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.