Perot's Predecessors | Year In Review | Chicago Reader

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Perot's Predecessors

In America, any idiot can run for president.



When Ross Perot reentered the presidential race in October, the New York Times described voters' reaction as "overwhelming hostility." In a New York Times/CBS News poll, 72 percent of registered voters said he shouldn't have gotten back in, and 56 percent called him a distraction from real issues.

Now folks, this is just sad. This is not the right attitude at all.

The myth that any American kid can grow up to be president is hogwash, of course, but it is true that any idiot can run for president and entertain the rest of us in the process--and many of them do. In 1988 no fewer than 330 patriots filed statements of presidential candidacy with the Federal Election Commission, from Michael S. Dukakis all the way down to John Oertel of the Let's Have a Pizza Jam Presidential Committee.

This is the real American dream. You're not against the American dream, are you? Think about it, as Ross would say. Cast your eye down this small sampling of Perot's spiritual predecessors and tell me this isn't the greatest country in the world:

Bernarr Macfadden. Macfadden was an early-20th-century crackpot health guru and multimillionaire publisher, guilty of setting into motion such modern evils as confession magazines and gossip columns. Today Macfadden Publishing Inc. continues his legacy with such giants as Modern Romances and True Confession. Macfadden's run for the 1936 Republican nomination culminated a bizarre quest for the presidency that included making Eleanor Roosevelt the highly paid editor of a short-lived magazine called Babies, Just Babies in hopes of getting a cabinet post out of FDR.

One of Macfadden's brainstorms was to herd the unemployed into giant freezers during the Depression, to be thawed when the economy picked up. Otherwise his politics were vague. The candidate claimed he would abolish "fool laws" and get rid of racketeers.

Perot may have found inspiration in this earlier mogul-turned-candidate, whose campaign strategy also involved a choreographed "spontaneous" popular call for his public services. However, Macfadden's grass roots and pockets were shallower than Perot's. Instead of a gushing Larry King, Macfadden got press clippings claiming "he sounded like W.C. Fields might sound if he had been put in the sun to dry." Sometime after the election he was forced out of Macfadden Publishing, in part for using company funds in his campaign.

Reverend Gerald L.K. Smith. Smith once declared of his leadership abilities, "I'll teach them how to hate!" He ran in 1944 and '48, first for the America First Party, then the Christian Nationalist Party. The scariest thing about Smith is that he personified an image that today sells enormous quantities of cars and soft drinks. As he described himself, "I represent the good old go-to-meeting, Bible-reading, child-having, God-fearing, ice cream-eating common people." H.L. Mencken called him "the gutsiest and goriest, loudest and lustiest, the deadliest and damnedest orator ever heard on this or any other earth."

Smith's platforms were antiblack, anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, antiunion, and anticommunist. If he was actually for anything, it's been lost in the mists of time. At one point during the 1944 Republican convention at Chicago's Stevens Hotel, Smith "seized" the ballroom--Republican party headquarters. He claimed he'd reserved it but that the Republicans had pressured the hotel to cancel his reservation. The Republicans let him keep it, since they hadn't planned anything for that time slot anyway.

Changing political fashions in the 60s forced Smith to retire, to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, where he perpetrated a number of religious attractions and wondered why "so many millions of my fellow Americans just don't like me." We probably shouldn't insult Mr. Perot by comparing him with Mr. Smith. But Smith would have been pretty fun at a debate, too.

Henry B. Krajewski. This estimable New Jersey saloon keeper ran in 1952 and 1956 as the candidate of the Poor Man's Party, renamed the American Third Party in '56. Krajewski filed ballot petitions at the New Jersey statehouse with a black-and-white pig under one arm. He said the pig was his symbol because "the Democrats have been hogging the Administration in Washington for 20 years, and it's about time people began to squeal." His most striking proposal was a "two-president system," because if a Republican and Democrat shared the White House, "they'd be so busy watching each other that there would be no danger of a dictatorship." Oddly enough, this was not a new idea. Historian and journalist Garry Wills writes that during the formulation of the Constitution some "classical republicans wanted two presidents, on the model of Rome's two consuls." Krajewski brought the idea to a more populist level. Like Perot, he knew how to put the hay down where the goats could eat it.

Charles Doty. At first glance, Doty has nothing in common with Ross Perot except a twang broad and strong enough to drive a Buick on. This Tulsan ran in 1984 and '88 because God told him to. Doty says God gave him the celestial endorsement as he struggled with a spark plug that wouldn't fit in his daughter's car engine. "Ah took mah head out from under th' hood an' looked 'round the yard, and weren't nobody there but me, so Ah knew who Ah was talkin' to," Doty notes philosophically. "Ah said, 'Lord, if yew want me t'run fer president, let me get this spark plug in th' engine.' Well, it went right in." So much for accepting God on faith.

Doty's typewritten and xeroxed 1988 campaign literature--all in capitals--covered his positions in scrupulous detail, with entries like "TERRORISM: HAVE A WONDERFUL PLAN. IT WILL WORK!" and "ELECTION PROCESS: NEEDS CHANGE." A low-budget version, really, of Perot's United We Stand. He and his wife toured the country in a van they'd outfitted with a bed, checking into motels every now and then for a shower. The Lord helped his campaign, says Doty, by lowering the price of gas; moreover, his van didn't eat up one drop of oil. He estimated his 1988 campaign expenses at $1,030.

Clearly, Ross Perot was part of a long-standing, deeply American tradition. So many other democracies have nothing but a prime minister, and the only candidates for that are legislators--boring people who will never joke about their big ears on national television. And think about other countries that do have presidents. Say, France. You'll never see any French candidates hiring novelists to write books about them. Rather than crankily labeling Perot a spoiler, American voters should embrace him. Nobody forced anybody to actually vote for him. Just enjoy the spectacle. You won't see it anywhere else, and folks, I find that fascinating.

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