A tale of two Texans

Molly Ivins — Lord, we miss her so! — liked Ross Perot.

Ross admired Molly, too. Even when he disagreed or was dumbfounded by what she wrote about him.

Ivins, the late, truly great Texas reporter and columnist, said she got a kick out of Perot, the bantam-sized billionaire who ran for president in 1992, when he briefly led in the race, and 1996. He knew how to laugh, and that is a highly valuable asset in life, business and politics.

Perot’s death at 89 on July 9 stirred memories of him. He deserves to be remembered for his business success, patriotism and his concern for his country when he could have retired to golf courses and ocean-side villas.

Ivins wrote about Perot before and after his presidential races, and entertained many an audience with stories about him, told in her sly Texas drawl. Go to YouTube and you can find numerous examples.

I was blessed to hear perhaps her favorite Perot tale in person, when Ivins spent a day in South Dakota about 25 years ago. I covered a morning press conference in Sioux Falls, attended her speech at South Dakota State University in Brookings that night and met her for a few drinks at a hotel bar that evening.

A political science professor and some of his students joined us, and I was surprised that Ivins, a famous writer and speaker who had appeared on TV talk shows, where she entertained hosts and the audience, was a bit shy. I had been reading her delightful and insightful prose since the 1980s, when I was a reporter in Texas, and knew her greatest hits.

Once prompted, and perhaps bolstered by a drink or two, she launched into her best stories.

She once in a Dallas Morning News column that Perot made $1 million a year, and was taken aback the next time when a call from the business staff told her that they were gasping in laughter. Perot, they told her, made $1 million a day!

A few minutes later, her phone rang again. It was a collect call — from H. Ross Perot. He was laughing as they spoke, or cackling in his distinct way. 

Ivins told us that night in Brookings — and said publicly many times — that she liked Perot. Still, she feared what a businessman, used to getting his way all the time, might do in politics. The dealmaking, compromise and willingness to accept half a loaf instead of walking away without even a crust of bread might be too much for them to adapt to, Ivins wrote.

Like Ivins, I first learned about Perot in Texas. He was in charge of a reform panel trying to improve the state’s schools. Ivins wrote that the schoolkids should be protected from a man with a mind “a half-inch thick.”

Of course, Perot called her. As she prepared for him to shout and threaten a libel suit, she instead heard his cackle. His friends, he told her, said it was only a quarter-inch thick.

But it turned out, Perot was ready to fight thick and thin to improve Texas schools. His group came up with plans to reduce class size, increase preschool programs, providing more classroom materials for teachers and focusing more time, attention and money on poor kids would bolster the schools.

Most controversially, Perot advocated a “no pass-no play” policy for high school athletes, especially football. Since that is a state religion in Texas, tempers flared. I was covering Texas schools and high school football then, so I heard more than a few comments about that “@*$&#§! Ross Perot.”

But as Ivins wrote, she admired that he fought for schools and kids. In print, she teased that he must be a communist, since who else would attack fight school football in Texas? That drew another phone call, with Perot saying, as he laughed, that he had been called a lot of things, but that was a first.

“I like him,” Ivins said in an interview, a statement that may have surprised both of them.

I did, too, and almost voted for Perot in 1992. He was leading both President George H.W. Bush, a fellow Texan and the Republican candidate, and Democratic candidate Bill Clinton for a short time early in the race, but then announced that the Democrats appeared to have stabilized themselves, so he was dropping out.

Perot changed his mind that fall and jumped back in. But the excitement, and the public’s fascination with “Ross for Boss,” was over. He finished a distant third with 19% and did not collect a single Electoral College vote.

His 1996 race was a weak echo of his first campaign, and Perot left politics to return to business and philanthropy. He was perfect for Texas, a little guy with big ideas and a large sense of humor. Ivins also remained in the Lone Star State until she died in 2007.

She is being remembered in a new documentary as well as in a stage play and a biography. All include a few stories on Molly and Ross, a pair of Texans who brought ideas, energy and laughter to the public arena. 

We could use all of that now.

South Dakota native Tom Lawrence, a former Pioneer executive editor, has written about the state, its politics and people since 1978. Read his blog Prairie Perspective at http://sdprairie.blogspot.com/ and follow him on Twitter at @TLCF26.

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