Biography of Ross Perot, Third-Party Presidential Candidate

Ross Perot
Benjamin Rusnak / Getty Images

Ross Perot (1930-2019) was an American billionaire, business leader, and third-candidate for the U.S. presidency. Founder of Electronic Data Systems, he was a pioneer in information technology. His two campaigns for president were among the most successful by a third-party candidate in history.

Fast Facts: Ross Perot

  • Full Name: Henry Ross Perot
  • Occupation: Businessman, presidential candidate
  • Born: June 27, 1930, in Texarkana, Texas
  • Died: July 9, 2019, in Dallas, Texas
  • Spouse: Margot Birmingham (married 1956)
  • Children: Ross, Jr., Nancy, Suzanne, Carolyn, Katherine
  • Education: Texarkana Junior College, United States Naval Academy
  • Presidential Campaigns: 1992 (19,743,821 votes or 18.9%), 1996 (8,085,402 votes or 8.4%)

Early Life and Military Career

Growing up in Texarkana, Texas, Ross Perot was the son of a commodity broker who specialized in cotton contracts. One of his friends was Hayes McClerkin, who later became Speaker of the Arkansas House of Representatives. As a youth, Perot joined the Boy Scouts of America and ultimately earned the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award.

After attending junior college, Ross Perot enrolled in the U.S. Naval Academy in 1949. He served in the U.S. Navy until 1957.

Billionaire Founder of Electronic Data Systems

After leaving the U.S. Navy, Ross Perot became a salesperson for IBM. He left the company in 1962 to open Electronic Data Systems (EDS) in Dallas, Texas. He received 77 rejections on his bids before earning his first contract. EDS grew in the 1960s on the heels of large contracts with the U.S. government. The company went public in 1968, and the stock price rose from $16 a share to $160 in a few days. In 1984, General Motors bought the controlling interest in EDS for $2.5 billion.

Henry Ross Perot
1968: American businessman H. Ross Perot holding a business machine manufactured by his company, Electronic Data Systems, Dallas, Texas. Shel Hershorn - HA/Inactive / Getty Images

Shortly before the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the government of Iran imprisoned two EDS employees over a contract disagreement. Ross Perot organized and paid for a rescue team. When the team he hired couldn't find a direct way to free the prisoners, they waited for a revolutionary mob to storm the prison and free all 10,000 inmates, including the Americans. Ken Follett's book "On Wings of Eagles" immortalized the exploit.

When Steve Jobs left Apple to found NeXT, Ross Perot was one of his top investors, giving over $20 million to the project. Perot's information technology company, Perot Systems, founded in 1988, was sold to Dell Computer in 2009 for $3.9 billion.

Vietnam War POW / MIA Activism

Ross Perot's involvement with the issue of prisoners of war during the Vietnam War began with a visit to Laos in 1969 at the request of the U.S. government. He attempted to charter planes to deliver medical supplies to prisoners inside North Vietnam, but the North Vietnamese government rejected them. After release, some former prisoners of war said their conditions improved after the aborted Perot missions.

ross perot visiting north vietnamese prisoners of war
Visiting North Vietnamese prisoners of war in 1970. Bettmann / Getty Images

After the war ended, Perot believed that hundreds of American prisoners of war were left behind. He frequently met with Vietnamese officials against the wishes of the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

In the early 1990s, Ross Perot testified before Congress to push for studies on the neurological disorder known as Gulf War syndrome. He was incensed by officials who blamed the conditions on simple stress, and he funded some studies on his own.

1992 Presidential Campaign

Ross Perot announced on February 20, 1992, that he would run for U.S. president as an independent candidate against incumbent President George H. W. Bush and Democratic Party nominee Bill Clinton if his supporters could get his name on the ballot in all 50 states. His key policy stances included balancing the federal budget, opposing gun control, ending the outsourcing of American jobs, and creating direct electronic democracy.

Support for Perot began to rise in the spring of 1992 among those who were frustrated with the options presented by the two main political parties. He employed veteran political operatives, Democrat Hamilton Jordan and Republican Ed Rollins, to manage his campaign. By June, Ross Perot led the Gallup poll with 39% of the support from potential voters in a three-way race.

During the summer, newspapers began to report that Ross Perot's campaign management was growing frustrated with his refusal to follow their advice. He also reportedly required volunteers to sign loyalty oaths. Amid the negative publicity, his poll support dipped to 25%.

Ross Perot 1992 Presidential debate
1992 U.S. Presidential Debate. Wally McNamee / Getty Images

Ed Rollins resigned from the campaign on July 15th, and a day later Ross Perot announced that he was leaving the race. He explained that he didn't want the House of Representatives to decide the election if the electoral voter were split without a majority for any candidate. Later, Perot stated his real reason was the receipt of threats that members of the Bush campaign were planning to publish digitally altered photographs to harm the wedding of Perot's daughter.

Ross Perot's reputation with the public suffered severely due to his decision to pull out. In September, he qualified for the ballot in all 50 states, and on October 1st, he announced his re-entry into the race. Perot took part in the presidential debates, and he notably purchased half-hour blocks of time on prime time network television to explain his positions to the public.

Ultimately, Ross Perot received 18.9% of the popular vote, making him the most successful third-party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. However, he did not earn any electoral votes. Despite claims by some that Perot's candidacy caused the Republican Party loss, exit polls showed that he pulled an equal amount of his support, 38%, from Bush and Clinton.

1996 Presidential Campaign and the Reform Party

To keep his positions alive, particularly efforts to push for a balanced federal budget, Ross Perot founded the Reform Party in 1995. He made a second run for president in 1996 under their banner. Perot was not included in the presidential debates, and many blamed that decision for reducing his support in the election. His final total was only 8%, but that still made the run one of the best showings of a third-party candidate in history.

Ross Perot Speaks At The Reform Party National Convention
Dearborn, Michigan. Ross Perot speaks at the Reform Party National Convention on July 24, 1999. Bill Pugliano / Getty Images 

Later Life

In the 2000 election, Ross Perot pulled back from Reform Party politics during the battles between supporters of Pat Buchanan and John Hagelin. Four days before voting took place, Perot formally endorsed George W. Bush. In 2008, he opposed the ultimate Republican Party nominee John McCain and endorsed Mitt Romney both that year and in 2012. He refused to endorse anyone in 2016.

Ross Perot
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

After a short battle with leukemia, Ross Perot died on July 9, 2019, just short of his 89th birthday.

Legacy

Ross Perot is best remembered for his two campaigns for U.S. president. However, he was also one of the most successful U.S. businessmen of the latter half of the 20th century. He also drew much-needed attention to the plight of prisoners of war and veterans from the Vietnam and Gulf Wars.

Sources

  • Gross, Ken. Ross Perot: The Man Behind the Myth. Random House, 2012.
  • Perot, Ross. My Life and the Principles for Success. Summit Publishing, 1996.