WASHINGTON -- In his first public appearance since slipping out of the presidential race, Texas billionaire Ross Perot stalked back into the spotlight yesterday -- feisty, combative and obviously still bitter from his recent tangle with the world of politics.
Testifying all day before the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, which is investigating the fate of U.S. prisoners held in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, Mr. Perot wasted no time before lambasting Washington for what he said was distorting his involvement with the POW issue since he declared his presidential aspirations last spring.
"History has been rewritten . . . and this shows you the sickness of our government," he told a panel of senators in the same chandeliered Senate hearing room where then-Judge Clarence Thomas donned his combat boots last fall as a Supreme Court nominee.
"What does this have to do with whether or not the American people want to put me on the ballot? Nothing. But you have to redefine this character, so you go out and blatantly lie. . . . And it's sick, and I'm ashamed of it," Mr. Perot said.
As colorfully pugnacious as when he left the presidential race last month, Mr. Perot took every possible opportunity to needle the members of Congress about their "coddling" of government officials, as compared with their shabby treatment of private citizens likehimself.
"I don't expect any courtesy. I'm just a taxpayer. Treat me like dirt. Go ahead," he quipped, when asked if he'd like to break for lunch.
Later in the afternoon, he launched into another, more virulent episode of Washington-bashing -- noting that the committee had "descended" on him but had not requested testimony from former President Reagan, President Bush or Secretary of State James A. Baker III -- but he was interrupted by the committee chairman, Sen. John Kerry.
Senator Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, told the billionaire that he wanted to explain the committee's process of taking depositions, "before you pop a gasket on this one."
Mr. Perot, a champion of and hero to POWs since 1969, when he tried unsuccessfully to fly food and supplies to those held in Vietnam, repeated his belief that the U.S. government knowingly left men in Laos after the war. He said he believes there are still U.S. servicemen alive there today, some held against their will, others assimilated into communities.
Although he provided anecdotal evidence, most of which had already been heard by the committee, he was pressed by some senators for specific sources or documents or sightings to support his conclusions.
"I don't have any videotapes, no," he responded testily. He later added, "It's not some philosophical, moonbeam conjecture on my part."
He said he believed that the committee would be served better by sending negotiators into Southeast Asia than by sitting around in Washington pontificating and waiting for evidence.
"There's a mind-set in this country that you want to see '60 Minutes' film these guys live walking around somewhere," he said.
Though Mr. Perot maintains that all his actions on the POW front -- including trips made to Vietnam in the mid-1980s -- were with the government's blessing, some administration officials have portrayed him as a loose cannon acting on his own and disrupting their own negotiations.
Yesterday, he angrily tried to dispel that account as well as other pieces of the picture that emerged during his short-lived presidential bid.
He called reports that he tried to do business in Vietnam "Myth No. 93," saying the country is "one of the least attractive places in the world to do business."
Asked whether he believed there was a "conspiracy" to conceal that prisoners were knowingly abandoned by the U.S. government, he said he hadn't spent a minute studying it.
"It is counterproductive to getting the men back home," he said. "You'll have to talk to someone who's a conspiracy theorist. I'm not."
But in the next breath, Mr. Perot said that the investigation into the aftermath of Vietnam has continued in limbo for decades because of a lack of disclosure from government officials "who've been part of this web."
"This is a town that lives on how it looks, not how it is," said the businessman who nearly built a presidential campaign on such anti-Washington sentiment.
When asked by reporters how it felt to be back in the public eye, Mr. Perot snapped back, "It's more fun to do business."