Knute Buehler was at England’s elite Oxford University in 1990 when a fellow Rhodes scholar asked if he would like to meet Ross Perot, the swashbuckling billionaire from Texarkana.
Two years later, Buehler was working on Perot’s insurgent 1992 presidential campaign effort in Oregon.
Buehler, the former Republican state House member from Bend who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2018, traces his interest in public service to Perot, who died Tuesday in Dallas at 89.
“I cut my political teeth with Ross Perot,” Buehler said.
Buehler’s Oxford classmate said Perot was on a business trip to London and was coming up for a casual visit. It wasn’t unusual for businessmen to visit the campus to talent scout for their operations.
While Perot looked and talked like a Texas oilman, his focus was on computer startups long before “Silicon Valley” became a common part of the American lexicon. A former IBM salesman, Perot at the time was best known as the founder of Electronic Data Systems, which he sold to General Motors in 1984 for $2.6 billion.
But his activity outside of business added to his fame. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Perot burst into public notice in 1969 when he financed an unsuccessful attempt to get food and medicine to American POWs held in North Vietnam. When followers of Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran in 1979, Perot said he arranged the escape of two of his Electronic Data Systems employees who had been detained by the shah.
Buehler was intrigued by the stories about Perot. After the Oxford meeting, he was impressed.
“He was really dynamic, energetic and wicked smart,” he said.
It was several months before Buehler and the others understood the likely reason for the meeting.
“We didn’t realize the significance,” Buehler said. “Only later did we figure out he was there for a bit of a job interview, looking for people who might be interested in his campaign for president.”
Perot had become disillusioned with President George H.W. Bush, who was running for reelection in 1992. Perot opposed the war with Iraq and the mounting government deficits.
“He called the deficit ‘the crazy aunt in the basement everyone wants to ignore,’” Buehler recalled.
The North American Free Trade Agreement was another target of Perot’s ire.
“He said that NAFTA made a big sucking sound of jobs disappearing south of the border,” Buehler said.
Perot also criticized government bureaucracy.
“If you see a snake, just kill it,” Perot said. “Don’t appoint a committee on snakes.”
In 1992, Perot declared he would run for president as an independent candidate. He called for a balanced budget, dismantling NAFTA and moving to a modernized electronic voting system. According to The New York Times, he would use $65 million of his fortune to fund the campaign. Perot succeeded in getting on the ballot in all 50 states and made a big initial splash with 30-minute television infomercials that drew large audiences. In June 1992, a Gallup Poll showed Perot beating Bush and the Democratic front-runner at the time, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.
“He rejected both,” Buehler said of Bush and Clinton. “He felt like neither one of them was serving middle-class America.”
Buehler, who had returned to Oregon for his medical residency, signed on to push Perot’s candidacy in Oregon.
“It wasn’t really organized in Oregon, or anywhere, really,” Buehler said. “That made some things extra difficult, but it was also part of the attraction. You couldn’t just wait for someone to tell you what to do. It made people stand up, go out and get the job done.”
In July, Perot announced he was quitting the race, citing alleged Republican “dirty tricks” to disrupt his daughter’s wedding, and a secret CIA effort against his campaign.
Marlin Fitzwater, Bush’s White House press secretary, called the allegations “all loony.”
“The exact set of circumstances remains a mystery,” Buehler said.
Perot reentered the race in October and did well in the three-way televised debates with Bush and Clinton. But Perot’s three-month absence had sapped his momentum.
On Election Day, Perot won 20 million votes but still finished third nationwide, behind Clinton and Bush. He received just under 19% of the nationwide popular vote, the strongest third-party showing since former President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1912 attempt to return to the White House under the Bull Moose Party banner. Perot won 24% of the vote in Oregon, including 28% in Deschutes County.
But Perot did not win in any state, ending up with no Electoral College votes. Some Republicans claimed Perot had been a spoiler, siphoning strength from Bush and allowing Clinton to clinch the presidency. In Oregon, Clinton received just 43% of the vote but beat Bush and Perot, giving him the state’s seven electoral votes.
After the 1992 election, Perot established the Reform Party. He ran for president in 1996 but won only 8% of the vote as Clinton was reelected. When conservative commentator Pat Buchanan was nominated as the Reform Party candidate in 2000, Perot bolted his own party. Four days before the election, he endorsed the Republican candidate, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who was elected.
After that, Perot faded from the 21st-century political scene.
By then, Buehler had long parted company with Perot, but he says the 1992 campaign fired his interest in politics. Buehler would lead a successful 1994 ballot initiative, Measure 9, setting campaign finance limits. The Oregon Supreme Court would later void the limits, saying they were a violation of the state’s free speech guarantees. Buehler won election to the Oregon House in 2014 and 2016, sandwiched between unsuccessful bids for secretary of state in 2012 and governor in 2018..
Perot has often been caricatured as an egotistic, crackly voiced crank. But Buehler says the Perot he knew was a serious man deeply committed to American ideals.
“Ross Perot was different in his demeanor, approach, and communication style,” Buehler said. “But he was always respectful. He had a set of principles. He was a true patriot. He believed he was answering a call to service for the nation.”
— Reporter: 541-640-2750, firstname.lastname@example.org