“Ross Perot, eccentric billionaire who made two independent runs for president, dies at 89” appeared across a Washington Post digital headline – and I am forced into memory. I happen, at the moment, to be thick in that remembering - scribbling away at a memoir of my fourteen months in Vietnam and Cambodia – so many years ago. I was a war correspondent forTime.
I was very young – just a year past my baccalaureate from Cal Berkeley – when my path fleetingly crossed the cranky, arrogant, difficult Mr. Ross Perot. I am momentarily struggling with words here. Are we prohibited from speaking ill of the dead? Or do we owe their now-snuffed lives the unembellished truth? I will proceed.
I was not only a young reporter when I encountered this news-worthy, man-of-the-moment – I was new on the field of battle, just a few months in country in Vietnam, with even less time in the employ of Time. There were personal struggles to be surmounted. It was a time, well-before this time, and women war correspondents were a rarity; the responses to us from our male colleagues were – let us say - more complex than they are now.
This is my Ross Perot encounter within the memoir-in-progress. The year was 1970.. Marsh Clark was my Time bureau chief. Bob Anson was a Time correspondent and colleague.
I was curled up in the outer office early one morning with nothing much coming down the pike. Marsh summoned both Anson and me to his inner chamber.
“I’ve got a story I’d like you both to take on. That alright with you?” He looked straight at Bob Anson, who did not look at me. “Sure,” Bob said, “Why not? What’s up?”
“That Dallas billionaire is back in Saigon - his private jet crammed with food supposedly for American prisoners of war. The North Vietnamese don’t even notice him, let alone allow him near our POWs. Is he a nut case or just an ego the size of Texas? Who knows? You guys find out.
“This time he brought seventy stateside reporters with him – demanding to tour the North Vietnamese POW camps. Go over and interview him. See what he’s up to. He’s expecting us. His name is H. Ross Perot.”
We crossed the street to the Caravelle - Saigon’s finest, Perot’s hotel. We had no time for legwork beforehand. Marsh had implied that the man wasn’t worth taking seriously.
But we were wrong. Perot, holding court in his hotel room, was absolutely a man used to being taken seriously - kowtowed to, in fact. He was neither generous nor easy with reporters who dared to question him.
“Mr. Perot, do you think the North Vietnamese will permit you to see our American POWs,” I warmed up gently.
“What sort of stupid, hostile question is that?! Of course I’ll see them or I wouldn’t be here!”
It was an unpleasant hour. I’d never before met a public person as defensive as this short, balding, middle-aged, private man with public interests - and I’d never once since, until the 2016 presidential campaign. I thought he wanted it both ways: the freedom to do what he wanted as a private businessman and the attention and influence due a public one. In my ignorance, I was more than prophetic about the unknown businessman, who a decade later announced his candidacy for U.S. President.
“Unemotional,” was what I contributed to our joint story - but in fact he was easily roused to anger. To make that point I wrote: “He uses the word ‘humanitarian’ but seems entirely without sentiment.”
I called him, “Shrewd, cocky, accustomed to success - and knows how to use his billions to insure it.
“‘I earned my money,’ he spit out. ‘Like Horatio Alger.’”
Very simply, Perot did not see why he had to answer our questions - despite summoning Time to his suite. He assumed an adversarial relationship. The planeload of junketing reporters were a different story. They were flying free as his guests and so he figured they were in his employ.
Anson and I were unusually polite to this disagreeable man. I suspect we each wondered why there were two of us. Clearly the number exacerbated Perot’s paranoia. One on one, he might have felt the advantage and been more amenable to our questions, maybe not.
It wasn’t obvious what Marsh was up to - sending both to do one person’s job. Was it a punishment to the outspoken Anson? Or a gift to me - the kind of experience in store for a woman in an unwelcoming man’s game?
Ross Perot is gone. Maybe my grown children are still familiar with his name, because they’ve heard their mother’s stories. But there are more for whom his name is unknown. Forgotten exactly as the stories of the women who chiseled – and continue to chip away at the durable ramparts of male entitlement.
I am uncertain which one is the story here. Let the reader decide.