Perotnoia

The great mystery of Perot's 1992 presidential bid was his sudden decision to quit the race. Biographer Gerald Posner found that Perot was a victim of a shadowy soldier of fortune-- and his own delusions.

Editor's note: When Ross Perot first announced his candidacy for president in 1992, his eccentric populism generated a tidal wave of popular support. But many outside of Texas did not know just how eccentric the Dallas billionaire could be.

The country got its first clear look at Perot's combative, sometimes inexplicable, personality on July 16, 1992. That's the day Perot abruptly withdrew from the presidential race, asserting that some sinister conspiracy was afoot to destroy his family and sabotage his daughter's wedding.

Perot's sudden withdrawal--and the strange explanations he offered for it--substantially compounded his reputation as an impulsive megalomaniac with a passion for conspiracy theories, and probably hurt his chances when he later re-entered the race.

The true story of Perot's withdrawal, it turns out, is even stranger than his public comments at the time.

In one chapter of a recently published book, Citizen Perot, author Gerald Posner reconstructs the events leading up to Perot's withdrawal.

Perot's belief that Republican tricksters were out to harm his family, Posner found, was spawned primarily by the dubious claims of a soldier of fortune named Scott Barnes. Perot, who has long associated with shadowy informants and quasi-intelligence types, apparently believed Barnes' claims of impending Republican dirty tricks.

And Perot was not alone in his gullibility. David Taylor, a reporter and producer for the British Broadcasting Corporation, also fell for Barnes' story. Taylor's zeal to land an exclusive may have caused him to overlook several fundamentals of sound reporting, and inadvertently added credence to Barnes' improbable claims.

At Perot's behest, the Federal Bureau of Investigation also hooked up with Barnes, ultimately launching an investigation that, in retrospect, borders on incompetent.

Caught up in the saga, apparently through no fault of his own, was Jim Oberwetter, right-hand man to Dallas oilman Ray Hunt. At one point, the FBI even asked a lip reader to figure out what Oberwetter was saying on a clandestinely recorded videotape.

Time will tell if Perot stays the course during this election cycle, now that he's officially running again on the Reform Party ticket. His sagging poll numbers--and difficulty in finding a vice presidential candidate willing to share the ticket with him--underscore how Perot's reputation suffered from the antics of his first presidential foray.

The man Perot would eventually come to believe was at the center of a Republican dirty tricks campaign against him was Jim Oberwetter, the chief of the Texas re-election campaign for George Bush.

A prominent executive at Hunt Oil (he worked under Tom Meurer, Perot's friend and former employee), the 47-year-old Oberwetter was a close personal friend of the Bushes and a respected Dallas community leader. He had earned Perot's animus for gentle gibes he made to local papers after Perot's announcement [of his presidential candidacy] on Larry King Live in late February 1992. And at the end of March, he was quoted in The New York Times as saying that Perot's liability in politics would be his inability to "take advice from somebody else."

At a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Washington, D.C., on April 10, Perot was asked about Oberwetter's remark.

"I get confused sometimes with 'bed wetter,'" Perot said. Then, in an unusually personal attack, he charged that Oberwetter was "a former White House staffer [who] got a big-time job down in Dallas, Texas. This is a young guy that probably has trouble buying cat food, he's so inexperienced."

"I told the press the next day," says Oberwetter, "that I hadn't been called that [bed wetter] since grade school. That showed up in the newspapers, and I was told that Perot was hotter than the dickens after he saw that one, because he thought it was a put-down."

A few days later, Oberwetter got his first telephone call from Scott Barnes. "He said he got my number from some reporter," says Oberwetter, "and said he had some material about Mr. Perot involved with POW/MIA things, where Perot had been off base."

Oberwetter put Barnes off, telling him he was not interested. But a couple of days later, Barnes called again and repeated his offer of damaging information about Perot.

Oberwetter says he was "very cautious and careful, and any call from a person I don't know is on a suspect list to begin with." Barnes had left a telephone number, and Oberwetter called it "just to see if it was a ruse. It was some dress shop [Barnes' business, Jessica Lynn's High Country Fashions], and I hung up. Then things got quiet for a while."

Unknown to Oberwetter, Barnes was now calling other Republican officials. In May, he tried to get in touch with Bob Teeter, the national chairman of the Bush-Quayle campaign, and Marlin Fitzwater, Bush's press spokesman. As he did with Oberwetter, Barnes left messages that he had important information to pass along about Perot.

Fitzwater talked to him only once and showed no interest. Teeter, however, asked Terry O'Donnell, a partner at the Washington law firm of Williams & Connolly, to return the call on his behalf. O'Donnell was the former general counsel at the Pentagon. He had also been involved with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund when it had [a] bruising fight with Perot in the early 1980s.

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