DALLAS - His name is Henry Ross Perot. Don't call him Henry. Don't call him "H." That sissy letter was hung on him by Fortune magazine, and he doesn't like it.
He doesn't like being called a legend, either. He says he's a myth. Whatever. His story, as told by him and his friends and loyal employees, certainly is a good yarn. But it's one that may unravel a bit as his political opponents and media sleuths research every detail of his life. The White House, says Perot, is trying to rewrite history by leaking stories about him.
"They're just mosquito bites," says Tom Luce, who's running Perot's noncampaign. "Who cares how many demerit badges he got as a Cub Scout?"
Perot was born in Texarkana, on the Texas side - naturally - on June 27, 1930, to Lulu and Ross Perot, pronounced PEE-row then. He says that if he had one wish for this country, it's that every child could have a warm, loving family. He's thinking of his own. His father, a cotton broker, was his best friend. His parents were his heroes.
"They were the all-American family," says Hayes McClerkin, a friend since grade school.
Perot worked from the time he was 7, breaking horses and selling garden seeds. He delivered the Texarkana Gazette on horseback.
He sold so many that the paper wanted to lower his commission. Perot, 14 at the time, went directly to the publisher and said, "We had a deal."
He loves to tell that story.
He grew up with Norman Rockwell values: work hard, study hard, go to church, respect your elders, love your country, do your duty.
"He was brought up to do the right thing," says Howard Waldrop, who has known Perot since junior high. "We all were. That was the world 50 years ago."
Perot thrived in that atmosphere.
"He loved discipline," says his junior college speech teacher, Claude Pinkerton.
He made Eagle Scout in record time. He was the class president at Texarkana Junior College when he was 17, although most of the other students were World War II veterans. He was class president and battalion commander at the U.S. Naval Academy.
He and his wife, Margot, whom he married in 1956, raised their five children, Ross Jr., Nancy, Suzanne, Carolyn and Katherine, with the same values. Before Perot flew to Iran to help with the rescue attempt, he called his son at school and said that if anything happened to him, he wanted him to come home and take care of the family and the business.
"It's what I would have done anyway," says Ross Jr.
It's no coincidence that Perot collects Norman Rockwell paintings. They're all over his office: the Four Freedoms, the returning servicemen and his favorite, a father, dressed in work clothes, and his spiffed-up son waiting for the bus that will take the boy to college.
"That's what this country's all about," Perot says, "one generation sacrificing for the next."
A HIGH-TECH HORATIO ALGER?
Perot's business success makes him sound like a high-tech Horatio Alger. He joined IBM as a salesman in 1957 after four years in the Navy. One year, he sold his quota by Jan. 19.
But Perot had an idea. Why just sell hardware? Why not sell the software and the programmers, too - a whole data-processing department? IBM wasn't interested. At that time, software was only 20 percent of the computer business. Perot was sitting in a barbershop one day, flipping through Reader's Digest, when he came across a quote from Henry David Thoreau: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." It was the push he needed. His wife lent him the start-up money, and she and his mother and his sister were his directors.
Perot ran Electronic Data Systems with military discipline. He hired veterans - young hot shots - and put them in uniforms: dark suits, white shirts, conservative ties. No beards. No mustaches. And no hanky-panky.
"If your wife can't trust you, why should I?" Perot would say.
He took good care of his employees.
"We reward people while they're still sweating," Perot says. "Stock options, bonuses. Before the sun sets, bang, bang, bang."
If anyone was sick or in trouble, he wanted to know about it. He could fix things and find the right doctor, the right lawyer. That kind of treatment bought a lot of loyalty.
When they were working on the rescue plan, Perot told the commando team not to tell anyone what they were doing. Still, several of the wives guessed that their husbands were about to embark on a paramilitary mission for their boss.
It was that kind of company.
Not long after EDS went public in 1968, Perot became a billionaire. "The first welfare billionaire," according to Ramparts Magazine, because much of his business was in Medicare and Medicaid contracts. By that time, software was 70 percent of the computer market. The chairman of IBM asked Perot how he knew the percentages would turn around. Perot said he didn't.
`FRIENDS WITH AN ELEPHANT'
Words most often used to describe Ross Perot: blunt, pragmatic, driven, honest, impatient, intuitive, competitive, compassionate, corny, shrewd, generous and, above all, determined.
He has the kind of confidence that comes from knowing you can cover a $3 billion check.
"Being friends with Ross is like being friends with an elephant," says former Texas Gov. Mark White. "You can like the elephant, but you don't want him to step on you."
He's a supersalesman. In 1984, Gov. White put him in charge of reforming public education in Texas. One of Perot's recommendations was the "no pass, no play" rule that held athletes to academic standards. In football-crazy Texas, it was heresy, but he went around the state and sold it. How did he do it?
Perot says: "I know how to get things done, not by giving orders, but by building a consensus."
If you want to see Perot for yourself, stop by Dickey's Barbecue Pit in Dallas. He has lunch there most days. Bubba Dickey gets mail there for him. Perot drives up himself, in his '84 Olds, pushes his tray through the cafeteria line and pays for his chicken sandwich. Strangers, with "Ross for Boss" bumper stickers on their cars, shake his hand and say, "Go get 'em."
Ross Perot is in a very good mood today. An excellent mood. He just closed a very big deal, and even after all these years and all those billions, business still gets him juiced. He's in his North Dallas office every morning at 8:30 and stays 'til 6.
He's provided scholarships, jobs and medical care for people he's never met. His eyes fill with tears as he talks about them.
Mostly he talks about his values. That's what people are responding to.
"That's what I'll be talking about. That's what we need if we want this to be a great country," says Perot.
People have called Ross Perot a lot of things, but no one ever called him dumb.
"My life does not depend on being president. But if the people want me, I'll give it everything I have. My dream would be to do one four-year term, get everything rolling, pass the baton to the guy or woman I run with and then go back to real life."