Remember When Ross Perot Tried to Infomercial His Way to the Presidency?

In Depth

Donald Trump isn’t the first American businessman to spend his way into the voters’ line of sight. Among the many rich men in whose footsteps he walks is a big-eared Texan who in 1992 snagged 18.9 percent of the popular vote with a strategy based, in part, on infomercials.

You gotta see these fucking infomercials.

Perot was already somewhat well-known when he leapt into politics. Thanks to his company Electronic Data Systems, for one thing, he was very wealthy. Then there was the time he dispatched a team of commandos to rescue EDS execs arrested in the midst of the Iranian revolution, which Ken Follett—at Perot’s urging—made into the bestselling “non-fiction novel” On Wings of Eagles, which NBC turned into a made-for-TV movie currently available on YouTube.

The Chicago Tribune and others would later downplay the story, and the movie was full of over-the-top touches—as the Tribune notes, even in Perot’s telling, the prisoners were freed rather than actually busted out by the commandos. But it was the type of story that, for obvious reasons, really resonated with Americans at the tail end of the dismal, embarrassing 1970s.

Entering the race as a third-party candidate, Perot worked the media, sure, becoming a regular presence on TV. But late in the campaign, he also put part of his considerable fortune into a series of infomercials, which allowed him to pump his message into homes across America, completely unfiltered by the media. For instance!

These videos are a strange mix. They’re dense and slow and most of the time you’re watching as Perot, seated behind a desk, rattles on about debt, the economy, and balancing the budget. There are detailed charts. It’s like being trapped in an elevator with a low-level analyst for the kind of conservative think tank dedicated to fluffing corporations rather than fighting gay marriage, and he doesn’t watch TV or movies or even know any Internet memes, and all he wants to do is talk to you about sales tax rates.

At moments—intense Texas drawl notwithstanding—he sounds like Trump, like when he harps upon all the job growth and infrastructure investment in Asia and German and frets about how to Make American Great Again. Then again, when he talks about reducing tax exemptions for the rich, I almost get a little taste of of THE BERN, too. There’s also some symmetry in his repeating again and again that “trickle down didn’t work,” when of course he was running against Reagan’s former VP—George H.W. Bush.

And people did watch. In the late-October homestretch, the New York Times reported that according to Nielsen, 16 million people watched his first ad, which ran October 6. By the end of the month his audience had dropped—with a mere 12 million having watched at least part of his most recent dispatch. But then how could you look away from political ads with titles like, “Chicken Feathers, Deep Voodoo and the American Dream”? (For a real treat, listen to a C-SPAN announcer say those words.)

He did so many of these, too, at least eight, and several of them in time slots like 8pm and 8:30pm. Some of them ran a full hour. Here he talks about the economy and jobs. More damn charts.

He also enlisted some character witnesses, trotting his loved ones to vouch for him. “I have literally been able to live the American dream!” he says. His wife talks about him; his son talks about him; his daughters talk about him. Forget handing Melania and Ivanka the mic at a victory speech—this very wealthy man paid for 30 full minutes of airtime so that his immediate family could talk on national television about how awesome he is. That REALLY happened! You know what? Ross Perot was able to live the American dream.

Of course, Perot couldn’t quite seal the deal. It didn’t help that he pulled out of the race in July then reentered in October—surely one of the wackier moves in the history of presidential politics. Even so, having gotten 18.9 percent as a third-party candidate ain’t nothing.

The comparison to Trump is obvious. But if Perot is the forerunner of anything, really, it’s the rise of a Reddit/Facebook-based political discourse where people furiously share charts designed to reinforce opinions they already held. Charts never lie!

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Photo via AP Images.

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