IN 1992 Ross Perot declared that the CIA plotted to disrupt his daughter's wedding, but also focused politics usefully on the fiscal deficit. In 1996 Mr. Perot declared that his Reform Party would nominate a second George Washington, but then nominated himself. Now, in what may be the post-Perot era, others vie for control of the Reform Party. Unfortunately, they seem to share Mr. Perot's vanity, and so Reform's chance to contribute constructively to politics may be squandered.
On Thursday Donald Trump confirmed his presidential ambitions in a Wall Street Journal article titled "America Needs A President Like Me." Mr. Trump famously erects extravagant buildings with borrowed millions, yet now seeks the nomination of the balanced-budget party. Beyond lamenting that nobody speaks "for the working men and women in the center," Mr. Trump's article offered little. Mind you, he has a point there. In Atlantic City recently, several humble men and women faced the threat of eviction because of his need for a casino car park.
The same day, in Beverly Hills, Warren Beatty gave a speech that failed to quell recent rumors of a presidential bid. Mr. Beatty, a Democrat courted by the Reform Party, fits the Reform pattern: He is celebrated in a hit song titled "You're So Vain." Addressing an audience of glittering plutocrats, Mr. Beatty warned them of the "moneyed, honeyed voices of ridicule and reaction." For a brief moment he sounded serious about the bane of cash-driven campaigning. But then he lapsed into an address to an imagined drum majorette, who may have been a Gunter Grass allusion or may have been a reference to himself.
On that same eventful Thursday, Gov. Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, who is Reform's senior elected official, found himself explaining a forthcoming interview in Playboy magazine. In that interview, it transpires, Mr. Ventura declares that religion is "a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people," and that the sexual abuse that naval aviators meted out to women at their Tailhook convention was nothing to get upset about. Until now, Mr. Ventura had balanced provocation and seriousness successfully. This time, he tipped.
The Reform Party, in sum, is becoming the Shock Party, an assembly of spotlight-hungry mavericks who compete for the attention that a Reform-financed presidential candidacy would bring. As well as Messrs Trump, Beatty and Ventura, the list of spotlight seekers includes Patrick Buchanan, whose recent book suggested that Hitler posed little threat to American interests.
Of course, voters may simply shrug and cast their ballots for the main parties. But the country will have lost something. Third parties can usefully focus attention on under-noticed issues. That is how Mr. Perot's self-financed vanity campaign won 19 percent of the vote in 1992. And that is what a third party candidate could do again this time, if he could balance self-indulgence with a serious attention to issues.