From Perot, broadsides of baloney


DO you realize that it's as if George Bush's staff had been infiltrated by "Russian spies"?

That's the paranoid message being pumped out endlessly on radio commercials paid for by Ross Perot. While media analysts are entranced by his self-glorifying television infotainment, few observers of mass manipulation focus on the underside of the Perot campaign -- radio spots, where the passions of outrage groupies are stirred by fears of unseen enemies.

The paradox is that this knee to Mr. Bush's groin helps the Bush campaign. Put plainly, a vote for Ross Perot is a vote for George Bush: Wherever the margin between Bill Clinton and Mr. Bush has narrowed, the reason is a rise in support for the spoiler. Thus TC Perot, the still-sure loser, is a threat to Mr. Clinton, the once-sure winner.

Do you suppose this anomaly -- attacks on Mr. Bush that help him by stealing support from his main challenger -- is some sort of Machiavellian scheme? I think not. Ross Perot does not care who wins, so long as he can get even with the media for having exposed him last summer as a pious fraud.

To discover the shallowness of his quest, we must first ask: Why did Mr. Perot say he was pulling out of the race when the going got rough and his polls began to slip?

The answer had nothing to do with the excuses he concocted, about hearing that the Republicans planned to disrupt his daughter's wedding, about being pleased by the revitalization of the Democrats or about not wanting to throw the election into the House of Representatives. Those were lies, put forward as baldly as his professions to the U.S. Navy that the reason he wanted to slip out of his service obligation -- after receiving a free four-year Annapolis education -- was that he was shocked at the profanity and promiscuity of American sailors.

The evidence shows that his withdrawal was a ruse. He continued to pay "volunteers" to put him on ballots, paid for book purchases to thrust his paid-for platform onto best-seller lists and paid to produce commercial "documentaries" to perpetuate the myth of capitalist-patriot-hero. He re-entered just in time for the debates.

Now his wily caper is on view. In the past two weeks, he has spent almost three times as much money on television as the two major-party campaigns combined. He is firing broadsides of baloney while his opponents -- the serious contenders for the leadership of the nation -- are using media popguns.

Nothing illegal; politics ain't beanbag, and we put no limits on a billionaire's ability to dominate the airwaves with the money his political influence was able to help his company squeeze out of Medicaid.

But as he regales paid and unpaid television interviewers with paranoid-style tales of "dirty tricks" played on him by Mr. Bush and the hated media, we might remember the dirtiest trick of the 1992 campaign: Ross Perot's artifice of quitting to escape scrutiny, only to return when it is too late for slow-moving television journalists to carry out their responsibility.

Just as he sought to evade his naval duty, he seeks to evade a candidate's duty: to answer tough questions not only about his positions, but about the background of his life that reveals his character. The Navy did not let him duck a few decades ago; the media and his pusillanimous opponents are letting him get away with it today.

Will the Great Dirty Television Trick succeed? Will purchased TV and radio messages overwhelm news coverage, and will Mr. Perot's lust for his own mythmaking re-elect George Bush?

I think not. The outraged groupies -- early followers of Jerry Brown and Pat Buchanan -- are pumping his polls up to the high teens, but the experience of recent third-party candidates shows that one-half the spoken support turns sensible in the voting booth. George Wallace's 25 percent shrank to 13 percent; John Anderson's 13 percent plummeted to 7 percent of the vote.

The difference is money. We will soon see how many people can be bamboozled by megabucks and the paranoid message.

If Mr. Clinton snaps out of his frozen fear of offending the undecideds parked with Mr. Perot, half of the spoiler's supporters can be persuaded that a vote for Mr. Perot is a vote for George Bush ("Russian spies" and all). At that point, the multibillionaire megalomaniac's Great Dirty Television Trick will fail.

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.

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