I hadn’t thought about Ross Perot for many years, but he came back to mind a few weeks ago when my wife and I drove to Texas.
While in Dallas on family business, we spent a cold and rainy Sunday afternoon at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, which is named for the five Perot children who endowed it. That got me thinking again of the funny little man with the crew cut and cowboy twang who ran for president in 1992 and 1996.
Perot pioneered the tradition, still in fashion, of billionaires campaigning for the nation’s highest office, though, of course, he didn’t make it to the White House. His most memorable legacy might be the natural history museum his children supported.
Men of wealth often think of politics as the path to immortality. But it’s America’s grand museums, funded by the barons of industry, that might best sustain the profile of successful capitalists for generations.
There’s the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology in Boston, to name but a few. The Perot Museum can proudly stand with the rest, and we welcomed the chance to wander its exhibits on a wet, gray day that seemed not much good for anything else.
Shaking off the city’s chill as I entered the Perot’s ticket line, I thought about a column called “Astronomy Without Pain” that the late Brooks Atkinson wrote for The New York Times long ago. Atkinson loved nature, but he also celebrated the paradoxical joy of appreciating the outdoors while snugly indoors. Referring to a popular landmark in Manhattan, Atkinson wisely observed that “it is pleasanter to gaze at the winter sky in the Hayden Planetarium than on the wind-bitten roof of an apartment house. The Planetarium is warm and the chairs comfortable.”
I felt the same way as we settled into the museum theater and donned cardboard glasses for a 3-D documentary called “Tornado Alley.” For 40 minutes or so, we cheerfully endured the illusion of twisters rolling into the audience — a threat that felt immeasurably better than the real weather outside.
Such three-dimensional wonders aside, the most startling dimension at a natural history museum is time, its breadth unfolding in the dinosaur bones in the main exhibit hall. Like anything in Texas, the Perot prides itself on lavish scale, as evidenced by the Alamosaurus skeleton, about 100 feet long, that reaches to the ceiling, as if the long-necked herbivore were still grazing a treetop for dinner.
The children visiting a dinosaur exhibit are accustomed to being the smallest creatures in the room and don’t look so shocked by the huge beasts. That kind of humility is in scarce supply these days, but it’s not a bad thing.
For an afternoon at the Perot, I was usefully reminded how small I was, too.