WASHINGTON -- At this point in the presidential campaign of 1980 candidate Ronald Reagan seemed to have a serious problem with his penchant for passing along as gospel wild stories and bizarre claims that could not be proven.
He was the kind of free spirit who would tell you, for example, that trees were more of a pollution problem than automobile emissions. Or he would say that segregation in the armed services ended when a black cook came out of the bowels of a ship under attack at Pearl Harbor and manned a machine gun. He liked to talk about some "welfare queen" who never could be located. He wasn't sure the theory of evolution holds water.
By late summer Reagan's reputation for rhetorical freewheeling had reached the point that his campaign managers responded by putting a leading professional, Stuart Spencer, on Reagan's plane to try to put a damper on some of it. But Reagan never really abandoned his devotion to telling "little stories" to make his point, whatever their accuracy, even after he moved into the White House.
Moreover, it never made a bit of difference in how he was regarded by the voters. Reporters who used to write stories detailing the factual errors Reagan made in his press conferences found themselves accused of nit-picking. Ronald Reagan may not have been a stickler for the facts, but everyone knew where he stood.
That history is worth recalling today in viewing the current spectacle of the press and political community picking holes in the image of Ross Perot. On the one hand, it is clear he is vulnerable on some touchy issues. On the other, you cannot be sure it matters.
The stories about Perot that already have emerged don't paint an entirely flattering picture of the Texas billionaire, by any means. If you believe his critics, he apparently can be a difficult man to work for or with. He has a history, they say, of presenting innovative ideas but being short on follow-through. As an employer he has been something of a martinet at times, they say. His ideas on dealing with the crime problem, they tell us, have raised some doubts about his commitment to constitutional rights. And now, the general complaint goes, he is proposing to run for president without ever telling us precisely how he is going to reduce the deficit.
Within the political community as broadly defined -- which includes the press as well as both parties and the Bush and Clinton campaigns --the conventional wisdom is that Perot will be cut down to size once he has been thoroughly vetted and found wanting. That may be true. Perot cannot get away with blather about saving $180 billion by attacking "waste and fraud." Everyone has heard that one too often.
But conventional politicians may be making a mistake if they believe Perot is being judged at this point by the same standards that apply to them. His support is not based on his four-point program for this or six-point program for that. Instead, it is based on the fact that he is something new and entirely different from either President Bush or Bill Clinton. He offers the promise of forceful personal leadership and a history of extraordinary success in business.
This means Perot will not be judged, at least initially, as a "liberal" or a "conservative" or measured against his views on abortion or gun control or capital punishment. He will be judged by whether he can convince the electorate he is a credible person to consider for the presidency.
This standard means, in turn, that he must be a reassuring public figure. Voting for a conventional challenger against an incumbent president -- in this case, for Clinton against Bush -- involves an element of risk-taking. Voting for someone without party connections, experience in public service or a political history clearly involves even greater risk.
So the operative question about Perot is how he conducts himself under this scrutiny. So far, he has simply blown off his critics, disarmingly denying everything negative and displaying massive self-confidence about his ability to do what the politicians have not done.
His attractiveness to alienated voters is clear in the polls today. .. But to be a real player in November Ross Perot must demonstrate that he is not a cannon loose on a pitching deck. If he doesn't, the most he could be is a spoiler.