AS a youngster I was an admirer of Teddy Roosevelt, the Rough Rider hero of the Spanish-American War who at the turn of the last century became our 26th president. What I knew about him came, of course, from books and from a high school history teacher who ranked Mr. Roosevelt among our greatest presidents.
I admired Roosevelt for his independent spirit. He was a Republican but one who constantly irritated conservatives by his efforts for reform. He forced the mine owners to negotiate with strikers; he pushed through land reclamation and conservation laws; and he energetically enforced the Sherman Anti-trust Act.
The one Roosevelt personal quality that stood out all his life was his determination to set bad things to right and accomplish his goals - no matter the odds. In fact, he coined a word for his character trait, one that he looked for in those that he, himself, admired: "stick-to-it-tiveness."
What would Roosevelt have thought of Ross Perot? That's the question that keeps coming to me. It's quite relevant since it was Roosevelt who last launched an effective third-party movement. That was in 1912 when Roosevelt decided that the man he had handpicked to become his successor as president, William Howard Taft, had become too conservative for his taste.
To oust Mr. Taft, Roosevelt formed and headed a progressive, or Bull-Moose, ticket. He was successful in beating out Taft. But his effort split the Republican vote and was instrumental in elevating Woodrow Wilson to the White House.
I think that Roosevelt would have faulted Mr. Perot's strange on-again, off-again, and on-again campaign. Roosevelt, all his life and in everything he did, was in it to win. So, too, it was said of Perot - until he stunned his loyal supporters by dropping out even as the polls showed him running about even with George Bush and Bill Clinton. I think Roosevelt would have been impatient with Perot's rationale for stepping aside. Indeed, it seems obvious that Perot would have failed Roosevelt's high standard
I can see Perot being ushered into the presence of Roosevelt and trying to explain his exit. He'd probably talk about his candidacy possibly pushing the result into the House of Representatives. He'd say that he's already made the impact he desired: that Mr. Clinton had moved satisfactorily in directions he was advocating.
But the Roosevelt I have gotten to know through books was impatient with what he thought were irrelevancies. He wouldn't say: "Bully for you, Ross." Instead, I think he would say: "Quit all this chattering about what your supporters think about your running. You should just run and keep running. Your job is to persuade voters to rally behind you. That's leadership."
All this is not to say that Perot won't be making an impact even after this stuttering, late entry. But the question of last July is not - at least right now - the question of October. Then it was, "Can he win?" Now it is, "Which candidate, Bush or Clinton, will he hurt the most by making it a three-way race?"
Perot's die-hard, never-give-up backers - and they may still be in the millions - would probably say Perot has already brought about a shift toward their candidate.
But is this really so? Bush and Clinton pandered to Perot in Dallas, trying to show their views were much the same as Perot's. But neither is saying what Perot is flatly asserting: that the deficit must be wiped out and that the American people must sacrifice (meaning big taxes) in order to achieve that result.
I suppose it is arguable, too, that Perot has a hidden agenda - to defeat a man whom he dislikes (and this dislike is returned with equal intensity): George Bush. In fact, Perot's presence may well make it more difficult for Bush to win two states he sorely needs to add to his total, Florida and Texas.
But Perot's reentry gives Bush a boost by narrowing the lead that Clinton enjoys over him in the national polls. In fact, whether Perot intends it or not, he could be providing Bush with just the come-from-behind stimulus that he's been looking for. That and the impending debates.
Perot appears to be taking an admirable stand. He certainly has tried to put the campaign focus on what many Americans are worried about: the huge federal deficit.
But whatever he has accomplished - or will accomplish - he isn't, in my mind, of historical moment. He casts a long shadow over this campaign. But I "knew" Teddy Roosevelt. And Perot is no Teddy Roosevelt.