Minutes before last Sunday's debate, Ross Perot picked precisely at a loose thread from the left sleeve of his midnight-blue suit. He stood erectly. There was a tiny, crafty smile playing around the corners of his mouth. Ross Perot was the epitome of the self-assured business tycoon backed up by money and power.

The other two men on the platform--President George Bush and Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton--were obviously nervous. They also wore proper blue suits. But they stood there like carefully dressed statues. It was as though they were applying for jobs. When a signal announced the start of the debate, Perot removed his high-style aviator glasses. A friendly producer on the Larry King show had told him weeks before that the glasses make him appear just a tad too severe for a national television audience. Small wonder that Perot oozed confidence. He was the only one of the candidates in the Washington University field house with nothing to lose. What was the worst thing that could happen? If he said the wrong thing, would he drop from five points to four? Get serious. There was only one way Perot's ratings could go.

Everything was in his favor. Looking at the other two, you could sense both Bush and Clinton knew they'd made a severe tactical error by standing on the same stage with Perot. President Bush looked both frozen and angry. His eyes were hard. He was like a veteran actor about to play Captain Queeg in the courtroom scene from The Caine Mutiny.

Clinton's face was locked into one of those surreal grins with which people are caught during office parties or college reunions.

@body:This was Perot's chance to erase the personal disgrace he brought down upon his own shoulders by dropping out of the presidential campaign with such suddenness three months before. All those magazine cover stories labeling him a quitter would be forgotten when this day ended. Perot had been careful to get his hair trimmed tightly around his ears by his personal barber the day before. He has a thing about having his hair at just the right length. The suit he wore was his favorite of his six dark-blue suits. His black shoes were spit-shined to a high gloss. Perot learned that rudimentary grooming technique while an undergraduate at Annapolis. These days, however, Perot does not shine his own shoes.

He was like a middleweight fighter, a long shot, who knows that he must take his foe out in the early rounds before the judges become either bored or bought off. There are those who think Perot's one-liners come off the top of his head. They should not be surprised to know they are all well-rehearsed and that Perot always has perhaps a half-dozen zingers waiting to spring. Only after you have seen him perform a few times do you realize that, like an old vaudeville comic, he keeps working over the same material.

Minutes into the debate, Bush delivered what he must have regarded as a hard left cross, capable of taking at least one of his foes out early. "Clinton thinks this country's coming apart at the seams," Bush said, and there was this hard, strained look around his eyes.

"But this country is not coming apart at the seams, for heaven's sake. We're caught in a global slowdown."
I wondered why he used "for heaven's sake," which is an old drawing-room phrase out of place in this context. But Bush was swinging for the fences, making it sound like treason for anyone to even whisper that the country is in one of the worst recession any of us has ever known.

Bush went on:
"I would hate to think that the only way I could run for president would be to try and convince everybody how horrible things are."
"Mr. Perot," moderator Jim Lehrer said, "a minute response, sir."
Perot had been watching Bush closely. Perot's expression never changed. He looked like Peter Lorre as the villain in one of those old foreign films just before he stepped from the darkened corridor with the revolver in his hand.

We didn't know it, but this was actually going to be the highlight of the event. Everything that followed was downhill.

"Well, they got a point," Perot began. "I don't have any experience at running up a $4 trillion debt."
Laughter rolled over the audience.
"I don't have any experience in gridlock government where nobody takes responsibility for anything and everybody blames everybody else. "I don't have any experience at creating the worst public school system in the industrialized world, the most violent, crime-ridden society in the industrialized world.

"But I do have a lot of experience in getting things done. So if we're at a point in history where we want to stop talking about it and do it, I've got a lot of experience at figuring out how to solve problems and making the solutions work and then moving on to the next one.

"I've got a lot of experience in not taking ten years to solve a ten-minute problem.

"So if it's time for action, I think I've got experience that counts. If it's more time for talk and gridlock and finger-pointing, I'm the wrong man."
There was silence in the hall. Perot had rocked the audience. He was not going to be a mere factor in this debate. It was clear the little man with the Texas drawl had the ability to dominate the event.

The next question was for the president, and it cut directly to the heart of the matter--Bush's attempt to assassinate Clinton's character in the days leading up to the debate.

"Are there important issues of character separating you from these other two men?" asked Lehrer in a tone that sounded almost bored.

"I think the American people should be the judge of that," Bush began. "I think character is a very important question. I was accused the other day of being something like Joe McCarthy because I questioned--I'll put it this way--I think it's wrong to demonstrate against your own country, or organize demonstrations against your own country on foreign soil.

"I just think it's wrong. I--well, maybe they say, 'That was a youthful indiscretion.' I was 19 or 20, flying off an aircraft carrier and that shaped me to be commander in chief of the armed forces. And I'm sorry, but demonstrating--it's not a question of patriotism. It's a question of character and judgment.

"I just find it impossible to understand how an American can demonstrate against his own country--even organizing demonstrations against it--when young men are held prisoner in Hanoi, or kids out of the ghetto were drafted."
You had to notice the strange way Bush pronounced "ghetto," as if it had four ts in it.

"I couldn't do that and I don't think most Americans could do that. Why not admit it? Say I made a terrible mistake.

"How could you be commander in chief of the armed forces and have some kid say when you have to make a tough decision, as I did in Panama or Kuwait, and then have some kid jump up and say, 'I'm not gonna go. The commander in chief was organizing demonstrations halfway around the world during another era.'"
Bush's words were greeted by silence. But the camera had shifted while he spoke. You could see Clinton staring daggers at the president.

Perot was asked to comment.
Perot backed Clinton, pointing out that transgressions committed during a man's youth need not pursue him for the rest of his life. Then he took another blast at Bush.

"When you're a senior official in the federal government, spending billions of dollars in taxpayers' money, and you're a mature individual, then that was on our ticket.

"Believe me, the party's over. It's time for the cleanup crew. We need change. People who never take responsibility for anything. . . ."
Lehrer interrupted. "Your time is up."
Perot grinned: "Your time is up," he parroted.
There was laughter all around the room.
"More later," Perot said, raising his voice above the laughter.

@body:Clinton was next. On his face was a mixture of concern and disappointment. It was, of course, a debater's ploy. But Clinton had prepared himself carefully for this very moment. All week long, political experts had been giving Clinton advice on the morning television news shows about how he must handle this matter. They all advised Clinton to confront Bush directly and stare him down. Now Clinton seemed to be taking this advice to heart. He turned directly to Bush, who turned and stared back. And in his opening phrase, Clinton deliberately referred to Bush as "Mister" and not "President."

"I've got to respond directly to Mr. Bush," Clinton said. "You have questioned my patriotism. You even brought some right-wing congressmen into the White House to plot how to attack me for going to Russia in 1969 when over 50,000 other Americans did.

"Now, I honor your service in World War II. I honor Mr. Perot's service in uniform and the service of every other man and woman who ever served, including Admiral Crowe, who was the chairman of your Joint Chiefs and who's supporting me.

"But when Joe McCarthy went around this country attacking people's patriotism, he was wrong. And a senator from Connecticut named Prescott Bush stood up to him."
Bush's head nodded. He seemed about to interrupt.
"Your father was right to stand up to Joe McCarthy," Clinton added. "You were wrong to attack my patriotism. I was opposed to the war but I love my country, and we need a president who'll bring this country together and not divide it.

"We've had enough division. I want to lead a unified country."
Clinton had his reply down letter perfect. He didn't miss a nuance. His remarks were greeted by a genuine burst of applause from the audience. Clinton had taken his best shot at Bush and appeared--at least for the moment--to have won.

The debate still had more than an hour to go. But it was all downhill from here. Only Perot with his one-liners and Texas drawl kept the people awake. Perot talked not only sense but managed to be entertaining while doing so.

We are left with a serious question. How many voters will gear themselves up to watch the remaining debates? I forgot. Dan Quayle will be in the vice presidential debate. Thank God for small favors.

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Tom Fitzpatrick