW issue when, in fact, there hadn't been any."

Continuing such high-level, secret contacts in the early 1970s, Perot met a young Marine officer whose name would later become infamous in the minds of most Americans. Oliver North wanted to come to work for EDS, but Perot convinced him to stay in the Marines, which led to his later becoming the main villain in the Iran-Contra scandal. It would not be the last time Perot and North crossed paths, however.

In 1979, two EDS employees were taken hostage by the Iranian government. Perot directed a successful rescue mission composed of EDS employees and led by retired Green Beret Colonel Arthur “Bull” Simons. Perot himself went to Iran and entered the prison where his men were held. Ken Follett wrote a best selling novel, On Wings of Eagles, about the rescue. An NBC TV miniseries was later made from the book. Later in 1979, Governor William P. Clements, Jr. asked Perot to head Texas’ War on Drugs Committee. The group proposed five laws to deter illegal drug operations, all of which were passed by the legislature and signed into law.

In the next decade, Perot continued similar activities in both Texas and Washington D.C. In the early 1980s, Perot became a member of Ronald Reagan's President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB). The PFIAB is a little known, very powerful group of presidential appointees whose approval is required for all U.S. covert operations worldwide. Perot was not the first politically connected Texan to serve on this board. Anne Armstrong, who later became the mentor to Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), served on Nixon's PFIAB. So did Bill Clements, who became Texas governor. It was while serving on the spooky PFIAB that Perot again met up with Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, who by this time was on the National Security Council staff. North asked Perot to help finance the rescue of U.S. Brigadier General James Dozier, who had been kidnapped by the Red Brigade in Italy. The mission succeeded before Perot's $500,000 was used, but it bought him favor with the Pentagon's new espionage team, the Intelligence Support Activity.

In 1983, Governor Mark White asked for Perot’s assistance to improve the quality of public education in the state. His proposed reforms resulted in major legislative changes in Texas public schools. Meanwhile, Perot continued to established himself as someone who could bankroll Oliver North's off-the-shelf adventures. These involved more rescue attempts, many of which failed. They included the 1985 attempt that resulted in the murder of William Buckley, chief of the CIA station in Lebanon. Perot's money often ended up in the hands of foreign terrorists and drug dealers with nothing gained in return.

Perot sold EDS in 1984 to General Motors for $2.5 billion. He retained ownership in the company, which made him GM’s largest individual stockholder and a member of the board of directors. From the start, Perot and GM head Roger Smith quarreled, and Perot criticized the quality of GM automobiles. In 1986, GM bought out Perot's stock for $700 million with the agreement that he could not compete with EDS for three years. Perot ignored the agreement. Two years later, he started a new computer service company, Perot Systems, which operates in the United States and Europe.

The Perot family is also known for more traditional philanthropy. They have given over $100 million to charitable and civil causes. In 1984, Perot bought a copy of the Magna Carta. It was the only copy allowed to be taken out of Great Britain. Perot loaned the document to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., for display alongside the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Reportedly, Perot came to loath George Bush because he believed Bush did not do enough to search for POWs in Vietnam. Perot's hatred for President Reagan's vice president grew during Bush's run for president in 1988. Perot, a native Texan, learned that Bush, the son of a senator from Connecticut, was a resident of Texas only because he rented a hotel suite in Houston.

Four years later, Bush's popularity was temporarily high after Desert Storm and a second Bush term seemed inevitable. Then Perot appeared on Larry King's CNN TV talk show and said he would consider running against Bush if volunteers could get his name on all fifty state ballots. Millions of U.S. citizens responded by signing petitions which put Perot on the ballots of most of the states, but not all fifty. Perot began appearing on more talk shows and produced his own half-hour TV info-mercials to explain his positions on national issues, particularly on deficit reduction. Misperceived by the public as a refreshing Washington "outsider," Perot was actually a consummate political insider who knew many of the U.S. government's dirtiest secrets.

Strangely, the news media also misperceived Perot, not as an outsider but as a declared presidential candidate. When he exposed a campaign dirty trick involving a fake nude photo of his daughter, journalists ridiculed him for believing anyone would do such a thing. Oddly, the media knew better than the public that Perot was very experienced in recognizing such covert activities. Perot claimed that if the photo had become public, it would have ruined his daughter's impending wedding. The dirty tactics of his would-be opponents and the biased treatment by the media caused him to reconsider whether he would run. Although he had not yet announced his candidacy, the news media accused him of abruptly withdrawing from the race after getting supporters' hopes up. When Perot later announced his candidacy, the media ridiculed him as a vacillator, conveniently forgetting his promise not to run until he was on every state ballot. As a result of the media's irresponsibility, Perot lost the support of confused voters. Nonetheless, on election day the $57 million of his own money spent on the campaign got him nineteen percent of the vote, the highest percentage for a third party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt.

In 1995, Perot announced the formation of the Independence Party (now called the Reform Party) and said it will attempt to qualify candidates in every state. The next year, Perot won the Reform Party nomination for president, beating former Colorado Governor Richard Lamm by a two to one margin. This time, instead of financing his campaign himself, he accepted contributions and matching government funds. But strange things continued to happen to his campaign. Lamm, seemingly upset by his party's nominating process, refused to endorse Perot. Then he was refused a spot in the presidential debates because debate sponsors decided his low poll numbers disqualified him as a serious candidate. President Clinton wanted him in the debates, Republican opponent Bob Dole did not. In the election, Perot won eight percent of the vote.

Early in the 2000 presidential campaign the candidates, including the Republican frontrunner and namesake son of Perot's old nemesis, were watching for signs that Perot might make a third straight run for president. This time, Reform Party rivals for the nomination include former Republican candidate and Nixon administration staffer Pat Buchanan. Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, a former Navy Seal and trained covert operations specialist, also became a leader of anti-Perot sentiment within the party.

Ross Perot has written several books, including United We Stand; Not for Sale at Any Price; Save Your Job, Save Our Country; Intensive Care; Preparing Our Country for the 21st Century; and The Dollar Crisis, co-authored with Senator Paul Simon.

Awards and honors:

Sources: Doron P. Levin, Irreconcilable Differences: Ross Perot Versus General Motors (New York: Plume, 1990); Roger Simon, "See Ross Run," Playboy magazine, August 1992, pp. 72-74, 136-138; Frank Snepp, "The Company He Keeps," Playboy magazine, August 1992, p. 139; United States Information Service Stockholm http://www.usis.usemb.se/election/perot.htm; Ken C. Braband, The First 50 Years: A History of Collins Radio Company and the Collins Divisions of Rockwell International, (Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Rockwell International, 1983), pp. 14-15, 168-179; Charles Brooks, editor, Best Editorial Cartoons of the Year - 1993 (Gretna, Louisiana: Pelican, 1993), p. 39, cited hereafter as Brooks-1993, p. 39; Brooks-1996, p. 35; Brooks-1997, p. 51;