As someone who was lucky enough to cover the 1992 presidential campaign -- involving Republican incumbent President George W. Bush, Democratic challenger Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and the independent maverick, Texas billionaire businessman Ross Perot -- from start to finish, allow me to make one semi-important point: Perot was not at all like anybody else who would, allegedly as a billionaire businessman, run for the White House as the GOP nominee -- successfully -- in 2016.
Perot did not have an Ivy League pedigree. After two years at Texarkana Junior College, he won an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis. There he was elected class president and met Goucher College student Margot Birmingham, who would in 1956 marry Lt. J.G. Perot. He fulfilled his four-year commitment to the Navy, and he and Margot were married for the next 63 years.
Let others write about his business acumen, which was considerable and handsomely rewarded. What I choose to emphasize is his public service. At the behest of Texas' then-Gov. Mark White, a Democrat, Perot agreed to lead the reform of Texas' public education. The results were nothing short of spectacular: a limit of 22 pupils per class in the state's elementary schools, state funding for full-day kindergarten and pre-K classes for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Perhaps the most controversial of all in football-crazy Texas was the "no pass, no play" rule, which required passing school grades before any Lone State high school grid star could suit up.
That Perot could be both mercurial and obstinate even his greatest admirers conceded. But in his 1992 independent presidential campaign, Perot changed American history. Think about this: From 1776 to 1980, the United States, after fighting nine wars -- including World War I and II -- and surviving the Great Depression, had run up a total nation debt of $1 trillion. Yet, in just 12 years -- from 1980 to 1992 -- under the leadership of two Republican presidents, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, we saw the national debt quadruple to $4 billion.
Republicans were reluctant to discuss the exploding debt because it happened on their watch. Democrats who were excited about winning the White House -- and the keys to the Treasury -- did not want to talk about austerity. Perot, by the strength of his arguments and the determination of his will, forced the nation and his political opponents to confront the national debt.
The fact that President Clinton, once in office, actually spent his own political capital to dare to raise taxes and to trim spending was a direct tribute to Perot's leadership on the long-ignored issue. That the U.S. under Clinton achieved the unprecedented -- the elimination of the federal budget deficit and the reduction of the national debt -- for three years is obviously a tribute to the Democratic chief executive and his party (there were no Republican votes for the controversial initiative) but very much the legacy of Perot's 1992 presidential campaign, when he won a larger percentage of the popular vote than any third-party candidate since former President Teddy Roosevelt in 1912.
It was a different time when -- rather than would-be leaders just asking, "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" -- there was at least one presidential candidate who dared to ask instead: Are we better off? Are the strong among us more just? Are the weak among us more secure? Thank you, Lt. Perot.
Mark Shields has been on the political playing field since Robert F. Kennedy ran for president in 1968. After years of managing campaigns from the courthouse to the White House, he is now one of the most widely recognized commentators in the United States.