Profile: Steve Forbes

Comment: The Forbes factor
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The Independent Culture
Last weekend's Republican straw poll in Iowa, was a vivid display of American political theatre, intended to give a flavour of who might represent the party in next year's Presidential election. And no sight was more vivid that hot August Saturday in the city of Ames than the long line of supporters queuing up for their food at the tent of Steve Forbes, most clad in the bright orange T-shirts distributed by the campaign team, as if Tango or the Hare Krishnas had taken over this Middle America pageant. Those orange shirts were the most visible symbol of the campaign by this man to lift himself into the first rank of American politicians, a campaign which in general is far from ostentatious.

Steve Forbes is articulate, smart and much more politically astute than when he last ran for President four years ago, but showy he is not. His speeches are halting affairs, staccato and somewhat prosaic. He is better known for his grasp of business, economics and technology - he announced his campaign in a live webcast - than for campaign fireworks.

Sometimes it is hard to know who is, exactly, Malcolm Stevenson "Steve" Forbes Jr. He is a conservative, but the depth of his ideological commitment is hard to plumb. He is apparently modest, yet also boundlessly ambitious. He is a politician who sells himself as not being a politician.

One thing he is not is his father. Malcolm Forbes, magazine publisher and international playboy, was one of the most flamboyant figures of the 20th century. His private jet was called the Capitalist Tool; he owned a palace in Morocco, ran a motorcycle "gang", kept company with Elizabeth Taylor and held lavish gatherings on his yacht. His 70th birthday party was one of the most flamboyant celebrations the world has ever seen: with 600 belly dancers, 200 Berber horsemen and three jets to bring in 800 of his closest friends.

That is not Steve Forbes. The message he puts over on the campaign stand is robust "movement conservatism", a blend of social and economic ideas that brings together a rejection of abortion with a call for a flat tax. It gained him second place in Iowa because the state has a strong conservative block, which feels the leading candidate, George W Bush, is too far to the left, too unreliable on the touchstone issues.

It is his second time around this track. When conservative Senator Jack Kemp announced that he would not campaign for the Presidency in 1996, some of Kemp's backers approached Forbes and asked him to stand. Forbes was well-known as an advocate of tax-cutting, sound money and a return to the gold standard.

Jude Wanniski, one of the founders of Reaganomics, wanted someone to fly the flag for supply-side economics against the more mainstream Robert Dole, and the wealthy young businessman seemed ideal. He scored two signal successes, winning primaries in Arizona and Delaware, but he flouted the authority of the party's religious right, and it damaged him very badly. He called Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition, a "toothy flake". Questions were raised about his opposition to abortion. By May 1996, it was all over.

But it was not all over, not for Steve. He continued to campaign; he built up links with the religious right, attending functions and bankrolling events to make amends; and he started to lay the foundations of the campaign that now makes him a contender once again. He is way behind in national polls, but he has one advantage the other candidates do not: vast amounts of cash.

To most people, Forbes means simply money. Forbes, unlike the other candidates, is dipping deep into his own pocket to fund his campaign. His latest fund- raising figures show that of the cash he had raised, $2.3m or 30 per cent was from individuals and $6.6m was his own. Without that money his campaign would simply not exist. It was hard cash which allowed him to bus in his supporters to Ames, many of them old people on a day out whom Forbes had effectively hired for the day.

But there is more to Forbes than this. He has built up a respectable campaign organisation, especially in the early primary states, and he has been building a political base for years. In 1997 and 1998, he spoke at more than 200 Republican Party fund-raisers for Republican candidates and campaign events for GOP candidates.

Forbes grew up on "Timberfield", the family's 40-acre estate in Far Hills, New Jersey, where his father forced the children to dress up in kilts to play the bagpipes for wealthy guests. Like George W, Forbes attended one of America's elite prep schools and then Princeton University (the Bushes were Yale). He then went into the family business, the magazine founded by his grandfather, a Scottish immigrant from rural Aberdeenshire. Malcolm had turned Forbes magazine from a modest success into something else, a bible not just for capitalism but for a new class of capitalists.

In the process he had turned himself into a personality, a character from F Scott Fitzgerald infused with the flamboyance of the 1960s, and he used his image to sell the magazine. Steve both wrote for and later managed the magazine, and after Malcolm's death in 1990 he took over. He was successful: by 1992 it was leading all of its rivals in advertising pages, something his father never achieved. But he was still only emerging from his father's shadow. Those who knew him in the 1980s describe a quiet, modest man, bright but somewhat self-effacing, interested and knowledgeable about economics but not a showman by any stretch of the imagination.

"Pop exuded energy and strength," he wrote. "This can be inspiring but also intimidating to a young, less outgoing, less confident son. Only in my late teens could I truly come to terms with this dynamo of a man and realise how I could work with him and even thrive and blossom with him."

He also took on some of his father's political ambitions. Malcolm had served as a local state representative, made two failed attempts to win the Republican nomination for governor in New Jersey, and wanted to stand for President though he never came close. The young Steve campaigned with him. He played politics with his stuffed animals in the nursery, lining them up as his voters, just as he would line up supporters in Ames decades later.

It is not just his father's legacy that Steve Forbes has had to overcome: his upbringing also characterised him in some people's eyes as the wrong man to lead the party. The feeling that he was just another wealthy north- easterner, a country-club Republican, helped to sink his first shot at office in 1996, and since then he has done everything to change the perception. He is now robustly conservative, not just on the economic issues which have always motivated him but on the social issues that are crucial in Republican America, and especially on abortion.

Some conservatives are still sceptical of him, seeing his conversion as a tactical shift, not a conviction. His advisors defend it as a shift in style, not substance, a better way of explaining something he believed all along. "He was always opposed to abortion," conservative theologian Michael Novak told The New Republic. But as a laissez-faire conservative, "he wasn't quite sure what the state ought to do". Forbes is also an Episcopalian, or Anglican, and Episcopalians do not in general tout their religious beliefs as the basis for public social action in the same way as, for example, Southern Baptists.

Forbes learnt the hard way that mumbling the Lord's Prayer and keeping his faith in his heart would do him no favours on the campaign trail. He is a family man and his personal life, so loudly trumpeted in his campaign ads, seems unimpeachable in every sense. He met his wife Sabrina at a debutante party in 1970, and offered her a cigar in the days long before Bill Clinton had elevated the humble stogie to the status of sex toy. They have five daughters.

Like Dan Quayle and George Bush, Forbes served out the Vietnam war in the National Guard. He is more straight forward about it than some, saying he thought the war was a mistake.

His professional life has received some scrutiny. Fortune magazine, one of Forbes' rivals, claims that he succeeded only by running favourable stories about advertisers, and says advertising executives read the copy before it is printed and sometimes have stories changed. While this may horrify journalists, it is highly unlikely to upset many of his potential voters. Anyway, we are not talking about Living Marxism: this is the Capitalist Tool.

So far, there is no sustained effort by anyone to dig too deeply: he is not taken that seriously by the metropolitan political elite. That is a mistake, as people are starting to realise post-Ames. He may have little chance of winning but Forbes has already made his definitive mark on the campaign. The fact that he is largely self-financing was one factor pushing George Bush to raise vast sums, and quickly.

Forbes' ability to outspend anyone but Bush has helped to make this a front-loaded race, where the Ames straw poll - procedurally irrelevant and as undemocratic as British politics before the Great Reform Act - was regarded as a key marker, though it came more than a year before the election.

Forbes took the opportunity of Ames with both hands, and he used it. There was never much chance that he would win: the party's right is still fragmented, and despite his campaigning, he lacks name recognition. But he worked the phones hard, television and radio ads blanketed the state and on the day he came a very creditable second. The Bush campaign had reportedly hoped for between 40 and 50 per cent of the vote, and for a 20-point gap with Forbes. They won 30 per cent, and Forbes was just 10 percentage points behind.

But the fight is by no means over. After all, the Forbes campaign spent some $2m in Iowa to collect less than 5,000 votes: that's about $400 a head, rather more than his father's toy soldiers cost. Mr Bush won a convincing victory in Ames, Elizabeth Dole stayed in the pack, and Senator John McCain did not even bother to attend: he called the event a scam and a sham. Gary Bauer, the former Reagan official who is just behind Mr Forbes, will stay in as the other conservative choice. Now the real fight is both to represent the conservatives next year and to narrow the gap with Mr Bush enough to remove his greatest asset, his apparent invincibility.

This may not be a particularly pleasant business. Forbes' performance in the 1996 campaign left a nasty taste in the mouths of some of his opponents. He sought to dislodge Robert Dole with aggressive television advertisements, and left him permanently damaged. There are already signs that things are turning nasty again. The Bush campaign claims that the Forbes staff are already sounding out the governor's weaknesses in telephone polling, looking at areas such as his record on taxes, judicial appointments, Taiwan and a complex controversy over the regulation of undertakers in Texas.

The Bush campaign calls this "trash-ball politics", comparing it to the "ugly attack ads he did in 1996". More disturbingly, the Bush campaign is struggling to deal with questions about whether the Texas governor ever used drugs. They talk darkly of how these questions are being put up by someone else, and they seem to be talking about Mr Forbes. Even for a wealthy man, politics is an expensive business and doubts have been raised about how far the Forbes family fortune can quickly or easily be turned into ready campaign cash. "Forbes could have no choice but to sell part of the family business, liquidate real estate in his home town of Bedminster, or go heavily into debt," said the Washington Post.

The family island of Laucala in Fiji has been on the market since 1997. The Capitalist Tool aircraft is long gone; so are the toy soldiers. But there is a steely look about Forbes, a certain resolve, which indicates that he will not back down. Few people outside his campaign believe that he can win. But he will be a formidable opponent, and until he is beaten, George W Bush cannot count himself the victor.

Life Story

Born: July 18, 1947 in Morristown, New Jersey

Family: Married to Sabina Beekman in 1971. Five children: Roberta, 25; Sabina, 25; Catherine, 22; Moira, 19; Elizabeth, 11

Education: The Brooks School, North Andover, Mass, 1966; Princeton University, BA in history,1970

Religion: Episcopalian

Career: President, CEO and and Editor-in-Chief of Forbes magazine

Military Service: New Jersey National Guard, 1970-76

Public Service: Chairman, Empower America (1993-96); Board member, Radio Free Europe (1985-1993). Trustee of Princeton University and the American Enterprise Institute

Politics: Ran for the Republican presidential nomination, 1995/96.

Government positions: none

Favourite food: Pepperoni pizza. Sauted duck foie gras with sweet and sour apple compote served in a Fuji apple with cranberry coulis

His father advises: "The biggest mistake people make in life is not trying to make a living at doing what they most enjoy."

(Malcolm S Forbes Sr)

What others say: "The Republican Party will never nominate a man whose only crises in life were going to boarding school, going to Princeton, and inheriting his father's magazine." (Senator John McCain)

What he says about himself: "My father once spent $5m on a birthday party for himself in Tangiers. Why can't I spend a few more running for President?"