The Magazine

Money Can't Buy You Love

Over the last four years, Steve Forbes has spent $ 60 million running for president. He's at 4 percent in the polls. What gives?

Nov 8, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 08 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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At the end of September, the various candidates running for president released their financial statements. Beneath the minutiae was a striking fact: So far this year, Steve Forbes and George W. Bush have spent roughly the same amount of money, about $ 20 million. But that number alone doesn't tell the most interesting story. Forbes has been running for president more or less continuously since the fall of 1995. Since then he has spent -- depending on how you count it -- anywhere from $ 60 to $ 75 million. The vast majority has been his own money -- money that Forbes, rich as he is, didn't have sitting in his checking account. An investigation by the New York Times found that Forbes has relatively few liquid assets, and that in order to finance his career in politics he has had to sell off part of his stake in his family-owned company. After four years of campaigning, Steve Forbes is no longer the majority shareholder of Forbes Inc.

What has Forbes received in return? In mid-October, USA Today released the results of a poll that asked Republicans who they planned to vote for in 2000. George W. Bush had by far the most support, 60 percent. John McCain had 8 percent. Steve Forbes came in at a mere 4 percent, in a statistical dead heat with Alan Keyes and Orrin Hatch.

For Forbes, politics has been an expensive hobby. Except, as has become abundantly clear, Forbes doesn't consider it a hobby. In contrast to Hatch and Keyes, Forbes isn't running on a lark or as a form of protest. He's not attempting to prove a point, or make a statement, or drive up his speaking fees after the election. Steve Forbes is running for president so he can become president. That's the only reason. And perhaps the strangest reason.

You get the sense that Forbes isn't kidding the moment you walk into his campaign headquarters in Northern Virginia. The first thing you notice about the place is how different it is from Forbes's former, real-life office in New York. The Forbes magazine building in Manhattan, where Forbes spent his professional life until the last election, is grand but surprisingly homey. Though the company maintains a large display of rare documents and Faberge eggs on the first floor, there are no obvious security cameras or armed guards. The bathrooms off the lobby are wood-paneled, unlocked and open to the public. When he ran the magazine, Forbes routinely walked down to the reception desk himself to escort visitors back to his office. In person, he was charming in a self-deprecating way. He laughed and grinned and giggled a lot, often at himself. He talked enthusiastically about baseball. He returned his own phone calls without the usual "please-hold-for-Mr.-Forbes" power displays. He had a funny haircut. He did not, in short, seem like the kind of guy who would blow his family fortune ego-tripping through a midlife crisis.

His campaign headquarters, on the other hand, looks like something designed by Ross Perot. A humorless uniformed guard with a buzz cut sits at a table outside the door taking names and handing out electronic passes, which visitors are instructed to wear around their necks. ("Sign your name," demands the guard, thrusting forward a log book; "do not initial.") Inside, the campaign office -- which takes up an entire floor of a sizable building, leased until November 2000 -- seems more like a large corporation than the headquarters of a third-tier candidate. There are divisions upon divisions, with weirdly bureaucratic labels: "Office of Coalitions," "Political Ops.," "Polling Division," "Budgeting," "Ballot Operations," "Legal Office," "Finance," "Candidate Operations." (It's difficult to imagine that the Keyes campaign has a similar organizational chart.) On the walls are dozens, maybe hundreds, of pictures of Steve Forbes.

Then there is the staff. Forbes 2000 may be doomed, but no one seems to have told the people who work there. Forbes spokesmen churn out an amazing amount of propaganda, much of it about as subtle as a head injury. The campaign is famous for badgering television news producers ("I get to work and I've already got three messages from them on my machine," sighs one) as well as for the relentlessly pedantic, overbearing spin. The morning after Forbes gave a notably mediocre performance in a New Hampshire forum with other second-string GOP candidates, campaign flack Keith Appell sent an e-mail to reporters clumsily declaring victory. "The inaugural debate of campaign 2000 showed why Steve Forbes is going to win," Appell wrote in a message dripping with the campaign's signature irony-free fervor. "The big loser: George Bush."