When news came Tuesday of Ross Perot’s death at age 89, among the first things that sprang to mind was The Gazette’s surprising 1992 endorsement of his third-party presidential campaign.
A newspaper that had backed Republican presidential hopefuls for decades, with the brief exception of Democrat Lyndon Johnson in 1964, veered from the two-party highway to endorse a Texas billionaire vowing to upend the establishment.
Jerry Elsea, who was editorial page editor in 1992, said The Gazette endorsed President George H.W. Bush in 1988, but became disillusioned with his performance. Elsea hoped the paper would endorse Democrat Bill Clinton that fall.
But he said Joe Hladky III, The Gazette’s president and publisher back then, believed the most important issue facing the county was the mounting national debt. Much was being written at that time about the debt’s impact. It was a big issue on the campaign trail. A debt clock had even been installed at Westdale Mall, counting up the nation’s liability in real time.
“That’s what Perot was all about,” Elsea told me this week.
“I was there in the fall of ‘92 and got a phone call from Joe ... and he said, ‘Jerry, we’re going to endorse Perot.’ Say what? ‘Yeah, and I’ve written the editorial.’” Elsea recalled. “And we ran it. And it drew some attention nationwide. Not too many papers went to Ross Perot.”
“My reflection is he wanted to break the mold of traditional politics and had a no-nonsense approach to doing it,” Hladky said in an email. “Not Republican or Democrat, he put country first in his vision. I knew he wouldn’t win, but he and The Gazette made a statement.”
I found just two other papers that endorsed Perot, the Syracuse Post and the Greensburg (Pa.) Tribune Review, in Perot’s wife Margot’s hometown.
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The Gazette’s endorsement lamented “discord out of Washington,” including “endless bureaucratic squabbling and political gamesmanship.” Perot, we hoped, would “march to a different drumbeat.”
“Rather, he will use the skills he has learned in making his fortune and bring government back to the special interest group that counts most — the people,” The Gazette opined. “Perot, we think, would give this country what most people want, and that’s real change.”
The Gazette did pan Perot’s choice of running mate, Admiral James Stockdale, who seemed out of his depth. We had concerns about Perot’s abrupt departure from the campaign in late summer, but praised his fall comeback. We rejected the notion a Perot vote was a wasted vote.
“We believe people should vote their convictions. And our vote goes to Ross Perot,” the endorsement concluded.
Then came the letters.
“You have gained newfound respect from our house for this bold, and likely controversial, stance,” one reader wrote.
“For shame!” wrote another.
One reader argued our contention Perot will sweep into Washington and make big changes “epitomizes the lack of understanding in how our political systems work.” Some called it “courageous,” while others were “appalled.”
“You have to be kidding, but it’s no joke,” a reader wrote.
Perot got third place nationally and in Iowa. The Gazette went back to endorsing Republicans, until 2016. Faced with another swaggering billionaire on the ballot, we went a different direction.
But this time, the country certainly got plenty of “real change.” And discord. So much discord. Also, about that national debt …
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