'76 DUI arrest does not tarnish governor's character, he says
By Carolyn Barta / The Dallas Morning News
Ross Perot was predictably Ross Perot on Thursday night â€“ upholding his reputation for being unpredictable.
Appearing on CNN's Larry King Live, Mr. Perot made a surprise endorsement of Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush . Eight years ago, Mr. Perot's independent candidacy helped remove the governor's father, President George Bush, from the White House.
He cited character as the main reason for his endorsement.
"Here is a man that I have never heard anybody criticize once for improper conduct as governor, for improper taking of political funds for payoffs, for impropriety in the Governor's Mansion or at any time," he said.
The endorsement came on the same night that Mr. Bush admitted he was arrested and pleaded guilty 24 years ago to drunken driving in Maine.
"It should not have occurred. There's no excuse. If he's the man I think he is, that's the way he'll have to handle it," Mr. Perot said, "unlike the person who's in the White House tonight. That person would give a thousand different excuses."
He said he has known people who were drinkers and he respects "the ones who have the ability to put the cork in the bottle and quit."
"This is a minor thing compared to ... all these other corrupt things that happened in the last eight years," he said.
Mr. Bush's response to the endorsement, during a news conference in Wisconsin, was: "Fantastic. I'm glad to have his support. I think it's an indication of the fact that I'm picking up support from a lot of voters who aren't necessarily associated with the Republican Party. I'm proud to have him on my team."
Returning to his favorite news venue, the CNN show where he announced his own candidacy in 1992, Mr. Perot broke his self-imposed silence on the presidential race five days before the election. He has not spoken about politics since July 1999.
The founder of the Reform Party said he was choosing between the two major party candidates because "we're down to two. In the real world, we'll have one or the other."
He was critical of Democrat Al Gore, his opponent in a heated debate in 1993 over NAFTA on the King show. He accused the vice president of not being "open and forthright" on his fund raising and embellishing stories, including his service in Vietnam. "If he can't tell the truth, how can he be president?" he asked.
In contrast, he praised Mr. Bush for surrounding himself with experienced advisers and said he would be the better person to be commander-in-chief. He said John McCain "wouldn't have endorsed Bush if he didn't think he would be the best commander of our armed forces." As for Pat Buchanan, the nominee of the party Mr. Perot founded, the maverick politician said "his principles and the principles of this party are totally different." He also suggested that Mr. Buchanan had divided the party.
Reform Party national chairman Gerry Moan said he was disappointed by the late endorsement. "His silence didn't help build the party at all," he said.
Beverly Kidder of New Jersey, a former Perot loyalist now supporting Mr. Buchanan, said, "No one can ever predict Ross Perot. He's a last-minute man."
Perot spokesman Russ Verney said Mr. Perot's appearance was in response to phone calls from voters . "People are saying they have to make a decision on Tuesday. 'What do we do?'" Mr. Verney said. "That's why he decided to break his silence."
Meanwhile, experts said his opinions at this point will have less influence than they might once have had.
"He may have a very marginal impact. Certainly it's not what he might have had a few years ago," said David Lanoue, political science professor at Texas Tech University. "But 6 percent of the people out there are still undecided. Something has to turn them."
Mr. Perot's impact has diminished, he said, because "he's no longer a fresh and novel figure. The Reform Party has more or less imploded around him, and that has to hurt his credibility."
Mr. Buchanan had called on Mr. Perot to "give us a hand." And Buchanan spokesman Brian Doherty said Thursday: "He founded the Reform Party and we're building on his work. We would have appreciated his help in our campaign."
Asked about his endorsement of Democrat Gov. Ann Richards in 1994 when Mr. Bush challenged her for the Texas governorship, Mr. Perot said, "I thought she was better qualified." But, he said, Mr. Bush has demonstrated his ability to do the job.
As for himself, he said the main reason he didn't make a third run for the presidency was "because I'm 70 years old." And of former President Bush, he said, "I had no personal vendetta against him."