WHY ROSS PEROT TALKS THAT WAY
(FORTUNE Magazine) – With Bob Dole's apparent inability to string words into sentences and sentences into paragraphs, and with President Clinton's contrasting and unstoppable fluency in the verbal arts, the presidential race has become a contest between a man who can't talk and one who can't shut up. It is a difficult choice.
There is a third option, of course, as that third option keeps reminding us. Ross Perot possesses his own kind of fluency, a highly advanced gift for metaphor, brevity, colloquialism, imagery, and all the other tools of the talker's trade. Just to take one example, his famous disclaimer "I can't sound-bite it for you" is itself the perfect sound bite, since it conveys, or pretends to convey, contempt for the simple-mindedness of political salesmanship while at the same time exemplifying it. In the presence of Ross we are in the presence of a master.
But where does it come from, this unmatched gift for gab? Listen closely and you'll hear the source: Ross Perot is a man who has immersed himself in the popular literature of American business, the "management" books that groan from the shelves of Borders and Barnes & Noble. This tells us as much about business books as it does about Ross Perot, and the news is not good.
Perot's success as a businessman has always been the origin of his appeal as a politician--a self-made fortune of $3 billion or so tends to command respect. "If you ran your business this way," he says, averting his eyes from the sloppy sausagemaking on Capitol Hill, "you would go broke in the first year." His diagnosis? "Thoughtful, rational analysis and problem solving is not part of the legislative process." His cure? "The problem-solving process is the solution."
Translation? "To solve problems, you must solve problems." In Perot's world, as in the literature of American business, this passes for a fundamental principle. In the real world, it is called a tautology. Flip open one of the most successful management bibles of recent years, Stephen Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and the tautologies leap out like sprites. Habit 2 is "Begin with the end in mind." Translation: When you set out to accomplish something, set out to accomplish something. Habit 3: "Put first things first"--or, as a sane person might say, what you set as your priority should be your priority. Can I get an amen?
Perot devoted an entire infomercial in early September to explaining the "problem-solving process" he will institute when he takes charge in January. Business-book authors always employ diagrammatic lingo--the "decision-making box," the "leadership triangle," the "upward spiral of growth"--to create the illusion that they are describing something that actually exists. Perot's "process" is a "prism" with seven "steps" (his gift for metaphor fails him here, and before you know it, the steps of his prism are building walls and flying through wind tunnels). He defines the problem; he creates a blueprint for change; he analyzes all the options; he tests, debugs, and optimizes; he pilot-tests; he stays flexible and dynamic; and on the seventh step, he doth implement.
Business-book writers love to invent verbs. Imagine Covey and his thousands of imitators going green with envy: debug, optimize, pilot-test? Man! On his infomercials Perot himself looks awfully pleased. After explaining his "process" for fiscal policy he announces: "Now we have really put discipline back into federal spending." Of course, he has done no such thing. He has merely constructed an elaborate abstraction that leaves the real processes of politics untouched. Again he is being faithful to his roots. For business books never tell you--never can tell you--what to do. They can merely distract you from actually doing it.
Hence their great appeal, and Perot's as well. A successful management book allows you to think you're taking action when in fact you're just...well, reading a book. Reporters get irritated with Perot because he never says what he would do as President--never says what policy would result from the "problem-solving process." Ask him a question rooted in the unforgiving world of plausible policy choices, and you'll get an answer like this one on affirmative action: "I feel very strongly that we need to reengineer and redefine the affirmative-action process...Let's keep it dynamic through changing times." Now that's a dynamic answer--so dynamic it won't hold still long enough for you to figure it out.
It's only natural that Ross Perot should import the language of pop business books into politics. He's a businessman, after all. But the affinity runs deeper. Business books are books for people unnerved by business, and Perot is the politician for people unnerved by politics. To borrow a pair of sound bites from the master: It's just that simple--and isn't that sad?