As Ross Perot goes to his grave, I think back to the summer of 1992 when the Texas billionaire ran for president and came to Maryland, and tried to pull a fast one on everybody.
In other words, Perot, who died July 9 at age 89, tried the same con as every other candidate who runs for national office, then and now.
One night on national TV that summer, a reporter asked Perot a question he didn’t like. So Perot decided to undress the poor guy in public.
“That’s a soundbite question,” he said in that squawky voice of his. “You want an easy, six-second answer, and America needs more than six-second answers.”
I described the moment – and its ironic fallout – in a book I later wrote called “Tonight at Six: A Daily Show Masquerading as TV News.”
A piece of me liked Perot’s answer. Although I didn’t like Perot embarrassing the poor reporter, and I didn’t like him dodging a perfectly legitimate question, he was making us think about soundbites, those tiny little moments snipped, edited and then spliced into the body of some superficial 60-second TV story.
Perot seemed to be saying the issues were too important, and too complex, to treat voters like a bunch of idiots. So on that basis, I gave him a few respect points.
But then came a phone call a few days later from Perot’s Maryland media coordinator, a nice fellow named David Green who was involved in local political circles for a lot of years.
He said Perot was bringing his presidential campaign to Annapolis, and it was going to be “a spectacle.” I was doing my nightly commentaries at WJZ-TV’s “Eyewitness News” back then, and I guess Green thought the word “spectacle” would appeal to TV’s endless hunger for pretty pictures. He mentioned boats in the Annapolis harbor tooting their horns. Big deal. I looked for an excuse to get off the phone.
Then, Green pulled me back.
“I can get you a one-on-one interview with Perot,” he said.
I thought about Perot’s remark from a few nights earlier – about the need to go beyond six-second sound bites, to talk about meaningful issues.
“An interview?” I found myself saying. “Great.”
“Well, we think you’re an important guy to tell the Perot story,” Green said, really piling it on now.
“Thank you,” I said. “How much time can you give me with him?”
“Four minutes,” said Green, quite specifically.
“Four minutes?” I said. “Isn’t that a little brief?”
Green seemed surprised by my response, as though brevity hadn’t crossed his mind. His man was running for the most important job in the world. Who was I to ask for more than four minutes?
“Look,” Green said, “I’ve got four people I want to give one-on-one interviews, but I’ve got to divide up 12 minutes among you. I’m at the mercy of the schedulers from Dallas. I know what you really want. What you really want is, like, half an hour.”
Fat chance. The man who decried soundbite journalism was also living by it. They all do it. They flatter the local media types with access, and then finesse TV news and its severe time limits. You don’t like the question, you duck around it until the clock ticks you out of danger.
What matters is the look of things. For TV reporters, they get to look important enough to talk to a presidential candidate. For the candidate, it’s the wide-audience exposure that counts.
Perot dies now but the practice lives on, even as we enter the newest presidential campaign. Watch for it. If they ever campaign in Maryland, it’s coming to a TV set near you.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, most recently “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).