MIKE FORBES LIKES SOUP. But he doesn't like corn. So when Forbes, a third-term congressman from New York, found corn in his dehydrated soup-in-a-cup, he had a member of his congressional staff remove every kernel.
Picking corn out of soup is a tedious task, even by the standards of Capitol Hill, but members of Forbes's staff were used to such assignments. Many had already seen the congressman explode after an aide was slow to wash a dirty cereal bowl Forbes had left in a sink. Others had heard about the time Forbes lost his temper when a female assistant forgot to drain the water from his canned tuna before serving it to him.
Forbes has never been an easy man to work for. Over the course of his first four and a half years in Congress, a total of 53 staffers resigned or were fired from his office, a rate of about one a month. Then, two weeks ago, Forbes announced he was leaving the Republican party and becoming a Democrat. Every member of his staff immediately quit. Many say they are happy to be looking for new jobs. "He's a screamer," says one. "I was afraid of him," says Tina Mufford, his former staff assistant, "afraid he'd go off."
Not afraid he'd go off and become a Democrat, though. Virtually no one in Forbes's office anticipated that. Late in the afternoon of July 16, Forbes, still a Republican, left the Capitol and drove with a member of his staff to Reagan National Airport outside Washington. When he got to the airport, Forbes drove past the terminals and into the private airfield next door. His aide, legislative director Brian Fauls, was confused. "I asked him what he was doing," Fauls remembers. "He said, 'I'm bumming a ride from someone.'" As Fauls discovered later, the "someone" turned out to be the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which had sent a Learjet to take Forbes home to Long Island.
Forbes landed in New York and was picked up by a member of his district staff. Forbes and a DCCC operative sat in the back of the car talking. Forbes's driver listened, stunned, as the two chatted about Forbes's new party affiliation. At one point, Forbes fretted about his wife, Barbara, a staunch Republican who once worked at the Bush White House. "Barbara's still not sure about this," Forbes said. "You may have to help me convince her."
The driver dropped Forbes at his house and immediately called the staff at the Washington office to pass on what he had heard. Forbes himself called several hours later. The next day he held a press conference to tell the world. Ordinarily, Forbes's switch would have made the evening news. Unfortunately for him, Forbes chose to become a Democrat on the same day John Kennedy Jr.'s plane went down. The competition for coverage irritated Forbes. "This is really going to hurt my press," he told his executive assistant, Jeff LaCourse.
In his statement, Forbes complained, "There's no room in the Republican party in Congress for moderates like myself." The only problem is, Forbes was never a moderate. A pro-life, pro-gun member of the famously ferocious freshman class of 1994, Forbes voted for all four counts of impeachment against President Clinton. Each January, he held a reception in his Washington office for antiabortion protesters commemorating the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. This spring, he endorsed George W. Bush for president.
Forbes has since suggested that his endorsement of Bush was less than whole-hearted, and it probably was. Forbes originally planned to back Sen. John McCain in the presidential race. Earlier this year, he had discussions with McCain strategists, even floated the possibility of giving stump speeches on McCain's behalf. Then Al D'Amato called. Forbes once worked for D'Amato, and has remained in close contact with the former New York senator. According to LaCourse, "D'Amato told him, 'You're going to endorse Bush, and that's all there is to it.'" Forbes, who by all accounts is afraid of D'Amato, grudgingly agreed. "We paid the price for it," says LaCourse. "He was in a bad mood for a week."
Forbes won't have to take calls from Al D'Amato anymore. But he still hasn't retracted his endorsement of George W. Bush. Nor, apart from the usual talking points about Republican extremism, has he explained why, exactly, he switched parties. A high-level Democratic staffer who has spoken extensively with Forbes says two events pushed him over the edge. First was a speech that Rep. Tom DeLay gave shortly after the shootings at Columbine High School. In it, DeLay seemed to blame day-care programs for producing a generation of violent children. "That upset Forbes a great deal," says the staffer, "especially since his own kids had been through day care. He thought it was out of touch." The second event occurred just four days before Forbes switched parties, when Republicans sponsored a non-binding resolution condemning sexual relations between adults and children. Like just about everyone else in the House, Forbes voted for the resolution. At the same time, explains the Democratic staffer, he was disgusted by Republican grandstanding. "He said, 'Of course [pedophilia] is bad. But should we really be talking about this?'"
LaCourse remembers Forbes's reaction differently. The pedophilia vote was held on a Monday, which forced Forbes to return to Washington earlier than usual. Forbes was infuriated by the time he got to Washington, yelling at his chief of staff when he arrived. "He's very lazy," says LaCourse. "He just hated coming in."
After this fall, Forbes may never have to come in again. His district -- mostly Suffolk Country, at the Hamptons end of Long Island -- is largely Republican. By switching parties, Forbes has guaranteed himself a tough general-election race. But he may also face a primary challenge. For months, Tony Bullock, the 42-year-old chief of staff to retiring New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, has been mulling a run for Forbes's seat. Bullock held various elected offices in the district for more than a decade, beginning in 1983. He is smart and well connected, and he loathes Mike Forbes. "Intellectually, he's a lightweight," Bullock says. "He's a person with very little basic decency."
Worse, Bullock claims, Forbes is still a conservative. "Mike Forbes is pro-life, pro-impeachment, proassault weapon, pro-Bush," Bullock says. "My phone has practically melted the past few days from Suffolk County Democrats calling to say, 'My God. I'm not going to work for this guy. I'm not going to vote for him.'" Party strategists at the DCCC, Bullock claims, didn't learn anything about the politics of the district before encouraging Forbes to become a Democrat. "The geniuses who thought this up should have done the research," Bullock says. Instead, "they may have gone to the Hamptons once for the weekend. . . . They're running a dead animal for this slot."
Staff at the DCCC, meanwhile, dismiss Bullock as a malcontent who will never find the courage to challenge Forbes. Bullock may or may not run, but some of his points are harder to dismiss. How, for instance, will the state party run Forbes alongside its presumed Senate candidate, Hillary Clinton? "How can he stand there next to Mrs. Clinton," Bullock asks, "with his George W. Bush pin and his pro-life record?" And how will Forbes explain away his long association with Dov Hikind, the hotheaded Brooklyn assemblyman who has repeatedly denounced Mrs. Clinton for her "love affair with Yasser Arafat"?
It's not clear that Forbes thought about any of this before he took the plunge. None of his former staffers seems to have any idea why he switched parties, though many mention that he had been acting odder than usual in recent months. "He's bi-polar," says one. "I think the clinical term is manic-depressive," says Jeff LaCourse. "All his behavior is weird. This is just the culmination of it."
Tony Bullock has never worked for Forbes, but he sees the same pattern. "It's a desperate act of selfimmolation," Bullock says. "He's a few fries short of a Happy Meal."
Tucker Carlson is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.