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Is Perot the Media's Pinocchio?

WHO created Ross Perot, presidential candidate?

The diminutive Texan billionaire keeps his hair cropped close as a straight-arrow's feathers. He talks common sense, not programese. As a good manager, he keeps his list of priorities short.

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Mr. Perot pulled ahead of George Bush and Bill Clinton in a hypothetical three-way matchup for the presidency just at the time of the California primary. The press focused on the Perot surge rather than the party nominees' victories.

This has led to much self-criticism and soul-searching among the press. Did the media, in beating up on Clinton with stories about an alleged extramarital love life and his ruminations about the draft - charges that never did, frankly, shape up into anything concrete - create the conditions for a Perot candidacy?

Bush's approval rating, too, has sunk in the polls, under the impression that the "big press" - network news, the major dailies and news magazines - today constitutes a negative vortex that sucks public figures down into the depths.

Perot is ignoring the establishment press. He's gone downscale: He's appearing on talk shows, interview shows, the more prolix forms of conversational and entertainment media. There the questions are softer. He is spared the abrasive, arrogant (from the critics' point of view) questions of the political reporters.

Clinton has taken Perot's lead, giving a Blues Brothers saxophone performance on the Arsenio Hall show. Bush has downscaled his image, too: He received in shirtsleeves Britain's Prime Minister John Major on the White House lawn.

Has the press played so much hardball with the candidates that they have driven them away into the softball league? Should exit polls be ruled an illegal pitch?

No doubt Perot has benefited by the media's rude treatment of his opponents. The polls reflect this; they do not create it. The candidates have ducked the press before, when it was to their campaign's advantage: Ronald Reagan was kept on an extraordinarily short leash of media exposure. And candidates lob their 30-second and 60-second ad missiles of aggression and soft-sell over the heads of the press during the crucial final days of the campaign.

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It is impossible today for a candidate to charm the press, as an FDR or JFK were said to do. Not only candidates complain: College presidents and other institutional leaders lament how quickly reporters ignore their good deeds and run off with the capital of their good name.

The Bush campaign proposes that the media give part of daily coverage over to simply reporting what the candidates say that day - unfiltered. Maybe so. At least the press, in the public's view, has taken to acting as if it is itself a party in the election and not more properly a mirror of events.

But the press is no puppetmaking Geppetto, and Perot is no Pinocchio, in the vernacular of the Disney classic animated film, to be rereleased this month.

Perot is the real thing all by himself. He is taking the race to George Bush in one of Bush's home states, Texas. He needs no federal money to run. If a former actor, Ronald Reagan, could run for president (and the media seemed to think he was not entitled to become president) then why not a businessman? Perot has hired top Democratic and Republican professionals. He has executive experience. His anticipated candidacy raises the prospect of throwing the election into the House of Representatives.

We don't know how he would actually do in November: Burns Roper, a senior observer of the political process, says Perot will come in "either first or fifth." Perot has already shown he can dismiss as unworthy whole segments of the public. And he has yet to say what he would do as president.

If he gets elected, don't blame the press.

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