When a famous person dies, it is now de rigueur for all of us to rush to our phones or our laptops to immediately offer an assessment of that person -- preferably one that fits neatly into 280 characters. Or maybe an animated .gif or two.
But the passing of H. Ross Perot offers an excellent case study in why that's a really bad idea. It has been 27 years since Perot was at the center of America's goldfish-like national attention span. Yet almost anything most people remember of him is comprised either of hazy memories of his 30-minute infomercials (complete with pointers and pie charts), a vague recollection of his hasty exit from (and re-entry into) the 1992 Presidential race, or one of Dana Carvey's brilliant impressions ("Can I finish? Can I finish?")
Our impressions of almost everything else from 27 years ago have probably been colored by subsequent events; so why aren't we honest about the fact that our impressions of a famous person are equally tempered by time?
Perot's story deserves to be considered in at least three parts. First is his success as an entrepreneur, prior to the 1992 election. Perot was disciplined, whip-smart, and shrewd enough to have timed the sale of his business to extract a massive $2.5 billion (in 1984 dollars) from General Motors. This was the Perot of a high-tech startup, the Perot of the rescue mission to Iran, the Perot of a headline-making battle with a sclerotic automaker that was synonymous with big business in America.
And then there is the Perot of the 1992 election: A man who thrust topics like the Federal budget deficit into the spotlight -- but who also made grave-but-wrong forecasts about issues like NAFTA. His folksy style made his messages easy to digest, but the aphorisms weren't always delivered in service of the truth. He shook up the election like no third-party or independent candidate had done for three generations, but in the end he won not a single vote in the Electoral College.
After 1992, however, thinking he had tapped into something permanent, Perot acted as godfather to the Reform Party (circa 1995), which ultimately nominated Perot for President in 1996 -- and Pat Buchanan in 2000. Today, the Reform Party has no meaningful national presence and a total of eight officeholders (a count that includes one water-district trustee).
Was Perot's 1992 bid for the Presidency a moral crusade? A vanity project? A meaningful way to move the needle on national issues? An urge of pure patriotism? Did his books or his speeches have a lasting effect on the issues we take seriously as a country?
Or is it fair to judge him at all on the basis of the quixotic way he spent the 1990s? Should he be considered instead in light of the often generous and upright way he conducted himself in private life? Does the philanthropy matter more than the politics?
Inescapably, people will pass judgments when other people pass on. But it's hard to say on which of the many aspects of Perot anyone is really commenting -- and even harder to say which vintage of Perot they have in mind. Like all of us, he changed over time -- and that personal evolution is almost impossible to capture when we think of others.
It's possible to envy Ross Perot (1982), to loathe Ross Perot (1992), to have no informed opinion whatsoever on Ross Perot (2002), and to respect Ross Perot (2012). But it's often hard to say that, as our opinions on people become fixed in time like a mosquito trapped in amber. As hard as it may be, it's worth trying. Each of us lives a single existence, linear in time. But to the world, we are infinite slices of parallel beings. Only one Ross Perot has passed. But uncounted Ross Perots are being remembered.