Henry Ross Perot, a groundbreaking information technology businessman, philanthropist, and two-time presidential candidate, was born on June 27, 1930, in Texarkana, Texas. His parents, Gabriel Ross Perot, Sr., and Lulu May (Ray) Perot, originally named him Henry Ray, but he changed his middle name to Ross in honor of his brother, Gabriel Ross, who died as a young child. Thereafter he went by Ross Perot, though journalists often included his first initial in media reports, much to his chagrin.
Hard-working and ambitious, Perot caught the entrepreneurial bug from his father, a cotton broker and horse trader. During his adolescence, Perot hawked garden seeds and delivered daily newspapers to neighbors. He was active in the Boy Scouts and at age thirteen achieved the rank of Eagle Scout. Throughout his life he credited the Boy Scouts for its influence on his values of hard work and leadership. He achieved good grades at Texarkana’s Texas High School, not through intellectual brilliance but rather diligence and elbow grease. Perot then spent two years at Texarkana Junior College before Senator W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel granted his appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy. Perot’s leadership qualities blossomed at Annapolis. He held numerous elected positions, including serving as class president during his junior and senior years. He also chaired the Honor Committee, credited with developing an honor system, at the Naval Academy. Perot met Margot Birmingham during his final year in Annapolis, and the couple eventually married on September 15, 1956, and went on to have five children.
After graduating from Annapolis in 1953, Perot matriculated into the U. S. Navy where he was first assigned to the destroyer USS Sigourney during the latter days of the Korean War. He later served as an assistant navigator aboard the aircraft carrier USS Leyte. A chance encounter aboard the Leyte with an International Business Machines Corporation (IBM) executive changed Perot’s life. The businessman encouraged Perot to apply for a job at IBM, further convincing Perot that his future lay in the private sector rather than the military ranks. Subsequently, Perot declined to re-enlist when his service ended in 1957.
After mustering out of the U. S. Navy, Perot accepted a job offer from Dallas-based IBM—the first step of his business career. He quickly made a name for himself as a top-notch salesman and once completed his yearly sales quota within three weeks. Equipped with an energetic mind and thirst for innovation, Perot urged IBM to enter the nascent computer software industry to complement to the company’s robust hardware unit. The IBM leadership, content with their business model, rejected his advice. Perot grew frustrated with the company’s slow-moving bureaucracy and struck out on his own, founding Electronic Data Systems (EDS), with an initial investment of $1,000, in 1962.
Perot built EDS to handle software and technical logistics for companies with large data needs, a strategy which seemed far ahead of the competition. EDS made millions processing data for major businesses such as insurance carrier Blue Cross and Blue Shield. When his company went public in 1968, shares skyrocketed from $16 a share to $162 and made him one of the wealthiest men in America overnight.
In 1984 Perot sold EDS to General Motors for a staggering $2.5 billion and assumed a position on the company board. His cantankerous personality and criticism of General Motors management, however, irked board members, who bought out his shares in 1986. In 1988 Perot launched a new Plano-based corporation, Perot Systems, with his son Ross Perot, Jr., and brought over disgruntled EDS executives to compete with his former company. Perot Systems failed to reach the dizzying heights of EDS. Perot eventually stepped down as chairman in 2000, and the company was purchased by Dell Computer Corporation in 2009.
Perot’s fabulous wealth and renowned business acumen opened doors to philanthropy as well as foreign affairs and politics. With his wife he established the Perot Foundation in 1969 and focused on an array of causes, including veteran’s affairs, education programs, health research, and cultural institutions. The plight of American veterans and prisoners of war (POWs) remained a major cause for Perot throughout his life. He brought much public attention to American POWs in Vietnam in December 1969 when he organized a shipment of medicine, letters, Christmas gifts, and supplies to be dropped in North Vietnam; the North Vietnamese refused the shipment. In 1979 Perot personally funded the rescue of captured EDS workers in Iran. Years later his foundation funded research on neurotoxic brain damage of affected veterans in the wake of the first Gulf War.
At the behest of Texas governor William Clements, Perot became a deputy in the Texas War on Drugs in 1979 and pushed for harsher sentences and ever more law enforcement. A few years later in 1983, Governor Mark White put Perot on a committee charged with updating Texas’s public education system. Ever the businessman, Perot focused on measurable outcomes, leading Texas to adopt statewide standardized testing; the “no pass, no play” rule; and class-size reductions. These endeavors provided Perot a foundation for future political ambitions, up to and including president of the United States.
During the 1992 national presidential election, Perot ran one of the most successful third-party campaigns in American history. Pulling from his Texarkana roots, Perot ran on the Independent ticket as a folksy, straight-talking populist eager to ruffle feathers in Washington. His campaign criticized the declining economy, President George H. W. Bush’s tax increases, and the recently-negotiated North American Free Trade Agreement. He personally spent $65 million of his own money and marshaled a grassroots army—a bipartisan coalition fueled by a dissatisfaction with status quo politics. Perot ducked party labels and instead presented himself as an independent Texas billionaire, an outsider who could set corrupt Washington straight.
Perot’s insurgent third-party campaign posed a genuine threat to the two-party duopoly, but he suddenly dropped out of the race in July and cited a conspiratorial charge that the Republicans planned to disrupt his daughter’s wedding with faked compromising photographs. The Texan missed valuable campaign time by sitting out the summer months and early fall, but he rejoined the fray in early October. By then, however, his popularity had waned. Nearly twenty million Americans (19 percent) cast a ballot for Perot on Election Day—the strongest third-party debut since Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party in 1912—but he failed to gain a single electoral vote. Perot pulled heavily from conservative ranks, which helped Bill Clinton, the Democratic governor of Arkansas, win the election.
After founding the Reform party in 1995, Perot returned to the political fray in 1996, but this time his third-party bid failed to stoke the same grassroots fervor. The Commission on Presidential Debates banned the Reform party from televised debates, citing the Texan’s slim electoral chances, and Perot’s eccentricities had transformed from a boon into an albatross. Despite the poor showing in 1996, he remained involved in politics. Perot later made amends with the Republican party and endorsed the candidacy of George W. Bush in 2000 and Mitt Romney in 2012. Ultimately, Perot’s anti-establishment rhetoric and grassroots campaigns helped solidify the country’s partisan divisions and influenced the right-ward trajectory of the Republican party.
Ross Perot died at his Dallas home on July 9, 2019, after a battle with leukemia. He was eighty-nine years old. His family held a private ceremony at Highland Park United Methodist Church, and, in keeping with Perot’s technological savvy, his family broadcast the service online. He is buried at Sparkman-Hillcrest Memorial Park Cemetery next to his parents and namesake little brother Gabriel Ross.
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Paul Burka, “Little Big Man,” Texas Monthly, October 2000. Michael Nelson, Clinton’s Elections: 1992, 1996, and the Birth of a New Era of Governance (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2020). New York Times, March 25, 1973; December 2, 1986; April 13, 1992; June 28, 1992; September 16, 18, 1996; July 9, 2019. Ross Perot, My Life and the Principles for Success (Arlington, Texas: Summit Publishing Group, 1996). Gerald Posner, Citizen Perot: His Life and Times (New York: Random House, 1996). Ronald Rapoport and Walter J. Stone, Three’s a Crowd: The Dynamic of Third Parties, Ross Perot, and Republican Resurgence (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2005).
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