Malcolm S. Forbes, Jr.: A Brief for '96
Jude Wanniski
March 27, 1995

 

A serious movement among the friends of Steve Forbes is underway to persuade him to ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996. I'm one of those friends who believes Steve is exactly what the nation and the world needs as the next American President He is the only man I know who has been thoroughly prepared for the leadership that will be required of our president at this moment of history. No other candidate in the field is now ready for the particular intellectual demands the world will be throwing at the White House as we prepare for the 21st century. He is more than a replacement for Jack Kemp as the GOP Growth Candidate. From little up, Steve has been trained in the American tradition that began with the idea that the highest aspiration of a boy would be to grow up to be President a dynastic version of which clearly prepared Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy for national leadership.

I've known Steve, who is 47, for roughly 20 years. Our political friendship began with conversations at economic conferences we both attended in the mid-1970s I as an editorial writer for The Wall Street Journal, Steve as his father's son, training for the day when he would take over the Forbes empire. In 1978, he wrote of my book, The Way the World Works: "[It] could do for the Republican Party what Marx's Manifesto did for Communism." Our contacts increased as we moved toward the Reagan Revolution, and since 1980 he has received all of our writings. In recent years, our weekly telephone discussions have shared information and opinions, with never an argument over fundamental principles. Our homes are several miles apart in Northern New Jersey, far enough so our family contacts have been rare, close enough to get together for periodic breakfasts at the Madison Hotel in Convent Station, N.J.

It first occurred to me that Steve was political timber in early 1992, when I heard him speak before a large audience at a Forbes conference in Bermuda. I saw a talent belied by his natural shyness and quiet modesty. It was a smart crowd of business people who advertise in the magazine, typically first- and second-generation entrepreneurs whose companies now trade on NASDAQ. Steve spoke without notes for 30 minutes, surveying the world business and political economy. It was an awesome display of intelligence and philosophy, crisply and persuasively delivered. In private conversation, even one-on-one, I'd not realized the breadth of his communication potential. This is because he had been trained to ask and listen, almost to a fault. Two-thirds into his presentation, I thought to myself that he might be the best public speaker in the nation, and told him so immediately after his talk. Not that he wowed the audience, although he got warm applause at the conclusion of his remarks. I meant best public speaker in the sense that at the highest level of discourse on public policy, he could convey thoughts and images so simply and clearly that their wisdom and insight easily reach every person in the audience. Soon after, I heard that our mutual friend George Gilder had been telling people that he thinks Steve is the finest speaker among today's conservatives.

It was not until 1993, though, that it began to occur to his friends that Steve was presidential timber. Part of the thinking occurred as Jack Kemp began the process of disengaging from the presidential idea. Among the first to suggest the idea to Steve was Ted Forstmann, who had founded Empower America in 1992 with the idea of advancing the principles of the Reagan revolution. When the enterprise floundered and seemed on the verge of extinction, Ted asked Steve, a board member, to take over as chairman. This was after watching Steve rescue the New Jersey gubernatorial campaign of Christie Whitman by urging her to adopt a tax-cut strategy against the incumbent, Jim Florio. Later, when the insiders began to see that Kemp might not run, Steve suggested that Ted think of running a Perot-type campaign. Ted, who knows he does not have the patience to suffer that endurance test, asked Steve why he didn't think about it himself. Some months later, Ken Tomlinson, editor of Reader's Digest, began touting Steve for President. Tomlinson, who had left the Digest in the Reagan years to become director of the Voice of America, got to know Steve up close, as Steve had been appointed by Reagan as the chairman of the Board for International Broadcasting, a part-time post that oversees the VOA and Radio Free Europe and has brought Steve to every corner of the globe.

It was not until Kemp announced on January 30 that he would not seek the nomination that the pot began to stir for Steve. Through the month of February there remained the possibility that Senator Bob Dole, the frontrunner, would move to occupy the vacuum that Jack had left in the party. Instead, Dole moved away from the Kemp wing of the party, to contest Sen. Phil Gramm for the fragments of the party organization that control the austerity wing. The March 6 New York Times Magazine cover story on Dole dampened chances that the Reaganauts would take a Dole candidacy seriously as Dole explicitly blamed the budget deficits on Reagan ideology. The Dole assertion was obviously a casual one, but it exploded all hopes that Dole had internalized even the essential ingredients of the Reagan revolution.

Steve Forbes has internalized the essentials and more. If the nation and the world more than anything else need a leader who can help guide a peaceful revolution in bottom-up entrepreneurial capitalism, he is the only man whose life has prepared him for that assignment. John Sears, the political wizard who helped both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan on the road to the White House, now believes the country is ready for a leader who will assist the entire world in learning the American way of democratic capitalism. None of the state governors are equipped for that assignment. None of the U.S. Senators who are contesting for the GOP nomination have more than a vague sense of what that involves. There is not one of them who can hold a conversation of any depth with Steve that links international money, banking, commerce and global diplomacy. The debacle in Mexico is only one example of a developing nation attempting to emulate our experience and being crushed by the ineptitude of our politicians. Even Kemp can't match Steve's firsthand experience in this realm, although he comes closest, having learned by reading. He outshines Steve in his firsthand experience with the mechanisms of governance, but those are skills that would be available to a President Forbes.

Those of us who are discussing these possibilities with Steve suggest his running mate almost certainly should be a successful governor of a major state. This is not only to fuse the experience that Steve lacks at the statehouse level to the White House, but also to provide a direct and secure conduit to the federal government from the nation's 50 governors. This idea recommends Michigan's Gov. John Engler, the governor most often named in the brainstorming behind a Forbes candidacy. Engler's Catholicism adds a balance to Forbes' Protestantism. There is no balance in their families: Between them they have eight daughters and no sons, including Steve and Sabina's five older girls and John and Michelle's four-month-old triplets.

Will it happen? A surprisingly large number of his friends now believe it will. Even a few who at first thought it unlikely have on reflection said it seems natural and doable. It will take a bit more to persuade Steve, but he is much further along than he was when the idea was first raised. He is listening very carefully and extending discussions into wider circles. The idea can still go in different directions or it may wind up going nowhere. It is, though, extremely serious, with serious people involved. I thought it important you should know about it now.