Ross Perot: The political outsider

US politician and businessman Ross Perot during an event at the Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center April 5, 2012 in Fort Bragg, North CarolinaImage copyright

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Texan billionaire and two-time presidential candidate Ross Perot died on Tuesday aged 89

Ross Perot, the Texan billionaire who ran for president twice, always said that he had lived the American Dream.

“I came from a very modest background,” he commented during the 1992 presidential debate. “Nobody’s been luckier than I’ve been.”

Now, after his death on Tuesday aged 89, the political pioneer’s colourful rags-to-riches story is making headlines once again.

1) He rose out of the Great Depression

Ross Perot grew up in abject poverty.

He was born Henry Ross Perot on 27 June 1930, just one year after the Wall Street Crash that plunged the US into the Great Depression. It was a time of destitution and turmoil for millions of workers.

He began working at seven and, several years later, began delivering newspapers to poor neighbourhoods in Texarkana from the back of a pony.

Perot would later say that he had been so successful at selling newspapers that his boss had tried to lower his commission rate. But – when he complained to the publisher directly – the paper backed down.

“Since then, whenever I have a problem, I go straight to the top,” he told the New York Times in 1992.

Perot graduated in 1953 from the US Naval Academy, where he first learned about computers. It sparked an interest that would later make his fortune.

2) He became a multi-millionaire overnight

After a brief stint in the Navy, Perot took a job in sales at IBM. It was something he had a natural affinity for.

But he became disenfranchised when his bosses repeatedly rejected his ideas. He borrowed $1,000 (£800) from his wife and, aged 32, he used the money to found his first company – Electronic Data Systems (EDS).

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Ross Perot pictured in 1968 when his company, EDS, first went public

The company, at a time when the world was moving from paper to electronic records, managed computer networks for high-profile customers such as NASA and various government departments.

When EDS first went public in 1968, Perot became a multi-millionaire overnight. About two decades later he founded his second company, Perot Systems, which would eventually be bought by Dell for $3.9bn.

As an employer he was known for his quirks – particularly his strict dress code. Workers had to wear white shirts and ties and were forbidden from having moustaches or beards.

3) He funded a daring commando raid

But this strict dress code did not reveal an uncaring attitude. In fact, on one occasion, Perot went to extraordinary lengths to protect his staff.

In 1979, when two of his employees were jailed in Iran over a contract dispute just before the Islamic Revolution. he financed a private commando rescue.

The mission was commanded by Col Arthur Simons, a retired special forces officer, with Perot and other employees as members. A riot was instigated at the gates and, in the ensuing chaos, the rescue team snuck the employees out.

“Ross came to the prison one day and said, ‘We’re going to get you out,'” one of the jailed men told the Associated Press. “How many CEOs would do that today?”

That raid inspired a best-selling book and a television series.

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Ross Perot (L) with two of his employees and Col Arthur Simons (R) who commanded the famous Iran raid

Perot also championed patriotic causes, and first became known to Americans outside of the business world in the 1980s when he claimed that hundreds of missing soldiers had been left behind and imprisoned after the Vietnam War.

4) He made presidential election history

But it wasn’t until 1992 that Perot became a household name.

Having never held public office, he announced on a talk show that he was running for president as an independent candidate. He built a dedicated following with his populist rhetoric and called for balanced budgets and an end to the outsourcing of jobs abroad.

Perot spent $63m of his own money on the campaign and, at one point in June of that year, he held a lead over both his mainstream rivals. He even appeared on the cover of Time magazine.

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Media captionHow Ross Perot helped lead to President Trump

He also became known for his pithy remarks and straight-talking demeanour. “If you see a snake, just kill it. Don’t appoint a committee on snakes,” he famously said.

Perot became the most successful third-party candidate in eight decades when he finished the race with 19% of the popular vote. The result revealed an appetite from voters for an outsider who could disrupt the conventional two-party system.

Many analysts believe his success cost the Republican incumbent George HW Bush a second term in the White House.

His second campaign in 1996 was less successful. He did not take part in presidential debates, organisers said he lacked sufficient support, and got just 8% of the vote.

After this defeat, the Reform Party he founded and hoped to build into a national political force began to fall apart.

But many of the ideological themes he expounded – small-government, anti-trade, and anti-globalism – would later be adopted by Donald Trump to propel him to the White House and bring the establishment of the Republican Party crashing down.

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