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Steve Forbes is a great argument against reincarnation. If there were any karmic justice in the universe, he'd be a professor right now, droning on about the Gilded Age and the robber barons behind some ivy-covered walls. It's a role he clearly was born for: He loves history; he delivers thoughtful (if less than gripping) lectures; and his round glasses give him the owlishly intellectual look that substitutes for a secret handshake among the academic fraternity.
But something went wrong. Mr. Forbes was born into one of America's foremost publishing dynasties, and all that professorial potential was wasted on making bundles of money. Fifty years and billions of dollars later, however, the family empire is feeling a bit restrictive, and Mr. Forbes is ready for a career change. Too bad for students everywhere he's decided against applying for that teaching job at Princeton, his alma mater. Evidently, he believes that making history would be more fun than teaching it. So, for his next career, he'd like to be president.
There are plenty of people who would rather Mr. Forbes stick to business journalism, and many obstacles stand between Forbes the publisher and Forbes the president. Career politicians of all stripes don't like to see an upstart outsider reaching the pinnacle of power. Democrats don't like to see a Republican-insider or outsider-in the White House. And many conservative Christians don't like to see a country club Republican heading their party's ticket.
It's this last group that may hold the key to Steve Forbes's political ambitions. He may be able to overpower Republican insiders and perhaps outpoll the Democrats, but Mr. Forbes probably can't win the Republican primary without the support of conservative Christians, the most reliable voting bloc in the GOP. He learned as much in 1996 when, despite spending millions of dollars and winning two early primary contests, he had to bow out of the race after the religious right made its peace-however reluctantly-with Bob Dole. Christian voters liked the Forbes flat tax plan but didn't hear the flat-out condemnation of abortion they were listening for. They didn't hear it from Mr. Dole, either, but at least his Senate voting record bought him the tacit approval of mainline pro-life groups.
So, with the next presidential election still three years away, Mr. Forbes is campaigning hard to build an outsiders' track record, to convince morally conservative voters that his country club membership didn't require a vow of political moderation. Beltway conservatives also seem willing to give him a second look. At a recent Forbes speech on "The Moral Basis of a Free Society," there were twice as many bodies as seats in the auditorium of the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.
"I can't believe it's this crowded," grumbled one Capitol Hill staffer as he staked out a square foot of floor space.
"Hey, history is being made," replied a friend sitting cross-legged next to him.
Mr. Forbes, for his part, tried to play down the epochal nature of his speech, insisting that social issues had always been important to him and that his message in 1996 had perhaps been misinterpreted. It's a point his staff works hard to reinforce. A call to his communications office requesting old Forbes editorials addressing social issues results in a 28-page fax. Sure enough, the social conservatism seems to be there, for anyone patient enough to trace the intellectual bread crumbs.
For the doubters, Mr. Forbes is working hard to make the trail more explicit. The Heritage Foundation speech, he says, "was an attempt to demonstrate systematically that they're all tied together-economics, politics, morals." The political junkies in attendance loved the message-he was interrupted six times with applause-but few seemed to buy the "I've-always-been-a-social-conservative" line. Of the six questions asked at the speech's conclusion, half were along the lines of "Is this a conversion of convenience?"
Clearly, Mr. Forbes is frustrated by the assumption among some that his born-again social conservatism came about on the road to the White House, not the road to Damascus. "I did speak to social conservatives in '96," he told WORLD in a post-speech interview. "It's been an ongoing dialog. It may have attracted more notice now, but you can't always control when people notice something and when they don't. Look at what I wrote or said before I even went into the public square in September of '95. I think you'll find the consistency is there."
Outside the interview room, however, a 15-year veteran of the Forbes family security detail had a different impression. "I was really glad to hear this speech," he said, and added that he'd become a believer just three months earlier, after sending his children to a Christian school so they could get a decent education. "I've heard all his speeches dozens of times, but this is the first time I've heard him talk like this."
Regardless of past emphases, Mr. Forbes is determined that his most conservative critics hear him "talk like this" often. He may have always agreed with the religious right in his heart-he's weighed in with carefully worded anti-abortion editorials in his magazine over the years and recommended to his readers books by Gary Bauer and Cal Thomas-but now he's putting his considerable money where his mouth is. In the past year his grass-roots organization, Americans for Hope, Growth, and Opportunity, bought radio time to run commercials in the Washington, D.C., market urging the defeat of attempts to legalize marijuana in the District. In Washington State, AHGO took to the airwaves to oppose heroin legalization. And last spring the Forbes organization bought airtime on 600 stations nationwide, urging President Clinton to reverse his support for partial-birth abortions. Other AHGO press campaigns have included abolishing the National Endowment for the Arts, supporting school choice legislation in Minnesota, and even applauding the choice of Don Hodel to lead the Christian Coalition.
All these issues are fairly far afield for the captain of industry who made his political name with a single-minded appeal for a flat tax. Indeed, the flat tax has now taken second place on the Forbes list of 10 strategies for solving the nation's ills. The No. 1 strategy, under the heading "Putting Families First," reads: "The family is the bedrock of American civilization. Today it's under siege. High taxes, violent crime, a welfare system that punishes marriage, children, work and savings, and a tragic disregard for the sanctity of human life-from conception to old age. We must force Washington to cherish and protect American families-not assault their values and undermine their security."
Coming from the lips of Ronald Reagan, such rhetoric would have brought tears to conservatives' eyes. But coming from Steve Forbes, the same words tend rather to bring an arch to conservatives' eyebrows. It's a double standard that both Mr. Forbes and independent political observers acknowledge.
In the effort to redefine the Forbes political agenda, no issue looms larger than abortion. His familiar tagline-that life begins at conception and ends at natural death-drew applause at the Heritage Foundation, but drew considerable skepticism later at a private luncheon for conservative leaders. When Mr. Forbes said he would allow abortions in cases of rape, incest, and the life of the mother-echoing Reagan's virtually unquestioned position precisely-Catholic leaders challenged him with six follow-up questions, accusing him of moral and logical inconsistency.
Sitting at the center of a huge oblong table, under withering fire for three political exceptions to his pro-life position, Steve Forbes seemed completely unruffled. Acknowledging that his position was not going to win him "an A-plus" in logic, he held firm in his view that government could not force a raped woman to bear the emotional scars of giving birth to an attacker's child. "In this case," he insisted, "the moral presumption lies with the victim."
The economist Steve Forbes has A-plus strategic logic in accepting the three exceptions: To ban, in effect, more than 90 percent of abortions would cut the profit out of the high-volume, low-margin abortion industry, forcing the closure of free-standing abortion factories, pressing would-be abortionists back into the healing arts, and choking the supply of pro-abortion lobbying money. But he didn't state it that way. And on the other hand, the Forbes moral stand on abortion is clearly incomplete. Overall, his willingness to stick to his guns earned grudging respect even from some who disagreed with his position. "He wouldn't tell them what they wanted to hear, would he?" laughed one luncheon participant when it was all over. "Obviously he's not from around here."
Obviously. There's little about Steve Forbes that reeks of Washington, and at a time when many voters have decided that Washington just plain reeks, that may be his biggest strength of all. His understated, custom-made suits are just plain boring, and he's got the kind of cowlicky hair that even expensive cuts do not tame. In speaking, as in personal appearance, he values substance over style. Historical anecdotes and philosophical musings can make a Forbes speech difficult to digest, but well worth the effort. He may never ring out with an "Ich bin ein Berliner" or a "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall," but there's a quiet conviction behind his words that tends to make audiences think rather than cheer. Although they do often cheer.
His ability to withstand pressure and remain true to his internalized value system may stem from his childhood. His father, Malcolm, was larger than life, the sort of irrepressible capitalist who cavorted with Elizabeth Taylor and flew hundreds of his closest friends to northern Africa to celebrate his birthday. Without ever rebelling openly or criticizing his father, the younger Forbes found his own way, retreated into the life of the mind, and put his stamp of responsibility and sobriety on his father's narcissistic empire. In contrast to his father's ebullient entrepreneur, Steve Forbes became a tight-lipped Victorian. True to his staid, upper-class persona, Mr. Forbes shies away from revealing too much of himself. Heartfelt displays of emotion, after all, are considered slightly declassé among those to the manor born. It's impossible to imagine him revealing to the press the details of an open marriage or his inhalation history-despite his inexplicable appearance on NBC's Saturday Night Live after he bowed out of the GOP primaries.
Such restraint may be appreciated by voters tired of eight years of calculated soul-baring by President Clinton. But it has its downside as well. Steve Forbes's reserved, intellectual demeanor might be mistaken for a lack of passion. At the Washington luncheon, for instance, where pro-life activists were literally pounding their fists on the table, Mr. Forbes sat back easily in his chair and calmly stated once again,"Life begins at conception and ends at natural death."
That's an orthodox statement; what Mr. Forbes lacks, in the eyes of his critics, is the evangelistic fervor to spread his orthodoxy. In a party that showcases the righteous indignation of Pat Buchanan or the passionate pleadings of Alan Keyes, Steve Forbes offers cool, self-evident logic. Following the lead of his political hero, Teddy Roosevelt, Mr. Forbes speaks of the value of the presidency as a bully pulpit from which sermons can be preached to the nation. True enough, but Mr. Forbes seems much too well-bred to bully.
On the abortion issue, for instance, he insisted in his Heritage Foundation speech that "where there is consensus on limiting abortions, let us codify. From there let us persuade." Later, WORLD asked what arguments he would use to persuade his own daughter to carry a baby to term if she came to him with the news that she was pregnant.
The pause that followed the question was as pregnant as the daughter in the scenario. He blinked several times and opened his mouth wordlessly. The look on his face was one of horror, though it wasn't evident if he was horrified at the thought of his daughter's seeking an abortion or horrified that a reporter would ask such a personal question. "The very basic argument," he said finally. "It's a separate human being. It's not your finger, your earlobe, your eyelashes. It's a separate soul." Then he closed his mouth firmly and folded his hands in his lap. End of answer.
Clearly, it had been an awkward moment. In just 21 words he dismissed a question that most Republicans would have salivated over. He obviously believed what he was saying, but the answer to him was so logical as to be beyond debate. Certainly beyond demagoguery. Maybe even beyond the bounds of good taste.
"Steve has a normal, Ivy League, waspish reticence about religion," explains Michael Novak, the Roman Catholic theologian and American Enterprise Institute fellow who is among the Forbes inner circle. "You just don't talk about those things. Evangelicals do, but New Englanders don't. So he's been looking for a public language to talk about his personal convictions. It's not enough for him to make a personal confession, as if he were on one of those morning talk shows. By reading the Founding Fathers, he's found a language that's part of the American political tradition that allows him to discuss matters of religion and morality. It's been very liberating for him, and that's why you see him addressing these issues more directly."
The question is, how far can he go in wooing the religious right before he risks his support among economic conservatives? "I don't know that it's an exclusive situation where you can only have one group or the other," says Amway president Richard DeVos Jr., who may understand both camps as well as anyone. "Both sides are going to have some natural and understandable concerns about someone they might not consider one of their own. Having earned the respect of the business community, Steve will continue to engender a significant amount of support from them. I don't think he'll lose that base.
"So the winning combination will be the ability to speak to both sides. I think Steve is in as good a position to do that as anyone else. He's done a great job of responding to and speaking to the social conservative side. And I think it goes beyond electioneering rhetoric. Social conservatives should not be inappropriately skeptical; he's just expressing long-held views."
Forbes for president? The question is no longer merely academic.