I n plain Texas talk, as Ross Perot might have put it, the whole thing might never have happened if he hadn't returned a cold call from a total stranger named John Jay Hooker one November morning in 1991. Hooker was just one more in a long line of good people who had been after Perot for years to run for public office -- people who had fallen hard for him or, more often, for his legend as the last of the great cowboy capitalists. There had been so many of them for so long that his assistant, Sally Bell, usually spared him the trouble of having to say no himself. Mr. Perot had heard it all before, she would advise callers to his corporate tower in Dallas, and had never been remotely tempted.
But neither she nor her boss had ever run into anybody quite so persistent as Hooker, or so persuasive when in the throes of one of his visions. Hooker, at sixty-one, was a large, idiosyncratic man with a shock of white hair, usually crowned by a Panama hat, and a roughly matching white Cadillac. The day he punched up Perot's number from his sixth-floor apartment in midtown Nashville, he had a mission as well: to save America from impending ruin. Hooker, a liberal Democrat, had himself failed in three tries at elective office; he had done better in business, from fried-chicken franchising to newspaper publishing, but had never given up his dreams of changing the world. He had a knack for putting rich men next to big ideas, and this idea was his biggest ever. He had decided that Ross Perot should be the next president of the United States.
"Oh, he's not going to do that," Ms. Bell told him, laughing.
"Maybe he'll say no," Hooker said, "but let me just ask him."
"You're wasting your time," she said.
"Just get him to call me," he insisted.
Within a half-hour, his phone rang. "Hello, John," a reedy voice said. "This is Ross. How you doing?"