From the earliest days of the republic, men who had built fortunes in commerce turned their sights to high political office and to the one prize that money alone could not buy: the White House. In modern times, the presidency has been a hard-sought goal for such scions of wealth as the Roosevelts, Rockefellers, Kennedys and Duponts.
Yet for all of that, there is little precedent for the phenomenon of multibillionaire Ross Perot and the kind of presidential campaign he is threatening to mount. For starters, with assets totaling more than $3 billion, he would be the first modern presidential candidate able to finance such a campaign entirely with his own money.
And, because he is far wealthier than any other man who has ever sought the presidency, candidate Perot poses in unusually pure form the oft-debated question: Do wealthy men make better leaders than less financially secure politicians because they are not dependent upon special interests? Or does their wealth poison them with the arrogance of power and isolate them from the realities of life for average Americans?
"The argument can be made if you buy the office yourself, you are not beholden to anyone," says Stephen Hess, presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution. "Still, there is always something troubling about people who can buy anything they want--including the presidency."
In presenting himself as the one candidate who would end the stalemate of conventional politics over how to deal with the nation's enormous problems, Perot has suggested to voters that his personal wealth frees him from the dependence on special interests that keeps ordinary politicians from acting.
But critics counter that Perot himself, by virtue of his vast corporate holdings, is the embodiment of special interests in the United States.
By his own admission, Perot is poised to spend "whatever it takes"--at least $100 million, and perhaps much more--of his personal fortune to run as an independent candidate in the November election. President Bush, himself a millionaire, and Democrat Bill Clinton will instead rely upon a combination of public funding and private contributions.
In many ways, Perot's candidacy is a throwback to the days of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, when most candidates for president were aristocratic landowners who routinely financed their campaigns with money from their own pockets.
Serving in the presidency proved to be expensive for these early presidents, however, because their small official salaries did not compensate for the loss of income they suffered while in office. As a result, presidents began looking to others to help finance their campaigns.
In those early days, there was no debate among Americans about the virtues of a rich president versus a poor one. Indeed, presidents were expected to be rich. "There never was a wealth test, but there was an assumption that property owners would elect property owners to protect their property," said Don Ritchie, associate historian of the Senate.
As the 19th Century progressed, however, fewer people of great wealth ran for office. Instead, according to Hess, "they either bought politicians, or let their daughters marry politicians." Ulysses S. Grant emerged from the Civil War a hero but financially insecure, and his $150,000 campaign in 1868 is said to have been financed by tycoons such as Jay Cooke, Cornelius Vanderbilt and members of the Astor family.
Still, there were a few modestly wealthy presidents during that period. In fact, Ritchie describes Andrew Jackson, a combative, self-made man, as "the Ross Perot of the 1820s."
It was not until the 20th Century that politics--and particularly the presidency--became a coveted prize for the sons of the nation's business and industrial elite.
As John F. Kennedy's example demonstrates, family wealth proved to be a great asset to political ambition. Of the $912,000 that Kennedy spent to get the Democratic nomination in 1960, $150,000 was said to be family money. In fact, Kennedy's father, Joseph P. Kennedy, was widely quoted as having told his son that he would pay for a victory, but not a landslide.
Yet Vice President Nelson A. Rockefeller, whose personal wealth was put at $182 million in 1974, discovered the limitations of his family money in his lengthy, unsuccessful quest for the White House. Like Kennedy, Rockefeller also solicited contributions from others.
In the early 1970s, immediately following the Watergate scandal, Congress enacted legislation that sought to prevent wealthy people from financing their own presidential campaigns by placing a limit of $50,000 on the amount of money they could spend. The provision was swept away by the Supreme Court, which ruled in the case of Buckley vs. Valeo that political spending by individuals was a Constitutionally protected form of free speech.
As a result, while presidential candidates such as Bush and Clinton who accept public funding are limited to spending $50,000 of their own money, those who do not take money from the Treasury are free to spend whatever they wish on their own campaign.
Until Perot arrived on the scene, no modern candidate had ever tried to run in the general election with his own money. Former Texas Gov. John Connally, who sought the Republican nomination in 1980, is the only candidate who ever attempted to do so in the primaries. He spent about $10 million and elected only one delegate committed to his candidacy.
Yet, surprisingly, even though Congress tried to prevent wealthy people from using their money to gain the presidency, the American people have often looked favorably on rich candidates.
"There's an implicit view of many voters that they can trust a Roosevelt, Rockefeller or Kennedy because they don't think these people will steal their money," said Herbert E. Alexander, professor of political science at USC. "Somebody's who is worth $2 billion or $3 billion, doesn't need to feather his nest."
Perot would not be the first rich candidate to capitalize upon that sentiment. In 1988, Herbert Kohl, multimillionaire owner of the Milwaukee Bucks, was elected to the Senate despite a lack of political experience by suggesting that his enormous wealth would give him independence from special interests. His slogan: "Nobody's senator but yours."
Polls show that Americans see Perot's wealth as evidence of both his independence and leadership ability. Of California voters who are Perot supporters, 27% say they are backing him because he will bring change and 22% because his business experience will help the economy, according to the Los Angeles Times Poll.
In his campaign, Perot is expected to adopt a strategy similar to that used by Kohl in 1988. Already, he is making the argument with voters that his wealth frees him from the burden of fund raising, which preoccupies the other candidates.
But a number of scholars, as well as those seeking reform of the current campaign finance system, argue that Perot is not like other rich men who have held public office--not only because his wealth is so much greater but also because he is a self-made billionaire.
E. Digby Baltzell, a University of Pennsylvania sociologist who has studied the wealth and social class of American presidents, insisted that many of the best ones have been wealthy aristocrats such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Baltzell contended that a self-made billionaire such as Perot has none of the good qualities of a person born into wealth, such as independence, and all of the negative qualities of a poor man seeking to prove himself, including what he termed "paranoia."
Ritchie, the Senate historian, said, "I don't think that rich people are automatically more independent." Throughout American history, he said, many of the most independent politicians were men and women without any money whatsoever.
Likewise, Larry J. Sabato, political science professor at the Universty of Virginia, noted that most people--even most rich people--could not afford to finance their own presidential campaigns. "This is within the reach of only a half dozen people in the country without wiping our their personal wealth," he said.
Because Perot has a multimillion-dollar stake in many sectors of the economy, Sabato said, he would face conflicts of interest as president that other people--even rich people-- would not encounter. "There are clearly interests to which he is beholden," Sabato said.
Ellen Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a bipartisan organization seeking reform of the campaign finance system, suggested that even though Perot may try to claim he represents average Americans, his wealth puts him out of touch with them.
"How can someone who can spent $100 million on a campaign represent himself as a representative of the average American voter?" she asked. "I can't help think that will skew his views on the economy."
But Hess countered that most presidents are out of touch with the voters, no matter how much money they have. "You are going to be out of touch if you have $1 billion like Ross Perot or $4 million like George Bush," he insisted.
Miller, Sabato and others argued that Perot, by promising to spend an unlimited sum to win the presidency, was trying to "buy" the office.
"What makes Perot's potential candidacy credible is money, specifically the $100 million in personal funds he has said he will spend on his campaign," commented Ed Zuckerman, editor and publisher of PACs & Lobbies magazine and a campaign finance gadfly. "If he carries out his plan, he will have made the single largest political contribution in the nation's history."
According to James Squires, Perot's spokesman, the Texas billionaire has never specified how much money he intends to spend in his quest for the presidency, even though he is sometimes inaccurately quoted as saying he would spend $100 million. Squires said Perot will spend whatever sum is necessary to win the election.
During March and April, the first two months after Perot organized a formal campaign organization, he contributed $1.26 million to the campaign.
Although Perot is not soliciting campaign contributions from others, Squires said, many people have been contributing voluntarily. Most of these were in-kind contributions, such as the loan of a car or free duplicating services provided to the campaign.
Squires said that Perot does not intend to cash any contribution check in excess of $5, even though he often receives checks for much larger amounts. In April, his campaign reported receiving 7,900 donations of $5 each.
By accepting $5 donations, experts said, Perot is trying to overcome one advantage that more traditional campaigns have on election day: Contributors are more motivated than other citizens to go to the polls and vote for the candidate of their choice.
Judging from the amount of money that was spent in the 1988 presidential race, Perot will need to spend far more than $100 million to be competitive with Bush and Clinton. In 1988, Bush's campaign had the benefit of GOP spending totaling $93.7 million. Democrats and other groups spent $106.5 million in an unsuccessful effort to elect Michael S. Dukakis.
In the 1992 general election, according to Alexander, total spending by both Bush and Clinton is likely to far exceed the spending in the 1988 race.
Both Bush and Clinton are slated to receive $55.2 million in public funds for their campaign and $10.3 million for their nominating conventions. In addition, both candidates are expected to benefit from more than $50 million in so-called soft-money and in-kind donations from special interest groups.
"If Perot is talking about spending $100 million, it will only make him competitive, it will not give him an advantage," said Alexander. "It's safe to say that Bush and Clinton are each going to easily have $100 million to spend or be spent on their behalf."
Unlike Bush or Clinton, however, Perot will have the ability to control how every dollar of his money is spent. Much of the money spent on behalf of the Democratic and Republican nominees will be under the control of the parties and other organizations.
At the same time, Alexander emphasized, Perot may be forced to spend more than the other candidates to finance a similar race because he will not have a nationwide party apparatus working on his behalf, as Clinton and Bush will.
No matter how much Perot spends, most experts insist that he will not be able to win the election simply by outspending his opponents. "If the public doesn't want Ross Perot," said one scholar, "I don't think you can actually buy an election."