Revenge of the nerd

Steve Forbes' poll numbers in New Hampshire slowly rise even though the media ignores him.

Published December 11, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Even Steve Forbes' friends say he's a nerd. Joseph McQuaid, publisher of the Manchester Union Leader -- the man responsible for the newspaper's endorsement of Forbes last week -- told the Washington Post that Forbes was about as inspiring as a figurine on his desk. The Union Leader's endorsement of Forbes may be the only endorsement in this nation's history in which the candidate being endorsed was described as "look[ing] like a geek."

Though GOP rabble-rouser Alan Keyes fumes on and on about media racism, the real discrimination at hand is rampant anti-geekism. Or, at least, media prejudice against dorks is the best reason I can come up with for the following phenomenon. Last weekend, even though Forbes had just earned the enthusiastic endorsement of the Union Leader -- the state's largest paper, which endorsed New Hampshire primary winner Pat Buchanan in '96 -- and although Forbes maintained his solid No. 2 showing in the polls in Iowa, and shot up from 9 percent to 17 percent among New Hampshire Republican voters last week according to the latest Newsweek poll, he is still generally dismissed by the press corps as if he were an audio-visual club bookworm crashing the cool kids' kegger.

There were only two reporters following him around all weekend -- compared with throngs for Gov. George W. Bush, Sen. John McCain, former Sen. Bill Bradley and Vice President Al Gore. Even Keyes reportedly had something of a media pack in tow.

One oft-cited reason is that Forbes' political skills are wanting, and that on the stump, as well as in TV studio green rooms, he is awkward. This assessment isn't inaccurate -- he is stiff and socially challenged, his mien is nothin' but nerd -- a fact not helped by the fact that the strong prescription of his glasses make his eyes look like they're about four feet behind the rest of his head.

Forbes is hindered by exactly the same thing that helps John McCain: social skills. McCain is so comfortable being McCain he is all too eager to rattle off the ways in which he sucks. Forbes, conversely, seems a stranger in his skin, and is still something of a novice at human contact. At Forbes Inc. Christmas parties, former Forbes employees attest that their CEO could be seen humbly standing solo in the corner. A chat with Forbes -- and seeing him pressing the flesh and kissing babies -- adds credibility to this anecdote. He is thoughtful and genial, but incurably reserved. His eyes light up when he can drop a relevant historical reference. But his inquisitiveness seems to be all about books, and little about people. He does have a dry, clever wit, and he can use it effectively, if somewhat stiltedly, on the stump. But is it enough? Or is it even relevant?

Forbes doesn't think his wanting social skills are the reason the media generally treats him like a silly trifle. "I was just thinking of other fellow charismatically challenged candidates of the past," he says, citing former Sens. Bradley and Paul Tsongas and 1988 Democratic candidate Gov. Mike Dukakis -- who "weren't back-slappers, or the kind of guy you'd go out for a beer with, unless [they] were paying for it."

He claims that there are deeper reasons for his shunning by the media and political culture. "It goes beyond style," he says, "to background and substance."

Forbes' basic take is that the Washington establishment, including the media, does not take him seriously because he is not one of them. "The British civil service's Tories for a generation were enveloping whatever minister sat in the chair," Forbes says, evoking a customary tangential historical reference. "I think sometimes the political culture feels the same way. They can take off the rough edges and house-train you, and since I'm an outsider who's beholden to none of them, they have no hooks in me. They know I mean what I say, I can defend what I say, I can state what I believe in. So therefore, I think whether it's subliminal or what, they hope I don't get traction ... But I realized that going into the thing; it's one of the reasons I announced on the Internet."

"Obviously [members of the media] aren't going out of their way to put wind in my sails the way they do for McCain and Bradley," he said. "But I see them as economically what you would call a 'lagging indicator.' They'll get the message after the voters give it to them ... They chose to ignore [my second-place showing in the Iowa straw poll], but after the caucus and the primary it's going to be a little harder to ignore."

Still, the media snub seems to sting him a bit. "After the Iowa straw poll, the thing was summed up by the Des Moines Register," Forbes says. "The next day, they had a headline: 'Bush Finishes First.' Subheadline: 'Dole Finishes Third, Bauer Finishes Fourth, Buchanan Disappointing.' It's a good subject for an anthropologist some day."

Since Forbes repeatedly dissed Bob Dole in '96, in a series of kamikaze political ads, earning the animosity of the Republican establishment in the process, everyone's been looking to him to be the Bush-whacker in this go-round. But Forbes has mostly stuck to policy slams thus far, calling the Bush campaign's tax plan a "missed opportunity" for the flat tax reform he favors, and bashing Bush for being willing to consider raising the Social Security retirement age.

But these are fair shots. There is a tremendous policy chasm between the Bush and Forbes ideologies. And the Bush campaign is trickily going negative against Forbes for going negative on Bush. A pro-Bush group, the Republican Leadership Council, recently ran ads about Forbes, saying, "If he doesn't have anything nice to say -- don't say anything at all."

"When he got off the airplane in New Hampshire, there was a question thrown to George W. Bush about the Forbes ad on Social Security," Fox News Channel's Brit Hume reported on Dec. 5. "And he said, 'Well that's the way Forbes campaigns, he likes to tear people down.' ... But there is nothing personal about that ad ... But this is out there now, that it's negative campaigning if you criticize somebody's position on an issue. Some campaign we would have if nobody ever did that."

"I think it's a disgrace that you'd have a bogus front organization like that running attack ads against me," Forbes told the New York Observer. "If Gov. Bush wants to criticize me, he should come out in the open. Let's have a vigorous and honest debate instead of doing attack ads behind other groups that are funded by your big fund-raisers."

Though the definition of negative campaigning may be somewhat subjective, Forbes has certainly crossed that line on occasion. Faithful readers will recall that at one of Bush's first campaign appearances in New Hampshire, an odd young woman stood in the Manchester Holiday Inn -- where Bush was addressing a Republican women's forum -- handing out anti-Bush leaflets, attacking the Texas governor for 75 tax increases.

Whatever reporters asked this woman, she replied with an "X Files"-like refrain: "The truth about Bush will come out."

"Who printed this up?" I asked her.

"The truth about Bush will come out," she said.

"What's your name? Who are you with?"

"The truth about Bush will come out."

Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes said there were "a billion reasons why this thing is wrong. Every tax increase [Bush] supported was part of a net tax decrease of a billion dollars."

But the accuracy of the young woman's fact sheets wasn't really what struck me. It was her trance-like mantra, and the fact that someone was clearly paying her salary, and it was curious that she wouldn't own up to who exactly that was. After all, the tax increase allegations were all accurate, if out of context, and a fair example of not only Bush's inability to get his tax cut bill passed in the exact manner he wanted, but his willingness to compromise with those who would raise taxes here to pay for cuts in taxes there. So why the weirdness? It remained a mystery.

Until last weekend, that is, when I finally saw that young woman again. She is Forbes' western New Hampshire field representative, Jennifer Couture. And though she denied being the woman in question, it was no doubt her, and according to other Forbes staffers, she was on the Forbes 2000 payroll at the time.

While that sort of furtive political guerrilla tactic is a peculiar and ethically marginal way to criticize your opponent, Forbes has certainly been more aggressive in criticizing Bush publicly than McCain, whose effusive praise of the Texas governor has become something of a joke among political watchers. While Forbes has refused to say whether t he thinks Bush is intellectually up to the task of being president, he clearly thinks Bush's shallowness of intellect speaks for itself.

"Look what happened in the [Manchester] debate," Forbes says. "What did we learn? We learned he's governor. We learned that Texas is the second-largest state in the union. We learned it has the 11th-largest economy in the world. We learned that he reads a couple papers from Texas. He's reading a book on [Dean] Atcheson, though no one asked him who wrote it or what the title is. But beyond that what did we learn? Not much."

I pointed out that the Manchester Union Leader endorsement of Forbes calls Bush an "empty suit." Does Forbes agree with that? "Yeah," Forbes says. "That's what we need to learn. People want to know these things before an election instead of keeping your fingers crossed that it's going to work out after the election. I know the Republican Party's desperate to win ... but it's not going to win unless you have that strong message. You can't just say, 'Well, I'm a good guy, I've got proposals here, nothing that's going to upset anyone.' It's not going to work."

At a new-supporter event last weekend in Milford, N.H., Forbes even broke out into a subtle (and pretty funny) imitation of Bush's Texas twang when mimicking the politician who looks at the tax code as something to trim instead of overhaul. And on Dec. 3, after Bush brandished a circa-1977 quote from Forbes about raising the Social Security retirement age, Forbes responded afterward alluding to the rumors of Bush's wild youth, quipping, "When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible. And, unlike some, I grew away from that initial position and clearly some others are still stuck in it. At least you knew what I was doing in my youth. I was writing magazine columns ... Others haven't been so forthcoming about what they were doing."

Certainly anti-nerd prejudice and a reputation for playing dirty is not the only reason Forbes has struggled to get media attention or traction in the polls. For one, Forbes has never held elected office. And while he is not the only billionaire populist to run for president this decade, the posturing of a trust-fund baby as a Washington outsider and a man of the people is tough for many people to swallow. And in what has felt like an opportunistic religious-political conversion, Forbes has transformed himself from flat-tax robot to anti-abortion convert. In the July GQ, John Judis wrote, "At bottom [Forbes] doesn't share the religious right's conviction that abortion is outright murder and that he is simply currying its favor to win votes in the upcoming primaries and caucuses."

When all is said and done about pandering to the Christian right, however, it should be noted that of the three top Republican candidates -- McCain, Forbes and Bush -- it is only the Texas governor who has publicly refused to meet with the Log Cabin Society, a group of gay Republicans.

And while the secular media remains skeptical, conservatives have embraced the new Steve Forbes. In his campaign four years ago, Forbes' one issue was the flat tax, and he certainly didn't seem too keen on the Republican Party's religious conservative base when he called Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson a "toothy flake."

Forbes and Robertson have since made nice, of course, and Forbes was the only candidate other than Bush whom Robertson talked up at this year's Christian Coalition convention. Certainly Gary Bauer feels threatened in the battle for the religious vote. In debates, Bauer comes at Forbes as if he were the front-runner, not Bush or McCain.

After his loss in '96, Forbes made the decision that he wanted to win. Thus, he hired a bunch of the same folks who helped Pat Buchanan with his '96 insurgent campaign. And thus, the re-prioritization of his opposition to abortion and gun control -- which have no doubt helped him among the red-meat types who don't trust Bush or McCain. Forbes has been endorsed by such right-wing luminaries as Reagan aide Lyn Nofziger, Paul Weyrich of the Free Congress Foundation and Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., -- who has called Forbes "the one true Reaganite seeking the White House."

Forbes spokesman Keith Appell says that his boss mechanically repeated his flat-tax mantra in '96 because "he could only break through the noise by getting behind one issue."

But a Forbes '96 staffer says that Forbes has always been anti-abortion. "I would never have worked for him in '96 if he hadn't been," the staffer says. "I don't think he's had a change in heart on the issues, I just think he's had a change in priorities. He was always pro-life, but now he's out saying he'd protect life first and foremost, even before the flat tax, and that is definitely a change in priorities. Sure, there's an element of pandering in that. But in '96 Steve underestimated conservative voters in Iowa and South Carolina and their commitment to pro-life issues."

His pandering does occasionally reach a cloying intensity. For someone who only recently came to Jesus, he sure came quick. On Dec. 9, Forbes ripped Bush for naming a highway after "Houston abortionist, John B. Coleman ... a longtime target of anti-abortion protestors because he had run an abortion clinic and performed abortions."

"Is George W. Bush committed to the pro-life movement, or not?" Forbes asked. "Is he committed to naming a pro-life running mate? Is he committed to naming pro-life judges? He has, after all, named a highway after an abortionist."

But though Forbes says his first move as president would be to ban partial-birth abortions, his core message for New Hampshire and Iowa Republicans remains that of the Wall Street free marketeer with plans to empower the populace and machete government bureaucracies. While Bush, Bradley, Gore and McCain run on who they are, Forbes is running purely on his ideas. And make no mistake: Forbes is proposing a substance-based, multi-tiered revolutionary agenda, one borne from a conservative businessman's worldview, and credibly claiming the Reagan vision.

At a town meeting in the town of Milford on Dec. 3, a little girl, there to interview Forbes for a national grade schoolers' newspaper, summed up why Forbes is her favorite candidate.

"He believes in us," said Kelsey Dalrymple, a 9-year-old from Beaver Meadow Grade School in Concord. "He knows that we can make it true."

This is, in fact, Forbes' message: He wants to hand over all the decision-making power to you. Whether school vouchers, health insurance or a whole new Social Security system, Forbes has a businessman's plan for each of them that puts the power in the hand of the consumer. Er, that is, the voter.

Forbes swears that his personal retirement security system will not only give Americans more cash, but will empower them out of poverty. He bubbles over with enthusiasm for the possibilities of the stock market -- as opposed to sending your cash to Washington, where politicians inevitably devour it, as Forbes often jokes, like bears with a pot of honey. "The bears can't help it, it's their nature," he repeats over and over again on the stump. "Even if they promise you that they won't eat the honey, they will. The same is true with the political bears. So we ought to show compassion to these Washington critters and not put the pot of money there in the first place."

Forbes sees his plans as a great emancipator, a "new birth of freedom," as his book -- which he actually wrote -- is titled. "Even as you work, even if you're the waitress George Bush talked about [in the Manchester debate], with two kids, making $22,000 a year -- I was just doing some of the numbers today -- you take her Social Security tax, put it in a retirement account, buy bonds, let it grow in the stock market -- let's say she's in her early 20s -- by the time she reaches 65, 70, she'll have over $300,000," he says. "She'll earn more in her retirement than she did working, if she just draws the income from that money and passes it on to her kids. You start to talk about real assets."

But what if the waitress is an idiot and all she invests in is cubic zirconium?

"It's going to be an array of mutual funds," Forbes says, "it's not going to be gold mines in Siberia. When you look at this over an actuarial period, let's say they put 60 percent in stocks and only 40 percent in bonds, let's say the day she retires the stock market crashes and loses 90 percent in a day. A full-time worker will still earn far more in retirement than in the current system. That is what's so amazing."

Predictably, experts disagree about how "amazing" privatizing Social Security would be. The Brookings Institute's Henry Aaron has noted that since almost every privatization plan only addresses future recipients -- not current or soon-to-be-current, the money invested in private securities would really only amount to one-sixth of current payroll taxes.

Forbes' flat tax is still the centerpiece of his plan, and he swears that reducing all of the tax rates and loopholes will benefit not just what Gary Bauer refers to as Forbes' "rich friends" but the common Joe, too.

Bob McIntyre, director of Citizens for Tax Justice -- which favors "progressive taxation," that is, having the rich kick in more than the poor -- disagrees. "If you don't tax most of the richest income, which is what Forbes proposes -- by exempting their capital gains, exempting some kinds of interest on state and local bonds and private bonds, and you cut down the top income tax rate from 40 percent to 17 percent -- you're giving a really gigantic cut to people at the top of the income scale," McIntyre says.

Forbes counters that the flat tax is not just a net win for the rich, as they will have nowhere left to "hide," as their loopholes and shelters will be gone. But McIntyre laughs at this. "That's not true, of course," he says. "Forbes doesn't get rid of those loopholes -- like the special lower capital gains, for instance -- he just consolidates them all into one big giant loophole, so there is no longer a capital gains tax at all. Everybody but the very rich loses under his plan."

Economists disagree about the efficacy of every one of Forbes' plans, of course. But economists disagree on what time it is.

But while he is articulate and animated when talking numbers, he's akward when it comes to expressing what these numbers actually mean to real people. Though Forbes hints that the big difference between his past and present campaigns is that very realization.

"In the past four years," he says he's gained a deeper understanding of the human side of his vision by "talking to real people, talking to African-Americans who are very suspicious of the GOP. Finding out, sometimes painfully, what concerns people, what worries them. They'll ask you, 'My aunt has just been denied health care coverage.' Or veterans, it's amazing, everywhere you go, veterans complain about health care they're not getting. And they're almost pleading: 'Do something.' Just been thrown out of a nursing home. Or is being transplanted 90 miles away to somewhere else, have to drive three hours a day. 'How are we supposed to do that?'"

How do you react to that? I ask. Expressing emotions does not come easy to Forbes.

"You're, you're, you're, you're, you're, you're -- it hits the heart," he says. "And it reminds you."

Apparently, money can't buy you empathy, or at least the ability to convey it.

Forbes retreats to his internal historical library. "And that's why Abraham Lincoln always did what he called these baths of public opinion. He understood. People are not abstractions."

"And if you ever forget it, then you can get a coldness and a ruthlessness that you don't want in a democracy. People want a sense of direction. They also want a feeling that there's an empathy there for his aspirations and his problems ... It's why Harry Truman won in '48 ... They want a sense that you see people as flesh and blood ... It's what saved Clinton. It wasn't just that he was poised and slick. I don't know whether it's real or not, but he comes across as empathetic."

Forbes argues that he now feels these emotions. But is he expressing them? "It's not the kind of thing that'll be readily apparent," he concedes. "It's something that's cumulative. Something you have to earn and show over time. But to me, the American ideal is very, very real."

"The real picture of how people respond to him is different than what you see in the media," said Alveda King, a former Georgia legislator, a professor at Atlanta Metropolitan College and the niece of Martin Luther King Jr. "When people come out to hear him, they love what he says."

Out in grass-roots America, Forbes is not only proposing real policies, he seems to be even evolving a bit as a person. Ignoring him is just as unfair as picking on a high schooler just because he's a little geeky. And who knows, it might actually be unwise as well.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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