If Money Drives Politics, Steve Forbes Is a Lincoln

Time was when the J-school media critics would complain that political campaigns were covered as though they were horse races. This remonstrance was followed by lamentations about the failure to cover the issues–but it’s easier to bitch about the lack thereof than to define them.

That’s old stuff these days. Now we cover campaigns as we cover the stock market. Get the money or forget about it. Even the opinion polls have been pushed aside for bar charts showing who has raised the most, who has spent the least, and so forth.

The money angle finds a way into every election story, as with this one in The Washington Post , ostensibly about Gee Dubbya Bush as a campaigner: “Candidate Bush is supremely confident, even cocky. On a recent afternoon he was calling signals at a football camp in Sacramento, Calif. ‘Sixty-two,’ he barked. ‘Seventy-seven. Thirty-six-point-two-five.’ The crowd broke up in laughter. The last number was a reference to the amount of money ($36.25 million) his campaign had just announced it had raised.” In the old days the campaign managers used to come out from behind the curtains to trumpet that Boss So-and-So’s organization had endorsed the candidate, thus assuring that his boy would carry Missouri. Not nowadays. They don’t give a flying fig for endorsements and there are no organizations. The managers come out from behind the scenes to shout to the world that another couple of million have been deposited and that’s why we’re going to carry Colorado.

The minutiae of campaign money manipulation are the staple of political reportage. The other day, The New York Times had a piece explaining that Mr. Bush’s expenditure of $43,500 for a strategically located place in the amphitheater where next month’s Iowa’s Republican straw poll would take place did not come from his hard-money campaign fund but from his soft-money campaign fund. (If you don’t know the difference between hard and soft money, you don’t vote so you needn’t read any further into this screed.) Would that we had as clear a grasp of the meaning of Gee Dubbya’s compassionate conservatism as we do of his fiscal shrewdness.

The same Times article carried a quote from one Keith Appell, described as a spokesman for Steve Forbes, who declared, “This [soft money expenditure] raises a serious question about how ethical a Bush Administration would be, especially when we know he’s raised a gazillion dollars from Washington special-interest lobbyists.” Don’t you love it when the rich preach money morals? Not that we ought to put Gee Dubbya, who has a few coins in his jeans, in the category of the downtrodden poor, but it has been the Forbes tactic to watch his rivals ensnare themselves in the confining strictures of the Federal election laws and then outspend them. Gee Dubbya has stepped around that snare by refusing Federal matching funds and thereby reducing Mr. Forbes to carping about ethics.

Mr. Forbes evidently is rich enough to indulge in ethical poses on such topics as “Washington special interest lobbyists.” There being no general interest lobbyists, who else is a politician to take money from?

As we are coming up on the quadrennium, Mr. Forbes is off his yacht and back on dry land, a candidate again. He hasn’t done this quite often enough yet to be scored off as a rich crank but one or two more times and he will be food for Jay Leno. Yet each time he runs, the same set of questions offer themselves up. They are more pressing this time than last, because he has spent enough, long enough to be taken as a real political figure. Editorial writers listen to this man, who himself lays claim to but one accomplishment, to wit, arranging to have a very rich father. They’ve gotten used to the idea that this whack-a-doodle is a plausible public figure.

In the Jesse Ventura era, maybe he is. Nonetheless, compared to Steve Forbes, Hillary Clinton is a politician with a respectable record. Even next to Ross Perot, who, incidentally, really did have a respectable record before visions of conspiracies drove him slightly cuckoo, Mr. Forbes is a slow-witted, ordinary college-boy Republican. A formulaic plodder.

Other than his checkbook telling him he can afford to if he wants to, why does Steve Forbes keep running for President? It’s not the same as John Adams and John Quincy Adams, not the same as Papa Bush and the shrubs, but one wonders if there is some kind of slightly bent motive concerning his father in Steve Forbes. Rather interesting, eh, wot? He was a nothing, a zero, a non-object until his sire died.

The father had a middling successful career as a New Jersey politician. He wanted to run for President himself, but, after getting skunked in a run for the Garden State’s governorship, he became famous beyond New Jersey’s borders as the flamboyant, not to say flaming, publisher-owner of the magazine founded by Steve Forbes’ grandfather, Bertie. During all the years of Malcolm’s glory, which grew more garish and somewhat scandalous as he slouched into old age, the boy Steve was invisible. He was, you might say, just hangin’ out.

The guy did nothin’–zilch–as long as the old man was alive. The father dies and shaazzaam! The son bursts out of nowhere in an apparent psychic contest with his father’s shade to buy greater fame and respect as a big-time Republican politician. No, more than that, Steve actually aims at fulfilling his father’s ambition to live in the White House. Can money, which seems to be able to do everything else in politics, make this rich boy’s psycho-fantasy dream come true?

Maybe, maybe not. It can assuredly get him back on television. He’s on the air again with that mad gleam in his eye, flashing his goofy serial-killer smile which makes him look like a nightmare doll in a horror movie. Of course, if he does succeed in buying his way into office, it will be a horror movie because this boyo has no truck with compassionate conservatism. That puss of his is the self-satisfied face of a heartless reactionary.

He seems to have had some coaching on his public speaking since the last time he left the stable. He’s a little smoother and his line has changed. In ’96, he was running as some kind of Flat World Society libertarian, while this time he’s gone over to the blue-nose crowd and is now content to see police power used to enforce private morals.

When all’s said and done, Mr. Forbes may end up looking good with his inherited money. If he is able to buy the Republican nomination despite Gee Dubbya’s best efforts at shaking the money tree, we could end up with a Gore-Forbes race or silver spoons versus filthy fingers. With Tony Coelho as his campaign chairman, Mr. Gore won’t lack for money with or without the backing of Buddhist temple ladies. Never mind that if Mr. Gore wins, he and his chairman may go straight from the inauguration to the penitentiary.

We are a nation preoccupied by money and the system we have devised for picking our public officials suits us. The best movie is the one with the biggest box-office gross. The best book is the bestest seller. You wait and see–candidates will shortly be issuing I.P.O.’s for their campaigns. So, may the candidate with the most moola win.