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A nation must think before it acts.
“Weasel, try some of these crab cakes!” he shouted in his Texas twang over the roar of jet engines as he balanced a tray at 20,000 ft. “They’re great!” Ross Perot, the only viable third-party candidate to run for president in my lifetime, a self-made billionaire, and former Navy officer, was serving me crab cakes on his private plane. Worried I was not showing proper respect by letting the former presidential candidate serve me dinner, I glanced at General Wayne A. Downing, a Special Forces legend known as “The WAD.” Retired at the time, he was the distinguished chair of the Combating Terrorism Center at the United States Military Academy at West Point, where I served as his executive officer. General Downing grinned and shrugged, so I dug into the platter, in what would be one of the more memorable encounters of my life.
General Downing cleared his throat. “Ross, Weasel has a short update for you on what the center has been up to.”
“Alright, Weasel, let’s hear what you got.”
Although the audience was extraordinary, it was one of hundreds of briefings on terrorism and counterterrorism that I had given over the past two decades. My mission that day was to update one of our donors for the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Perot, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate of 1953, had invested in the Combating Terrorism Center at its inception. Only a bold man would invest in his alma mater’s rival, the U.S. Military Academy. Why would he do such a thing? Osama Bin Laden, al Qaeda, the Global War on Terror, patriotism, commitment, common purpose—a combination of all of these things.
Mr. Perot, along with West Point graduate and former head of the New York Mercantile Exchange Vincent Viola, decided to pursue an alternative approach to counter al Qaeda and its malcontents by investing in an academic research center—a think tank—that bridged the gap between the public and private sector, academia and the government, leveraging the world’s top talent to develop innovative solutions. As the executive officer of the research center, my job on that day was to provide an update to Mr. Perot on how far we’d come since his initial investment.
Ross Perot was one of the few people whom I’ve met that truly got all the value from his time. Even in 2006, nearing his upper seventies, he operated like a man a third his age. On this day, Perot had 40 available minutes for an update. Those minutes happened to be during a flight on his private aircraft from Dulles airport in Virginia to a small airport outside Detroit.
My immediate boss and travel companion for the day was Special Forces superstar Lieutenant Colonel Joseph “Joe” Felter. Joe and I flew down from New York to Dulles airport where we linked up with General Downing.
Notoriously tough and quiet, General Downing listened more than he spoke, and when he asked you a question, well you better have an answer. “OK Weasel, what am I doing?” might be a common inquiry from General Downing, but when he asked that question, he was actually saying, “OK, Weasel, what are YOU doing? Because I’m moving and you’d better be ready.”
After arriving at Dulles, Joe and I beat feet to the private aviation hanger, where we received and passed our most important test.
All great leaders have good gatekeepers to keep phonies and time zombies from inhaling the principle. For Ross Perot, that person was Darcy Anderson. Preparing and delivering the Darcy Briefing was an MBA short course in itself. Before speaking to Mr. Perot, one must answer Mr. Anderson’s hard questions first. Darcy inquired as to the status of different projects, the challenges we were having, and the upcoming milestones we were on pace to achieve—seeking out tangible progress toward outcomes and objectives. Darcy listened closely, processed everything, followed up with questions about things I left out of the briefing, and kept the show moving forward—on topic and on time.
“Alright, sounds good gentlemen, when Mr. Perot gets here just follow him to that plane,” Darcy pointed to a short private jet parked just outside the door.
Within seconds, Ross Perot and two escorts popped through the main door. An unmistakable voice overtook all other noise in the hallway. Darcy Anderson, who I thought was standing right by me, apparently teleported over to Mr. Perot, delivered a 30-second briefing before smoothly exiting into a waiting car.
“Wayne, how are you doing?” Mr. Perot inquired to General Downing. A reunion between two long-time friends from competing alma maters ensued. General Downing introduced Mr. Perot to Joe and then turned to me. “Ross, this is Clint Watts, he’s my exec, but no one calls him that though, he goes by Weasel.” A giant grin came across Mr. Perot’s face, “Well Weasel, nice to meet you, you’ll have to tell me how you got that name sometime, let’s get going, we need to get Wayne to Michigan.” (And yes, my nickname is Weasel, a moniker bestowed on me during my plebe summer at West Point. That’s another story)
I briskly followed Mr. Perot, General Downing, and Joe onto the runway, hardly able to keep up with the spry Navy grad. As I walked, I figured that Mr. Perot may have just been at CIA Headquarters, I had—and still have—no idea why. I then learned from whispers behind me that Mr. Perot was actually headed to Texas.
“But I’m heading to Detroit, right?” I thought, now confused as to whether my destination was the north or the south of the United States.
“Wait, General Downing needs to go to Detroit, ahh I get it, Mr. Perot is literally flying to Detroit to drop off General Downing, and then headed home to Texas.” Similar to when your mom would drop your friend off at his house on the way home from practice. That’s what Mr. Perot was doing, except his drop off traversed most of North America.
The four of us settled into our seats and hardly buckled up before the plane started rolling. As Mr. Perot and General Downing caught up, the plane pivoted around for take off and rocketed into the air. I’d been in a lot of aircraft during my Army days, and I’d never taken off like that. Ross Perot didn’t miss a beat, chatting as the plane pulled into an impressively steep pitch.
Ten minutes after takeoff, Perot finished delivering me a crab cake dinner. After receiving the approving nod from General Downing, I grabbed a quick bite of my fantastic in-flight meal and peered across the table. The man some credit with denying the first President Bush a second term and ushering in a young President Clinton sat relaxed in a leather lounge chair. As one might expect, Ross Perot traveled in style, not lavish, but appropriate given his decades-long run atop corporate America. His billions came not from the business school formulas pushed on Wall Street today, but instead from being bold, taking risks, and seeking to do what others might not dare do.
I dove into a prepared set of PowerPoint slides quickly describing what the Combating Terrorism Center had been up to and how we supported the education of cadets who would soon be joining the U.S. Army and heading off to combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. I jumped into a quick overview describing our training of FBI Joint Terrorism Task Forces around the country and military units deploying overseas. Finally, I concluded with a short snapshot of the Center’s research into declassified internal al Qaeda documents we’d recently published. Joe and I relayed to Mr. Perot that we believed not only counterterrorism practitioners have been utilizing our research, but al Qaeda terrorists had been reading our analysis as well—the terrorists seemed to be worried we were figuring out their terrorism.
“That’s great Weasel and thanks for the update.” Perot remarked before looking at both Joe and I and noting, “I gave that donation years ago and I wasn’t really sure if it would amount to anything. You all have just done great. “
Dinner continued, and Ross Perot began telling one tale after another about his life. As we crossed the Ohio River, Perot described stories of his relatives fighting in the Civil War and a Confederate ancestor, held as a prisoner of war by the Union Army, exchanging letters with family back home in the South. He quickly transitioned to the fall of the Shah, when his company had employees trapped in Iran as the Ayatollah took power. Frustrated by the American response, Ross Perot launched his own rescue effort employing a man named “Bull” to liberate Perot’s employees. “Would anyone attempt that today?” I wondered. Ross Perot planned and resourced his own rescue mission into a hostile country at a time when his own government was unwilling or unable to save American lives. Today, few modern corporations or businessmen for that matter would be willing to go to such lengths for their employees. That’s loyalty, that’s dedication, that’s patriotism.
While most Americans might spend two to three hours traveling to Detroit, Ross Perot did it in less than an hour I estimated.
“Weasel, you like chocolate chip cookies, these are great, grab one,” again, Mr. Perot sneaked up on me waving a basket of snacks. I grab some once again embarrassed that one of the most powerful men in the world was serving me food.
The plane descended for landing as fast as it took off. I was convinced Perot’s pilot graduated from the U.S. Navy’s Top Gun school and has a cool handle like “Sidewinder” or “Corkscrew” as my stomach traveled the trajectory of his maneuvers on a two second delay. I looked out the window as we approached a small county airport in Michigan with not a person in sight. The plane came to a halt, and the pilot stepped out of the cockpit seconds after landing, lowering the door as General Downing, Joe, and I grabbed our gear. Old friends General Downing and Mr. Perot privately exchanged a few words before we quickly shuffled down the stairs and exchanged goodbyes. Why were they friends? I don’t really know, but I’d heard rumors that when a wounded Special Operations soldier needed more help than the VA could offer, Mr. Perot might get a call and then the problem would be fixed.
We hardly dismounted when Mr. Perot began pulling the stairs back up on his own, his pilot pitching in at the last minute to finish stowing the door. Less than a minute later, the plane began rolling again. Thirty seconds later, the jet rocketed down the runway launching into another high trajectory climb. And that was it, Ross Perot headed home to Texas.
I turned to see a lone black sedan sitting by the terminal, an old building next to the runway. It was General Downing’s ride that would get him to the University of Michigan to give a presentation at its business school the next morning. “Joe, Weasel, good job!” an important WAD signal meaning “You Passed.”
Joe and I now stood alone on the runway, intensely sweating in our warm wool suits, now wondering, “How do we get to the Detroit airport? Where are we?” After a taxi ride and a less fun commercial flight, we got back to work in “The Swamp” reflecting on a wonderful flight with a wonderful American.
I’m sure my and Ross Perot’s politics differed in many ways, and his wealth, fame, and fortune I will never know. But when I departed his plane years ago, I was certain of one thing, he and I would both defend the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic. He was one of “us,” an American. Not the “us” and “them” of today, “Republican” or “Democrat,” of which Mr. Perot was ultimately neither.
I enjoyed that hour with Ross Perot because I knew when I departed his plane, we were all on the same team; I can’t say that about most moments in America today.
Rest in Peace Ross Perot, and thanks for the crab cakes.