9 Things You Didn't Know About H. Ross Perot

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Henry Ross Perot isn't a name you hear too often these days, but the 78-year-old Texas businessman is still kicking: He still makes an annual appearance on Forbes 400 Richest list (number 68 this year); he's still as deeply opinionated as he's always been; and his ears still stick out.

And he's still a fascinating American creation, which is why we've complied a short list of things you probably didn't know about H. Ross Perot:

1. He pulled himself up by his cowboy boot straps

H. Ross Perot was born on June 27, 1930, in Texarkana, Texas "“ just west of straddling the line between Arkansas and Texas, hence the name "“ and had his first job about the same time he lost his milk teeth. The soon-to-be billionaire grew up training horses, selling magazines and garden seeds, and delivering newspapers before entering the Naval Academy, where he was twice elected class president. Fast forward a few years, after Naval service and doing time as a salesman in the trenches at IBM, and Perot borrows $1000 from his wife to start Electronic Data Systems Leasing Corporation, or EDS as it's more commonly known, in 1962. Within eight years "“ and after closing in on some lucrative state contracts to computerize Medicare and Medicaid claims "“ that $1000 investment became a multi-billion dollar corporation employing more than 70,000 people.

2. He convinced Ollie North to stay in the Marines

Young Oliver North wanted to work for EDS, but Perot discouraged him from it, saying the promising young officer should stay right were he was, in the Marines. This, of course, may not have been the best career path for young North "“ who ended up a household name at the center of the Iran-Contra scandal.

3. He's hardcore

In 1979, when two EDS employees were kidnapped and held hostage by Iranian revolutionaries, Perot didn't wait around for help to come. The billionaire organized his own storm-the-castle rescue mission with the help of retired Green Beret Colonel Arthur "Bull" Simons.

The rescue mission, which was staffed by EDS employees, was ultimately successful "“ Perot himself walked into the Tehran prison where his men were being held and walked them out.

Ken Follett wrote a book about it, On the Wings of Eagles, which was later turned into a TV miniseries.

This was not the only time Perot would attempt to bankroll a rescue mission into hostile territories "“ this one just happened to be the most successful.

4. He's tough on drugs

Nineteen-seventy-nine was a busy year for Perot: In addition to mounting a commando raid to rescue his employees from Iranian revolutionaries, he was asked by the Texas governor to head up the Texas War on Drugs committee. Which he did pretty effectively "“ the committee proposed five laws to fight drug dealing, all of which were passed by the state legislature and signed into law.

5. He's a speed freak

Perot used to race his son on Lake Texoma "“ him in a Cigarette boat souped up with two $250,000 jet engines, against his son, Ross, Jr., overhead in a helicopter. Fellow boaters reported seeing Perot gripping the steering wheel of Blue Thunder, his boat, his goggles on and doing well over 100 miles an hour.

6. He never did get that heliport

Perot has never been particularly ostentatious with his money, a large chunk of which has long been wrapped up in philanthropic endeavors. While he's always up for spending money for a good cause, having parted with $120 million for inner-city schools and anti-drugs measures within the first few months of his charity's establishment, Perot didn't exactly splash the cash around (except for the horses, the house, and his wife's cars). But sadly, the city of Dallas denied Ross Perot one thing he truly wanted: a heliport for his 22-acre North Dallas manse. The Dallas Plan Commission denied the billionaire's request after his neighbors complained.

7. He's a collector

In 1984, Perot bought a copy of the Magna Carta "“ actually a 1297 copy of the one signed in 1215 by King John at the behest of some pissed off nobles, and defining rights for citizens of British Commonwealth countries for years to come. Perot, through his foundation, bought the document from a British family of gentry for $1.5 million; it had been in their possession since the Middle Ages. He lent it to the National Archives in Washington, DC, where it shared the room with original copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution "“ until 2007, that is. In 2007, the foundation Perot controls abruptly decided to take the Magna Carta back and put it up on the auction block, where it promptly sold for $21.3 million.

8. He hates John McCain

perot-mccain.jpgPerot, who worked with the Nixon administration to figure out ways to help POWs in Vietnam, hates the senator from Arizona and two-time presidential candidate. In January of 2008, just as the primaries were about to hit full stride, Perot made a well-timed call to Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter, blasting McCain for both personal reasons (dumping his wife, Carol, for beer heiress Cindy; calling Perot "nuttier than a fruitcake"), and political (Perot believes McCain hushed up evidence that POWs were left alive in Vietnam).

Alter's conversation with Perot also revealed that the former presidential candidate, like many others in the country, had been duped by email chains claiming that Barack Obama was a Muslim and had refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. At that time, Perot said he'd be voting for former Massachusetts governor and Mormon Mitt Romney in the Texas Republican primary, explaining, "When I went to the Naval Academy and met my first Mormons I asked why so many were excellent officers"¦ I learned it was because of their strong family unit."

9. He's a family man

During an interview on 60 Minutes, Perot claimed that he so abruptly dropped out of the 1992 presidential election to protect his daughter. According to Perot, his daughter Carolyn's wedding was in danger of being disrupted by a nefarious Republican plot to embarrass her with lurid and ostensibly doctored nude photographs. And this same nefarious plot included some sort of disruption of the wedding day itself. And there was this other nefarious plot to tap his phones. Perot had no proof of that either plot existed, but hey, a man can't be too careful with his daughter's happiness, now can he? (It was later discovered that the man who told Perot about the plots actually made it up, in an effort to discredit Bush.)

(For more on the presidential election of 1992, check out our previous post, Secrets of Past Elections: 1992.)

March 6, 2009 - 8:00am
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