Ross Perot, the wild-eyed maverick billionaire who wants to be president, bought a half-hour of TV time Tuesday, and professional pundits were highly indignant.
Too many charts and figures, they complained of the Ross Perot Show. Too long. Too complicated. Mr. Perot's presentation lacked cohesion and a central, organized theme, carped the critics. And the show didn't even feature a catchy tune to attract and hold the public's attention.
Actually, I understood what Mr. Perot said quite well without the show biz effects, thank you.
He was straightforward and sincere, plain-spoken and blunt. His central theme came through loud and clear despite, or maybe because of, his down-home, folksy style: The people in charge are as knavish a bunch of rascals and scoundrels as you ever want to see and they have "pert near" looted the national treasury.
"One of the reasons we fell off the edge of the cliff, we got into trickle-down economics and it didn't trickle," said Mr. Perot, holding up a chart showing how the rich got richer at everyone else's expense during the 1980s.
"That's not fair," said this rich man. "You know it's not fair. I know it's not fair. That's a system that won't work."
Armed with another chart that listed the number of ranking White House officials who now work as foreign lobbyists, Mr. Perot accused them of "economic treason" and added, "They should come to serve and go home, not cash in."
And, sneering at the bookkeeping maneuvers used to make the deficit look smaller than it actually is, Mr. Perot said, "They're saying: Can we buy your vote with what used to be your money. . . . Well, we're not that dumb."
Watching Mr. Perot, I felt something of the electric thrill I once enjoyed after seeing Frank Capra's 1939 movie classic, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," which showed that an honest man can rise up, tell the truth and be heard over the din in the Washington den of political thieves.
Mr. Perot struck me Tuesday as that proverbial honest man.
But I will never, ever vote for him. He terrifies me.
Mr. Perot blames politicians for the mess we're in. He argues that a successful government must be run just like a successful business: with a strong man on top calling the plays and everyone else pulling together like a team.
Well, I happen to like politicians. Or, at least I understand them -- and the rest of you should too, because politicians are creatures of our own creation. We want them to accommodate and compromise and seek to govern through conflict and consensus. Politicians are essential to the political process and the political process is essential to a democracy.
Democracies, after all, never promised efficiency. Fascists, monarchists and Communists promised efficiency. Democracies promised freedom and fairness. Democracies promised to be representative of the will of the majority, yet fair to minorities. Although less efficient, a democratic government should prove stronger in the long run because people know what's best for themselves.
The "voodoo mess" that Mr. Perot described Tuesday didn't occur because Washington politicians seek to govern through consensus, but because they have become so high and mighty; they no longer represent the interests of those of us still living on the ground. To my knowledge, the perks enjoyed by Congress and White House staffers were never submitted for public discussion. The benign regulatory neglect that led to the corporate excesses of the 1980s often occurred despite the public will, not through universal mandate.
Most of us have lost faith that we can ever again hold the fat cats accountable. And in our despair, the clean efficiency of fascism begins to look good. Mr. Perot plays to that despair. But it is a false hope.
We need to find a way to hold politicians accountable again without doing violence to the precious political process.
Mr. Perot seems to have a lot of good ideas about the scope of our problems. But he does not respect the organized chaos that, in a democracy, leads to solutions.