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.
"I did not know anything about Barnes when I called," says O'Donnell. "We had a long conversation. He said he wanted to be helpful to the Bush campaign and that he knew things about POW issues and Ross Perot. He mentioned Richard Armitage and said that he had information that Bush was going to be ambushed on CNN over an issue with Armitage. But the more I probed, the less reliable I thought he was. By the end of the conversation, I was convinced this fellow was a waste of time, and I closed the book on the matter."
But Barnes, ever persistent, called O'Donnell several more times, sometimes catching him answering his phone directly. Once he left a message--"Urgent"--and O'Donnell returned the call, only to find the conversation was again useless.
"I could not figure out what he was doing at the time," recalls O'Donnell. "It was apparent to me that he was playing a game, and I didn't know what his game was, but I knew I wanted nothing to do with it."
Barnes was also tenacious enough to get through to David Tell, the Republican director of opposition research. Tell says that he expressed no interest in Barnes' information.
Barnes did not tell [BBCreporter] David Taylor about his conversations with Republican officials until late April. However, in Barnes' version, the Republicans had called him. Oberwetter was the first, he said. Barnes claimed they wanted compromising information about Perot and asked him to tell them what he knew about Perot and POWs and MIAs.
Barnes recalls that Taylor was "very excited" by this news, and told Barnes that Oberwetter "was Bush's No. 1 man and Perot's No. 1 enemy." Taylor, of course, personally knew of the bad blood between Perot and Bush over the POW issue. He knew that U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey was planning a special hearing during the summer about POWs and MIAs, and that Perot was one of the invited witnesses.
Taylor hypothesized that since Perot had access to many of the government's classified documents about the POW issue, he might have collected information that could embarrass Bush and other top administration officials. Therefore, when Barnes told him that Republican officials were seeking damaging information about Perot, it made sense to Taylor. The Republicans might go to extraordinary lengths, Taylor thought, to discover what explosive information Perot had and what he might disclose at the upcoming Kerrey hearings.
By early May, Taylor had convinced the BBC to let him interview Perot as part of a segment for the evening newscasts. Because of his conversations with Barnes, Taylor also thought this simple news interview could expand into an explosive story.
In mid-May, Perot met with Taylor for his BBC interview. For the first time, Perot learned of Barnes' charges about the Republicans. That trip also gave Taylor an opportunity to verify whether Barnes' primary claim--that he was talking to Jim Oberwetter--was true.
Taylor had arranged an interview with Oberwetter by claiming that he was doing a general documentary about the American presidential race. He then told Barnes to call Oberwetter during that interview so that Taylor could film Oberwetter's reaction.
When Taylor arrived at the Hunt Oil offices for his May 13 meeting, he was kept in the reception area for a few minutes and then taken by a receptionist to Oberwetter's office. As Taylor and his film crew neared the office, he heard the last seconds of a conversation.
"I can't talk," said Oberwetter. "I have British television outside."
During the interview, Barnes did not call. Afterward, Taylor called him and asked why not. "I did call, and you were there, weren't you?" Barnes told him. "How did you know I was there?" Taylor asked. Barnes responded, "Well, he told me you were outside."
"I was surprised," says Taylor, "that the head of the Republican campaign was talking to Barnes about anything."
Taylor and Perot thought that snippet of a conversation confirmed Barnes' claim that he was regularly talking with Oberwetter and other Republican officials. Barnes added to the allure by suggesting that he had called Oberwetter on a private number (he had not, and Taylor did not check the existence of such a number). Moreover, if either Taylor or Perot had asked Barnes for his telephone bill, they would have discovered that Barnes' May 13 call, at 11:10 in the morning in Dallas (just as Taylor walked into the office), lasted less than one minute. It was also the only call from Barnes to Oberwetter's office that month.
During the next several weeks, Barnes and Taylor continued speaking by telephone. In early June, Barnes said he was in touch with more important Republicans, including Bob Teeter (Barnes did reach Teeter, briefly, one time). Although he only had Barnes' word for the calls, Taylor was impressed. "He was no longer talking to flunkies," says Taylor. "If I can't get through to Bob Teeter, what on earth is Scott Barnes doing getting through to Teeter?...What the hell was going on?"
The Democratic convention started on Monday, July 13, and Taylor covered it for the BBC. During the next three days, he received several telephone messages at his hotel from Barnes. He was too busy to return the calls. Perot later told 60 Minutes that it was during those three days that he received a "call from a person who I respect who said that there was a plan to have a computer-created false photo of my daughter Carolyn that they were going to give the press shortly before her wedding to embarrass her."
Perot was undoubtedly referring to Scott Barnes. At the time, Barnes claimed that two Republicans (one of whom he identified as a staff assistant in opposition research, Joe Deoudes) had shown him 35 fake photos of two of Perot's daughters, Carolyn and Nancy, each in compromising lesbian-related situations. Many of the pictures were, Barnes contended, set in the parking lot of a country club frequented by the Perot family. When Barnes was unable to reach Taylor, he telephoned Perot's office and passed the information to one of his secretaries.
On Thursday, July 16, Perot dropped out of the presidential race.
Taylor did not return Barnes' calls until Sunday, July 19. That was the first time he learned about the photos.
Barnes now, incredibly, admits that no such pictures existed and that he concocted the story. But he insists he did so on explicit instructions from Perot himself, so that Perot would have an excuse for his withdrawal from the race. It is hard to imagine, though, that Perot, so concerned about the privacy and security of his family, would encourage anyone to circulate such a story.
It is likely that both Perot and Taylor believed the pictures existed, although they never asked to see copies.
Yet Perot gave 60 Minutes a second reason for his withdrawal. "I received multiple reports that there was a plan...to actually have people in the church at the wedding to disrupt her wedding."
At the time he dropped out of the race, Perot told several close associates about his fear that the Republicans would disrupt his daughter's wedding. But both Barnes and Taylor insist they were not the source of that story. "The wedding allegation is strictly from Ross," says Barnes. "The first time I heard about the wedding was on 60 Minutes. It did not come from me."
"You see," says Taylor, "Barnes never mentioned the wedding to me at all. I know he made no reference to the wedding, because when I heard Perot say it on 60 Minutes, my first reaction was, 'Well, I wonder where he got that from?'" Perot refuses to identify any sources.
Although Perot was out of the race, Barnes was not finished with his rather startling tales. When he spoke to Taylor on Sunday, July 19, in addition to telling him about the alleged photos, he revealed that the Republicans wanted him to gain access to Perot's office in order to wiretap certain phones. To support his tale, he produced a floor plan of Perot's Dallas office, together with several telephone numbers, and faxed them to Taylor (who, in turn, sent a copy to Perot). His new assignment, he claimed, was to get enough information to ensure that Perot did not re-enter the race. (Like the story of the composite photo, Barnes now insists that Perot had given him the floor plan, as well as the list of telephone numbers.)
Perot did not initially believe Barnes' latest story, since he did not recognize the telephone numbers. "Then I went back to the telephone switchboard," recalls Perot, "and the lady said, 'Those are for your financial matters.' This guy [Barnes] had things that some guy who was broke in Arizona couldn't get." Some of the numbers were direct lines Perot used to call his children.
In late July, Barnes told Taylor that he had traveled to Mexico at the request of the Republicans and there had met two unidentified men who offered $150,000 to wiretap Perot's office. (Actually, he had gone to Mexico for a friend's bachelor party.)
He soon called Taylor and played a tape of a conversation in which an unidentified man asked him to bug Perot's phone lines and warned him "to keep your mouth shut."
Perot received a copy of that tape the next day, courtesy of Taylor. After playing it, he called Taylor.
"David, I just listened to this thing. What do you make of it?"
"I don't know," Taylor said. "What about that telephone number?"
"Well, that is a number in my system. I am going to talk to someone called Jim Siano, and he is going to be contacting you."
James Siano was a former FBI agent (he had been in charge of counterintelligence at the Dallas office) who had done some private investigative work for Perot. Perot hoped Siano might be able to make sense of Barnes' allegations.
Perot sent Siano to visit Taylor at his home in Leesburg, Virginia, on Sunday, August 2. They talked on Taylor's rear porch for nearly five hours. "He [Taylor] had checked all this out," recalls Siano. "And as far as he was concerned, there was a lot of credence to this."
Perot had left for a vacation in Bermuda, but he spoke to Siano by telephone. They debated, says Siano, whether "Barnes and Taylor could be working together on something."
But Perot insisted that these were strong allegations that should be pursued. When Siano suggested taking the matter to the FBI, Perot resisted, evidently concerned because the agent in charge of the Dallas FBI office, Oliver "Buck" Revell, had been responsible for the FBI investigation that had resulted in a complete exoneration of Richard Armitage. Instead, Perot directed Siano to the Dallas police, and personally arranged an appointment for him with the chief of police, Bill Rathburn.
Meanwhile, Barnes was busy in Arizona. He told David Taylor that his Republican contacts were about to provide him with bugging equipment, a prepaid ticket to Dallas, and a hotel room near Perot's office. As a result, Taylor, with a cameraman in tow, planned to fly from Washington to Phoenix on Tuesday, August 4. There he would rendezvous with Barnes and follow him to Texas, planning to film him for his BBC documentary.
Barnes now admits that he drove to Phoenix (an hour from his home in Prescott), before Taylor arrived in Arizona, and picked up a box containing surveillance equipment at an electronics store on Bethany Home Boulevard. He then proceeded to Phoenix's airport, Sky Harbor, and placed the box in a rented locker.
However, when Taylor arrived, Barnes lied, telling him instead that his Republican contacts had given him the number of a locker at Sky Harbor. With Taylor watching (and filming clandestinely when in public places), Barnes opened the locker and retrieved the box. Taylor later videotaped the surveillance equipment (he thought it unusual that "there was a diagram inside the box of how to put all the equipment together, with a little line on the bottom that said 'Batteries Not Provided'"). That same evening, Taylor also filmed Barnes picking up a first-class ticket from the Continental Airlines desk.
Earlier that same day, in Dallas, James Siano kept the appointment with Chief Rathburn that Perot had made. Rathburn asked two of the department's top officers--Captain Rudy Diaz, executive assistant chief, and Captain Eddie Walt, commander of special investigations and intelligence--to join him.
Siano told them Perot had vetoed the idea of going to the FBI, since "George Bush would know about it in 15 minutes." He said that the Bush re-election committee was trying to tap Perot's phones to get incriminating information in case he decided to run again for president. After urging the police to undertake an investigation, Siano said that Perot had authorized him to offer financial and technical assistance if the investigation proved too costly or complex.
Very quickly, however, the three police officials agreed that the case was beyond their jurisdiction, and they declined to pursue it.
"It was a given that we would incur Perot's wrath for saying no," says Walt. The same day the police said no, Perot sent Siano to the FBI. There Siano met with his former colleagues at the Dallas office. Buck Revell listened as Siano again made his presentation. The difference between the FBI starting the investigation or not was the involvement of David Taylor.
"Taylor's work and confidence in Barnes put it over the top for us," says Revell. "It would have been very unlikely that we would have gone ahead with Barnes alone." Late on the afternoon of August 4, he gave the go-ahead for an undercover agent, using the alias George Allen, to be present when Siano met Taylor and Barnes. Perot would stay informed of developments through Siano.
On August 5, Barnes and Taylor flew into Dallas on a Continental flight from Phoenix. Upon arriving, Barnes tried to check into the Sheraton Park Central, but his reservation had been moved to the nearby Marriott, across from Perot's office. The hotel had been prepaid, and Barnes did not receive a bill.
That night at 8 o'clock, Siano, FBI agent Allen, and Barnes and Taylor met in a room rented by the FBI at the Sheraton. Siano introduced Allen as a telephone engineer hired by Perot to assess the bugging equipment Barnes had brought from Phoenix.
Barnes announced that he had a meeting set with Jim Oberwetter for the next day, and that he would offer Oberwetter a chance to buy nonexistent audio tapes (Barnes actually just intended to show up at his office and try to talk his way into a meeting). To bolster Barnes' credibility with Oberwetter, Perot had decided to cooperate with an FBI request that he tape several innocuous telephone conversations with some business colleagues. These would be supplied to Oberwetter as "proof" that Barnes had successfully installed telephone taps on Perot's phone lines.
For Taylor this was an unexpected opportunity. He wanted to film any Barnes and Oberwetter meeting. "I remember the FBI finally said that Oberwetter would have to come outside into the plaza, and that was great for me," recalls Taylor, "since I could not go into the building because there was an expectation of privacy inside." The FBI raised no objection to Taylor's filming the undercover sting.
At 6 a.m. on Thursday, August 6, Perot taped several short conversations with associates. Perot then had Siano take the tapes to the FBI. George Allen, the FBI agent, then brought them to the Sheraton, where he met with Taylor and Barnes.
Although he had time to play the recordings for them, the bureau later claimed there was no time to wire Barnes for his meeting with Oberwetter. As a result, it would have to rely on only Scott Barnes' recollection of what was said. Nor had the bureau, at this stage of the investigation, finished a complete background check on Barnes (on whom it has a large file), identified the two men who met Barnes in Mexico, found the source of the money for his airfare or hotel, or located the source of the surveillance equipment he had picked up in Phoenix.
Jim Oberwetter was in the midst of a difficult campaign in Texas for George Bush. Now that Ross Perot had withdrawn from the race, it would be easier for Bush to carry his home state against Clinton. On Thursday, August 6, Scott Barnes was one of the last people on his mind. He had not heard from him since the two conversations in April.
Around 3:30 p.m., a man identifying himself as Howard Parsons appeared at the reception desk on Oberwetter's floor at Hunt Oil in downtown Dallas. He said he was from the Bush national campaign headquarters and did not have an appointment. Oberwetter checked his calendar, saw he was not expecting a visitor, and then tried for the next half-hour to reach someone in Washington who knew the unexpected Mr. Parsons. He did not reach anyone who could answer his question. Soon, the receptionist again called Oberwetter. "He's acting awfully nervous. Would you kindly come and get him?" Oberwetter went to meet his visitor, not knowing that "Howard Parsons" was actually Scott Barnes.
"I have some very important political information for you," Barnes said.
"OK, I will bite," answered Oberwetter. "What is it?"
But Barnes would not tell him in the reception area, suggesting they go elsewhere. When Oberwetter started to walk toward his office, Barnes said he would also feel uncomfortable speaking there and instead wanted to go outside. Oberwetter hesitated, but then agreed.
Outside the skyscraper, there is a landscaped garden with a reflecting pool, running water, and several benches. They sat on the bench closest to the building. Oberwetter was so nervous that when he saw a woman fiddling with a pack of cigarettes, he wondered if the pack hid a tiny camera. "I then thought this might be a setup," recalls Oberwetter, "but I didn't know for what."
Taylor's crew filmed the entire meeting. (The FBI later unsuccessfully tried to have someone read the lips of Barnes and Oberwetter from the video.) An FBI agent parked in a car half a block away took still photographs of the meeting with a 300mm telephoto lens.
Barnes told Oberwetter that he had brought wiretap recordings of Ross Perot discussing his upcoming testimony before the Senate Select Committee on POWs/MIAs and that it was explosive. Although the offer sounded vaguely familiar, Oberwetter did not immediately connect it to his April conversations with Barnes. "I am not interested in anything you have," said Oberwetter. "Perot is out of the race."
"Well, he might get back in."
"He's going to do whatever he does whether I take what you've got or not. I don't want what you have."
"But you don't know how good it is unless you hear it," urged Barnes.
After 18 minutes of fending off Barnes' solicitations, Oberwetter had had enough. He stood up, and the two of them shook hands.
Barnes asked Oberwetter a final question. "Is there anyone I can give this information to?"
"Yes. Give it to the editors at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. They don't like Mr. Perot there. Mr. Perot has a picture of one of their reporters in a compromising position with someone from City Hall, and they have written about that. So take it to them."
With no one to challenge his version of events, Barnes told the FBI that Oberwetter did not want to buy the Perot tapes before first consulting directly with President Bush.
When Perot learned of the meeting between Oberwetter and Barnes, he saw it as further evidence that the Republicans were involved in dirty tricks against him. He called Buck Revell to find out what the FBI intended to do next. At FBI headquarters in Washington, urgent meetings were convened between senior FBI and Justice Department officials. The unanimous conclusion was that while Barnes' credibility was "questionable," the fact that Oberwetter met with Barnes, coupled with Taylor's "corroboration," provided enough justification to proceed further.
In the Dallas office, there was no hesitation whatsoever. "Everyone thought it was the next Watergate, and were all caught up in it," says an FBI official close to the case. Perot was informed of all the developments that night.
On Friday evening, August 7, George Allen called Barnes, who had returned home to Arizona, and asked him if he had spoken further with Oberwetter. Barnes surprised Allen by saying that he no longer wanted to be involved, and provided no explanation.
While the bureau's official position is that Perot did not know about, or influence, its next move, he did show an inordinate interest in the investigation. Perot called on Saturday, says a senior FBI source in the Dallas office, and was patched through to Buck Revell's house by the weekend duty agent. Later, he spoke to Stephen Largent, the supervisor of the Public Corruption Squad, as well as case agents John Kubinsky and Henry Garcia. Kubinsky got so tired of Perot's calls that he stopped returning them.
Revell and the FBI leadership in Washington had given a go-ahead to the undercover agent, George Allen, to make a final attempt at ensnaring Oberwetter. That same day, Allen proceeded to Oberwetter's office. Disguised as a cowboy and wearing a 10-gallon hat and flashy ostrich boots, he used the name Bob Watson. Shortly after 5 p.m., Kim, Oberwetter's receptionist, called him and said, "Jim, there is another one out here. No appointment, but he is insistent to see you."
This time, Oberwetter asked Hunt Oil's security chief, Wilbur Rainey, to accompany him when he went to the reception area. When Oberwetter told the visitor (whom he later referred to as "Cowboy Bob") that he would talk to him right there in the lounge, Allen said he would rather go someplace else.
"'My God,' I thought," says Oberwetter. "'This can't be happening again.'" Oberwetter took Rainey and Allen to a side office. The FBI agent was wired, and what follows is based on that transcript.
Cowboy Bob told Oberwetter that he was "an associate of Mr. Scott Barnes," and he then opened his briefcase and produced a tape that he said was a recording of a Perot conversation from a tap on his phone lines.
"I was hired to do this," said the undercover agent, "and it was my understanding from Mr. Barnes that you wanted him to do this." Oberwetter denied it, and when told that Joe Deoudes, a worker on the Republican opposition research committee, had wanted the tapes, Oberwetter said, "They would never ask somebody to do what you have suggested [emphasis in original transcript]."
Cowboy Bob seemed confused, expecting that Oberwetter would be happy to receive the tapes. "Do you want to receive this tape or anything like this?" he asked, somewhat quizzically.
"Of course not," Oberwetter told him firmly. Then Oberwetter became more aggressive, telling the undercover agent, "I'm serving as chairman of the president's campaign in Texas, and I smell an effort to embarrass the president and to ruin me, and that means lawsuits....There is mischief afoot."
The FBI was stunned that Oberwetter did not want the tapes. The bureau had completely accepted Barnes' tale that the Republicans, and especially Oberwetter, were anxiously awaiting wiretapped conversations of Perot. Now they realized Barnes' story was false. "By the end of that day," says an FBI official in the Dallas office, "there was already finger-pointing going on."
Belatedly, the following day the FBI decided to try and get to the bottom of the story. By this time, Buck Revell thought that, in addition to Barnes, Taylor "was culpable. I believe that he knew the story was false when he came to us."
The FBI sent agents, identifying themselves as such, to interview Oberwetter, Barnes, and Taylor. Barnes stuck to his same story--that the Republicans had recruited him to wiretap Perot's phones and that he was not sure why Oberwetter had refused the tapes at the last minute. During his interview, Barnes received a frantic phone call from David Taylor, who was nervous because two FBI agents were at his Washington office. When he hung up the phone, Barnes turned around to the two agents and asked, "Any guarantee of immunity?" They said no.
To Ross Perot, the collapse of the FBI investigation was a great disappointment. He had dropped out of the race, ready to pin it on Republican dirty tricks, and was confident that Barnes and Taylor had kicked off an inquiry that would lead to arrests, indictments, and public humiliation for those who had conspired against him.
The FBI came to the conclusion that it had been had by Barnes, but Perot remained convinced that the Republican dirty tricksters had merely escaped detection. In a few months, he would try to personally expose them on 60 Minutes, in the court of public opinion.
But the interview did not turn out as Perot hoped. It was confrontational. 60 Minutes had been unable to find any corroboration for a Republican plot. On camera, Buck Revell acknowledged that the bureau's investigation had uncovered no evidence of dirty tricks. When correspondent Leslie Stahl confronted Perot with that statement, he claimed it was the first time he had ever heard that conclusion, and said, "We've got a squirrely situation in the FBI if that happened. Sounds like it's politics to me. [The FBI] can't talk to me, but they talk to 60 Minutes. Don't you find that interesting?"
The public reaction to the show was bad. Polls showed that many thought it revealed a tendency for Perot to draw conclusions before he had all the evidence, and it revived unfavorable images of his bent for conspiracy theories.
The press had a new story and relentlessly pursued it, not allowing Perot to get back to his core issue, the deficit. The day following the 60 Minutes broadcast, Orson Swindle, Clay Mulford, Sharon Holman, and Ross Perot Jr. tried to handle a flurry of questions about the incident at a packed press conference. Suddenly Perot, who had been listening to the news conference on his car radio while driving to work, arrived, angry at the sharp questions being asked of his son.
"Black Sunday was followed by blacker Monday," recalls Swindle. "I was at the podium answering questions. Some reporter said, 'Well, what does Mr. Perot think of that?' And I said, 'I don't know, I will ask him.' Somebody else said, 'Why don't you ask him, he's over there.' I had the damnedest look on my face. I thought, 'Oh my God,' and he just walked into the room and right up to the microphone. It was like he walked into a trap. The press nipped at him and he responded in kind, and he didn't look presidential. It was catastrophic."
The 60 Minutes episode stopped Perot's momentum dead in its tracks. Within five days, his rating in one poll had flip-flopped from a positive 56-34 to a negative 44-46. Not even a series of public rallies turned the tide.
Still, on Election Day--Tuesday, November 3--Perot's $65 million campaign paid off in 19 percent of the vote. It was the best finish by an independent candidate in a presidential election since Teddy Roosevelt's in 1912.
Perot's vote totals were remarkably consistent in all 50 states, especially considering that he had campaigned personally in only a few. He pulled more than 20 percent of the vote in 31 states, and over a quarter of the electorate in nine. Moreover, exit polls showed that 40 percent of the electorate would have voted for Perot if they had thought he had a chance to win.
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"That means he could have won," says third-party expert and pollster Gordon Black. "And that is the only question of the exit poll that the four networks did not report on election night."
Largely because of that, Perot is convinced he could have won. "The Republicans elected Clinton in '92 by a nonstop propaganda campaign, saying, 'Don't waste your vote on Perot'...People were talked out of their vote."
As the election results came in, Perot held a party as unconventional as his campaign. The lasting image was of a smiling Perot, dancing with Margot to the tune of Patsy Cline's "Crazy."
"That was their [the Republicans and Democrats] central theme," says Perot with a twinkle in his eye, "that I was crazy. But the thing that drove them crazy was when I took that as my theme song. The devil made me do it.