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Why The Bad News Is Good

No matter how the presidential election turns out in November, it’s clear most people will come away from the polls feeling pretty disappointed. From the time the primary season got underway back in January, it was apparent that George Bush had become a highly unpopular president, and that his outgunned veep, Dan Quayle, was held …

No matter how the presidential election turns out in November, it’s clear most people will come away from the polls feeling pretty disappointed. From the time the primary season got underway back in January, it was apparent that George Bush had become a highly unpopular president, and that his outgunned veep, Dan Quayle, was held in low esteem by the majority of the American people, a disdain that cut across party lines. The unpopularity of the incumbents contributed to the initial success of insurgent Pat Buchanan’s campaign, which in turn prompted eccentric billionaire Ross Perot to flirt with entering the race.

At the same time, it was evident that even if Bill Clinton did manage to wrest the nomination of his party from Paul Tsongas, Jerry Brown, Tom Harkin, Bob Kerrey and Doug Wilder, he was going to enter the fall season as a badly bloodied, compromise candidate whose nomination was not going to be a pretext for breaking out the Chateau Margaux. Neither Bush nor Clinton could be plausibly described as a charismatic candidate on the order of FDR, JFK or Ronald Reagan. This circumstance ensures that no matter who wins in November, few voters will emerge from the polls in a euphoric state. The public was fed up with the candidates in January, fed up in April, and fed up in August. And the public will probably have to stay fed up with them straight through November.

But I’m not fed up with them. I’m going to be a happy guy no matter who wins in November, because in my book either Bush or Clinton is a million times more acceptable than Ross Perot. Now, don’t get me wrong; it’s not that I dislike or fear the diminutive cowboy from down yonder. I take my hat off to the feisty little cuss for the way he energized the electorate this year. And I am not one of those paranoids who revile Perot as a wacko, a Peronist, a fascist, a poujadiste, or any of the other nasty epithets that were pinned on the poor guy throughout his quixotic campaign. Nor, for that matter, do I think Ross Perot would have made a bad president. Ross Perot would have been at least as good as Jimmy Carter and probably just as good as George Bush. And no matter how things turned out, he couldn’t have been any worse than Herbert Hoover, Warren G. Harding, Ulysses S. Grant, Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan, Millard Fillmore, or Franklin Pierce. Nobody could be any worse than those guys.

No, what relieves me about Perot’s decision to drop out of the race is its reaffirmation of the national credo that businessmen should stick to business, and politicians should stick to politics. The worst thing that can happen in a society is when people who are really good at one thing start trying their hands at other things. Woody Allen was a really funny guy until he decided to start making depressing movies like Ingmar Bergman. Mark Spitz was a terrific swimmer, but he’s a terrible talk show personality. Ed Koch was one of Gotham‘s finest mayors, but he’s an awful journalist.

But what scared me about Perot was not the possibility that his election would inspire more businessmen to go into politics. What scared me was the thought that his victory would prompt more politicians to go into business. If it were true, as Perot so often claimed, that a tough executive like himself could clean up Capitol Hill by applying the principles of business, then it might also be true that a hard-nosed, successful politician like Mario Cuomo could clean up Wall Street by applying the principles of politics.

The thought is too terrifying to contemplate. Imagine Jerry Brown taking over for Bill Gates at Microsoft and immediately installing a populist compensation plan in which once every two months a gong would go off, and every employee would be forced to exchange wallets with the person sitting next to him. Imagine Illinois Sen. Paul Simon instituting a corporate dress code requiring all employees-male and female-to wear a bow tie. Imagine West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd instituting a dress code requiring all employees to sport a coif of wavy blue hair.

The list of horrors does not stop there. Would Pat Buchanan, with his rigorously xenophobic protectionist platform, be the guy you would want at the helm of a troubled global enterprise like DEC? Is Colorado‘s Pat Schroeder, the congresswoman with the cute little bow ties, the sort of person GM would like to lead it into the 21st century? Would a troubled company such as Chrysler prosper under a wavering, indecisive, Hamlet-like Mario Cuomo? How many firms would prosper under Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, given to such phrases as “Up the Wazoo”? Is Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, the guy who dreamed up the magic bullet theory and terrorized Anita Hill last fall, , the guy you would want to run Bloomingdale’s?

Of course, the most terrifying possibility of all is Dan Quayle. I don’t have any problems with Dan Quayle heading the Council on Competitiveness and secretly rewriting federal regulations regarding the use of the wetlands. I mean, who cares? But I do have problems with Dan Quayle, say, taking over as manager of the Fidelity Magellan Fund and handling $20 billion in assets, some of it mine, every day. I don’t mind Quayle managing my society, but I certainly don’t want him managing my money. That’s why it’s a good thing for America that Perot’s candidacy never got off the ground. What we should all learn from this is the importance of sticking to our knitting, dancing with the one who “brung” us, and staying out of other people’s business. Politicians are dangerous enough when they’re running things on Pennsylvania Avenue. But they’d be a whole lot more dangerous on Wall Street.

A whole lot more dangerous.


Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal.

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.