Perot and Nixon
by William Safire
Date: May 8, 1992
Ross Perot used to make himself useful around the Nixon White House,
in hopes of settling disputes his company was having with the Social
When we were battling the sinister forces of Vietnam protest in 1970,
the short Texan with the Haldeman crew Cut came up with an idea to
dramatize the vastness of our support.
He ran pro-Nixon, anti-protester ads in various cities, each
containing a coupon to get a mail pull and build a mailing list. The
Perot plan: to fill trucks with the returned-coupon mail and dump out
the contents in front of cameras at the White House, proving that the
people were spontaneously identifying with our "Silent Majority."
As a certified mind-twister, I attended a meeting with Nixon chief of
staff H.R. Haldeman, his aide Alex Butterfield and press secretary
Ron Ziegler. My contemporaneous notes show Haldeman asking for a
report on the Silent Majority reaction to a Nixon speech: Where were
the Perot letters?
Butterfield said Perot had reported he was holding onto all the
letters in each of the cities where ads had been run.
"Where exactly are the letters?" asked Haldeman, who liked specifics.
"In banks," said Butterfield. "You mean," said Ziegler, smacking his
forehead, "when reporters ask me, 'Where is the Silent Majority?,' I
can say we have them locked up in bank vaults all over the country?"
"Yes," deadpanned Butterfield. "It's all part of 'One Nation Under
Now, after all these years, I see the purpose of those letters: They
were the seeds at the core of the up-from-the-people, Perot-for-President campaign.
Look, I have nothing personal against the barefoot boy from Easy
Street. Anybody who kicked in a reported $200,000 to Nixon's '72
campaign - out of conviction about the war, or gratitude for favors,
or the chance to show political insiderhood in board rooms - can't be
But it's troubling to see good people, tired of watching politicians
trying clumsily to manipulate their emotions, throwing themselves
into the arms of a master manipulator.
He strikes the pose of an amateur in politics, a surprised object of
a grass-roots draft movement; in fact, Ross Perot is an old pro of 30
years' standing in the business-politics complex, and the financier
of a candidacy that waters and cultivates its own long-green grass
He sells the notion of being on the side of the "little guy." Yet
when he went up against the entrenched and hidebound management of
General Motors as a member of its board, instead of battling for the
interests of stockholders he took a huge bundle of their money from
the board in return for shutting up and tiptoeing away.
He pretends to be ready to balance our budget while solving our
social ills - "no sweat"- but the Perot solution to urban violence is
to allow a handgun in every pocket, opposing even a waiting period to
see if the purchaser is a felon.
P.R. experts have to admire his little touches. The billionaire
derides lobbyists "in their alligator shoes," dissociating himself
ostentatiously from the trappings of wealth. The candidate with no
idea of what to do longer than a soundbite snaps at questioners for
dealing in soundbites.
The big touches are skilled, too: Having established himself in the
polls by being all things to all men - the rallier of the general
outrage - the putative savior of the Republic now deflects inquiry by
withdrawing into the silences for 60 days to work out what he stands
Such an autocratic moratorium should give even believers in the tooth
fairy pause. What kind of leader needs 60-day wonderment to decide
his basic approach to complex issues?
Can a two-month cram course in popular positioning prepare anyone for
The Perot candidacy is an amusing diversion for outrage groupies,
their coupons destined for bank vaults. The rest of the electorate
has a serious choice to make.