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“I was born rich. Not in tangible things, but rich in the parents I had.”
Ross Perot was born on the hottest day ever recorded in the East Texas town of Texarkana. The thermometer read 117 degrees on June 27, 1930. At least, that’s the way it’s recorded in the archives of the family legend. How else could they explain the iron will and tensile strength of Ross Perot unless he had emerged from a blast furnace?
It was an odd time and odd place to grow up. During the 1930s, Texarkana was split down the middle over the issue of Prohibition. Literally. The border between dry Texas and wet Arkansas ran right through the center of town. On one side of the main street, you could buy hard liquor, and on the other you could obtain undistilled gospel. The cultures broke along roughly the same lines. There was a standoff between the freewheeling cowboys and the tightly bound farmers. The cowboys favored the rowdy sections of town, where they could find bawdy houses with painted women and howl into the night. The farmers and merchants lived in quiet neighborhoods with well-attended churches and modest homes in which no meal was ever served without an accompanying taste of the Bible.
Inevitably, life in Texarkana was etched in sharp contrasts, but then, considering the nature of the people who lived there, the town was a small miracle of coexistence. During the nineteenth century, the delta of Bowie County had been settled by Scotch-Irish immigrants. They were bitter wanderers who had been uprooted from their native Scotland and replanted first in Ireland to act as a buffer between the Irish Catholics and the English landlords. But they were too proud to serve as the king’s pike, and soon waves of immigrants flooded America and tried to take root in the fertile valleys of the East. Although the soil in Virginia and Georgia and Alabama was rich, the ruling class remained hard, and many farms soon fell to unpaid mortgage claims.
The immigrants who couldn’t meet the ruinous terms of their loans lost their acreage and homesteads to the unforgiving banks. They packed up, and the wagon trains moved on to the frontiers of Texas, where the playing field was a flat landscape that ran on forever. This wasn’t the untamed Wild West beyond the Pecos; it was nearer to the shipping lanes of the great navigable rivers and the cotton centers where land was of a comprehensible size and the farms were on a familiar scale. These were self-sufficient individualists who didn’t trust governments or strangers and ran their lives the way they ran their businesses—with narrow margins and adversarial assumptions.
But there was a softening influence, and it came up from the lush bayous of Mississippi and Louisiana. French-speaking traders introduced an engaging merchant style into that cool and somewhat mutinous society. They set up trading posts along the Red River and swapped stories over backyard fences and cracker barrels and sold bolts of cloth to the farmers’ wives while they were at it. Having a joke and a smile in your kit was good business.
In the nineteenth century, Ross Perot’s great-grandfather, weary no doubt of the ordeal of the relentless road, opened a general store in New Boston, Texas, twenty miles west of Texarkana. His son, Ross’s grandfather, Gabriel Elias Perot, took over the same shop and expanded the business to include cotton trading. The business flourished, although it was seasonal and required that a man offer additional merchandising features to fill in during the fallow periods. Breaking horses appealed to the romantic streak in the Perot line, and so they all learned to ride rough.
But each fall, when the crops came in, the farmers would bring their 500-pound bales of cotton to town, and the Perot Merchants and Wholesalers became the middlemen in a demanding and often thankless art. The seeds that would make Ross Perot a merchant prince were planted in those shrewd transactions. He would combine the hard, practical eye of his Scotch-Irish mother, Lulu May, with the sentimental charm of his paternal French ancestry to make an unprecedented business success. It was his grandfather and father who passed along the gift of the middleman—the ability to look at both sides of a transaction and locate the crack of profit. A middleman had to see the exact azimuth of value in things, and he had to be able to judge his customers with a dead-on certainty. There was no room for error. And since the farmers were suspicious by nature and the mill owners thrifty and tough by habit, it took a keen eye and the nerve of a burglar to come out ahead. And it took something else: charm.
Somehow, if you were going to survive in that business, you had to assemble transactions without making one side or the other mad that you earned a profit without the visible sweat of labor.
Calluses may have been few, but the deals were rarely clear-cut or easy. There was the element of risk. The traders had to buy the bales of cotton and speculate on the price they could get from the mill owners or from the foreign mills. They’d go in debt to the banks until the full circle of the deal came around and they realized a profit. A man had to be a speculator—willing to see the wildcatting possibilities in such an enterprise. A man also gained confidence in his judgment when he managed to stay afloat.
Among all the qualities that contributed to his success, Ross Perot’s father was famous for his charm. He regularly drew a circle of listeners around him when he went to the barbershop on a Saturday afternoon. He had a natural gift for seeing the humorous side of life. “He reminded folks of Will Rogers,” recalls his son. “Same kind of dry wit.”
There was one signature story about Gabriel Ross Perot that made him a kind of local legend. It also tells a lot about the prevailing insubordinate frame of mind when it came to “highfalutin’ ” public officials. It began one Saturday when the boys were sitting around the barbershop, shooting the breeze. The subject turned to politicians. That brought out some mischief in the senior Perot, who had a populist disdain for the pomp and rooster style that seemed to go with men in high office. He said that he didn’t think it took much to get elected.
One of his cronies, disagreeing strongly, said that getting elected was a lot harder than it looked. G. R. Perot shook his head, and what’s more, bragged that he could prove his point. He said that if he had a mind to, he could get someone elected to the Arkansas state legislature.
Naturally, that caused a few guffaws from the skeptics. Well, there was only one way to settle such a dispute. The friend offered to wager good money that Perot could not manage to get just anyone elected to state office.
Anyone, boasted Perot.
The friend stuck to a contrary view, and the consensus was with him. You could not just pluck someone off the street and ram him into the state legislature, no matter how puny the general run of legislators.
Yessir, said Perot—and you can even name the candidate, he added for good measure.
“So my dad’s friend picked a crazy man,” recalled the son recently. “He named Sniffer Arnold. Called him Sniffer because he sniffed snuff.”
A bet was a bet, and Perot had to stand by his word that he could elect anyone named by the friend to the legislature. So he launched a campaign.
“My dad took Sniffer down, he bought him a new suit, got him a string tie, took him all over the district, campaigning,” recalled the son. “My dad told me later, he said, ‘Son, the day I knew we were going to win, we were driving down this little country road in an open car. Sniffer Arnold was sitting in the back waving. And as they drove by, someone said, ‘Who’s that?’ And the other fella said, ‘Man, that’s the president.’ At that point, I knew he was going to win.”
After Sniffer had been elected an honorable member of the legislative body, he made a long inaugural speech in the well of the Arkansas legislature praising Gabriel Ross Perot, a man who had the vision to place him in high public office.