Meet Forbes, the great romancer
By Steve Lopez
January 17, 2000
Web posted at: 11:27 a.m. EST (1627 GMT)
Jesus, if he were still around and had settled in Iowa, would be
a very confused man when the caucuses roll around next week.
Every time he opened his mailbox in the past month, he would
have found come-ons from half a dozen presidential candidates
who claim to know him. But as one man told me last week in the
Mississippi River town of Bettendorf, "I don't know how God can
not let Steve Forbes win. He has to be a pretty good guy if God
gave him $250 million."
It is actually closer to $440 million, but why quibble? The point
is that Forbes, pretty much forgotten by the national media, has
not gone away. He has been quietly pouring millions into Iowa,
plotting to wipe that smirk off Republican front runner George W.
Forbes knows there is no chance of beating Bush in Iowa, but the
Hail Mary strategy is to finish a strong second, as Pat Buchanan
did in 1996, and wobble Bush just enough that Senator John McCain
can pile on, whupping Bush in New Hampshire Feb. 1. Then, goes
the theory, people will ask what they ever saw in Bush anyway.
And if this should happen, the man who could outspend all the
candidates combined is--guess who?
To find out whether this is a real possibility or the final act
in a nationally televised mid-life crisis, I joined Forbes as he
crisscrossed Iowa by plane and bus. And I must say--for the sake
of getting it out of the way--that yes, he looks as if he just
accidentally walked into a brick wall and was knocked goofy. The
glasses and smile are akimbo, and the eyes are not right. But he
is so obviously pained by this, and stuck with it, that I found a
sympathetic quality in him.
The night we met, Forbes came to the back of his chartered Gulf
Stream turboprop and asked me, of all people, the inside story on
the AOL-Time Warner merger. When I told him I had hoped to ask
his take on the whole mess, along with his advice on what to do
with the stock, he said sell. "Nobody ever lost money taking a
profit," he said. Two days after I didn't take his advice, God
punished me. The stock had dropped 25 points.
Over the next few days--in Sioux City, Mason City, Dubuque, Cedar
Falls, Cedar Rapids, Muscatine and Washington--no fewer than 120
people attended each event to hear Forbes' anti-Washington,
pro-life gospel. In 1996 Forbes was a one-trick pony with the
flat tax. Now he, Gary Bauer and Alan Keyes lead with morality.
The Forbes people pray that one of those two doesn't become this
year's Buchanan, whose 1996 campaign had Bible thumpers jumping
out of their pews in the Hawkeye State, where a popular billboard
reads GOD IS PRO-LIFE. ARE YOU?
Depends on the year. In the last go-around and for most of his
life, Forbes kept his religion privatized. If anything, he
offended social conservatives by calling Pat Robertson a toothy
flake and saying that if a woman were raped, she had a right to
an abortion. But when President Clinton put the hallelujah back
in Republican politics, the Lord Jesus suddenly gave Steve Forbes
the courage to testify for faith-based leadership. You'd think
such a swift conversion might backfire, but there's little
evidence of it in Iowa. Steve Scheffler, leader of the state's
Christian Coalition from 1991 to 1998, campaigns for Forbes and
claims true believers admire the candidate for putting God right
up there with the flat tax.
At times, Forbes' crowds hit 200 in Iowa, where he has county
chairmen in all 99 counties, as opposed to just 36 in 1996. He
is genuine, some fans rave. He is not a politician, say others.
In Bettendorf, at the medieval Jumer's Castle Lodge, Forbes
played King Arthur to 300 loyal knights, each of whom--while
dining on free Swedish meatballs--was asked to deliver five
friends or relatives to the caucuses. Forbes wowed them with
bug-eyed passion, some pretty good one-liners and simplistic but
perfectly aimed shots at lobbyists, bureaucrats and Monica's
ex-beau. "I'm pumped," he proclaimed, and three dozen people
stood in line to shake his hand or get an autograph.
After the rally, Forbes retired to the Holiday Inn Muscatine and
phoned the youngest of his five daughters, Elizabeth, 12, to see
how she was doing and make sure she had finished her homework.
Missing her is the hardest part of this, he said. But his wife
Sabina, to whom he proposed five weeks after they met nearly 30
years ago, was traveling through Iowa with him. "It was a very
romantic setting," he said of his proposal to Sabina. "It was a
diner." She had been up 48 hours, studying for exams, and he
figured he would pop the question when she wasn't thinking
Forbes described himself to me as "charismatically challenged."
When I asked Sabina one night why he subjects himself to
something he is so unnatural at, she said only, "He has very
strong beliefs." Forbes spent $26 million from his own piggy
bank on these beliefs in 1999, and roughly $37 million in 1996.
I asked him and Sabina if they ever thought it might have been
wiser to spend that money on their grandchildren--or one really
knockout vacation--than on political ads. Sabina deferred to
Steve, who didn't really answer.
After last Monday's Republican debate in Michigan, Harry
Veryser, one of Forbes' advisers in that state, laid out a
theory. "I think he envisions himself the new leader of the
conservative movement rather than the next President. I think
his mind-set is 'What's going to be my legacy?' He's more
interested in affecting public policy than in holding office.
And if he can get rid of the IRS and this oppressive tax system,
that'll be enough, and he'll have his reward in heaven."
Forbes says Veryser has a nice theory, except that he is in the
fight until at least June, and he expects to win. My advice? If
Iowa and New Hampshire don't work out, sell.