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When speaking of politics or policy, Steve Forbes has the concision of a columnist, which he is for his magazine. Cardinal rules of the columnist's craft are to be brief and change the subject frequently, and Forbes' ability to do both will serve him in his second run for the Republican presidential nomination: Televised politics is survival of the briefest.

When conversation turns to American history -- when he is asked which figures fire his admiration -- Forbes the writer is supplanted by Forbes the voracious reader. "Polk," he begins briskly, bowing to one of the great nation-builders. Forbes' list of pinups continues with Grover Cleveland as presented in Allan Nevins' 1932 biography as a man of commendably starchy character who promoted lower tariffs and sounder money, and Charles Evans Hughes, who, if he had defeated Woodrow Wilson in 1916, might, Forbes believes, have managed an Anglo-American guarantee to France that could have prevented the Second World War.

Political history tells Forbes how unencouraging the precedents are for his foray from business into politics at the highest levels, but business history tells him to persevere: From Henry Ford to Bill Gates, history teaches that you can't foretell how people will react to a new product. Forbes says that in 1940, when isolationism was strong, Wendell Willkie "sensed something big out there," and won the Republican nomination with no prior electoral experience.

Forbes' new product in 1996 was the flat tax. He considers that proposal not only a recipe for growth sufficient to sustain public services for an aging population, but also a political reform -- a way of taking the tax code out of the sort of political play that just produced a bill, from a Republican Congress, that tweaks the code in 824 ways.

The warm reception of Forbes' recent address to the Christian Coalition suggests success in correcting one of his two largest mistakes last time, his failure to properly address cultural conservatism. So does his essay in Policy Review, "The Moral Basis of a Free Society." It is a thoughtful survey of America's recurring cultural anxieties, and a nuanced, optimistic analysis of the relevance of government to assuaging them at this moment, which is "almost Jeffersonian in its dynamic -- anti-hierarchical, anti-authoritarian, anti-centralization."

His other 1996 mistake -- the raspish negativism of his broadcast blitzkrieg against Dole -- was dictated by something he has already avoided for the 2000 contest, a very late start. His blitzkrieg probably was the only way he could rise rapidly, but the technique was self-repealing.

These days candidate Forbes (like others, he is unannounced, other than by his behavior) is a genteel dervish. Citing Theodore Roosevelt's maxim that it is better to wear out than rust out, he is traveling peripatetically and turning his organization, Americans for Hope, Growth and Opportunity into the GOP's rapid response mechanism. Its fax machine is the quickest gun to clear its holster since Dodge City simmered down, and its national and local radio ads on issues, read by Forbes, are calculated to pick the locks on the hearts of Republican activists. His organization's 57,000 dues-paying members may be the ground forces he did not have to supplement the broadcast air war he financed in 1996.

It has been said that an absence of honest passion defines professional wrestling and American politics. Forbes has the passion. He simply loathes the balanced-budget bill, not just for its fudging and evasions, but for its sneaky arcana, such as the "nasty" -- his good, strong word -- provision that effectively bars Medicare patients from privately contracting for services unless their doctors agree, as few will, not to treat Medicare patients for two years. This restricts patients' choice more severely than does Britain's socialized medicine.

Forbes' character, which is an alloy of an intellectual's zest and a gentleman's diffidence, is unintelligible and thus faintly ridiculous to much of the political class. But to an as yet undetermined number of Republicans, he seems an oddity in politics only because he is a practicing grown-up who talks to them as grown-ups.

If Forbes becomes the first person since Willkie to vault directly from business to a presidential nomination, it will be because his seriousness makes voters receptive to the adage that professionals built the Titanic, amateurs built the ark.

Washington Post Writers Group

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