Maverick billionaire Ross Perot dies at 89

New York, July 10: Ross Perot, the maverick tech billionaire whose populist campaign for president became the electoral template for Donald Trump, has died. He was 89.

The entrepreneur, who founded two technology giants and challenged the two-party system, died of leukemia on Tuesday in Dallas, Texas, according to his family.

A populist nationalist, he was a strident critic of international trade pacts, in particular the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and this and his populism was picked up and successfully weaponised by Trump.

A measure of Perot's appeal is the praise he received from Bernie Sanders, the populist contender for Democratic Party nomination from the other end of the political spectrum.

He tweeted that Perot was "ahead of his time on disastrous trade policies. During his campaign, he explained, in depth, how he would address our national problems and spurred serious discussion".

Although both his presidential runs were unsuccessful, he can claim to be a "king unmaker" if not a kingmaker. Republican George Bush (Senior), who was the sitting president in 1992, blamed Perot for his defeat by Democrat Bill Clinton. Running as an independent he got 18.9 per cent of the votes to Bush's 37.4 per cent and Clinton's 43 percent.

Bush, who had successfully liberated Kuwait from Iraqi leader Saddam Hussain's occupation, believed Perot had siphoned off his votes.

Perot spent $63 billion out of his pocket for the campaign during which he used poster charts to explain his economic prescriptions.

Perot founded the Reform Party in 1994 and went down to another defeat in the 1996 election, which saw Clinton defeat Republican Bob Dole.

Clinton said: "Perot was a unique figure in American business and politics who lived a full and fascinating life".

He also noted Perot's concern for the middle class and said, "He wanted to do something about the big budget deficit and rising national debt, which kept interest rates too high and took too much of middle-class Americans' income."

The populist took the pulse of the disenchanted middle and working classes as the shadow of America's de-industrialisation loomed, to craft his campaing.

He phrased NAFTA's risks memorably saying that with a "giant sucking sound" American jobs would disappear.

That became one of the pillars of Trump's campaign decades later. He pursued it after his election and is on the verge of getting NAFTA replaced by a new trade pact.

Because of his wealth, Perot was not beholden anyone and could set his own political agenda underwritten with his money. He was not crude, but outspoken and direct in reaching out to his base of supporters from both the left and right.

Trump took Perot's model, but put his stamp of characteristic crassness on it and unlike Perot muscled his way into the Republican Party collecting a following of the disenchanted.

Born the son of a cotton commodities trader in Texas, Perot served in the navy as an officer. He joined IBM, the undisputed king of technology at the time he left the service in 1957, as a salesperson.

He started Electronic Data Systems (EDS) in 1962, which he rapidly built into tech giant overcoming initial rejections with his powers of persuasion. General Motors acquired the company in 1984 for $2.6 billion and later sold it to Hewlett Packard.

For a second act, he founded Perot Systems in 1988. It specialised in health-related business and had operations in India. Dell bought it for $3.9 billion in 2009 and sold it in 2016 to NTT Data.

As in politics, Perot was uncoventional in business. His operation to rescue two employees jailed in Iran is the stuff of legends.

In the waning days of Shah Reza Pahlavi's rule, two EDS executives were arrested by Iran in 1978 during a business dispute and reportedly accused of offering bribes. Perot organised a commando operation with ex-servicemen get them out.

While they couldn't get into the jail, supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini stormed it during a protest in 1979. The two executives escaped in the chaos and caught up with the commando team, which smuggled them across the border into Turkey and then home.

Perot had tried after the Vietnam War to negotiate with Hanoi to rescue American military personnel missing there. But it went nowhere.

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