Steve Forbes Loses One More Time: His Brother Tim Takes Over Forbes

STEVE FORBES TOOK THE PODIUM in Ballroom A of the Hyatt Regency hotel in Washington, D.C., just a few blocks away from the White House, on Feb. 10, to announce that he was ending his run. The press conference came after he had spent more than $66 million of his own fortune on two Presidential campaigns.

Toward the end, a reporter asked him, “What are you going to do now, immediately?”

“Well,” said Mr. Forbes, “in terms of what I do now, yes, I will be going back to Forbes magazine. In fact, tomorrow I’ve got to write some editorials. Deadlines are deadlines. They spare no one.”

Not so fast, Mr. Forbes. The staff in the Fifth Avenue headquarters of the business magazine has been getting along just fine without you.

“I would have laughed if he said he had deadlines to meet,” one unbelieving former Forbes staff member said.

Before his two runs, Mr. Forbes was never much of a hands-on editor in chief at the magazine he more or less inherited from his father, Malcolm Forbes. His column in every issue of the twice-monthly magazine consists of five or so 250-word items on foreign and economic policy; a two-person team helps him put it together. Mr. Forbes stopped in at the Forbes office on Feb. 14 and formally ended his 11-month leave of absence on Feb. 15.

By running for President practically nonstop since he first declared his candidacy in 1995, Mr. Forbes has spent years away from his post at the helm of the Forbes publishing empire. And while he was frittering away his millions on the campaign trail, his brother Tim, the youngest of the Forbes clan, has been handling the company’s affairs. His title is chief operating officer. And the staff loves him. They liked the way he carried weights in a backpack and ran up the office stairs to get in shape until that skiing accident last year. (Now he works out in the office gym.)

“He’s a really nice guy,” said one staff member. “He’s super-friendly.”

Contrast that with Steve. Reporters at the magazine have been sick of the fact that, too often when they’re making a call on a story, they have to put up with chitchat from sources and story subjects about their boss’ quixotic attempts to win the White House. It was cramping their style.

“It’s a little embarrassing,” said one Forbes writer, “because I think the magazine is really respected in business circles, and he’s such a joke. The American populace isn’t taking him seriously, either.”

There may be people on earth who thought Mr. Forbes did a good thing when he spent $66 million on his own apparently unrealistic ambitions, but there don’t seem to be many of them working at Forbes .

“We’re just like, ‘Pffft!'” said one Forbes staff member. “It’s as much a joke to the people inside as it is to the people outside.”

With Mr. Forbes due back from the political wars any day now, people at the magazine are pondering a deepening mystery: Just who owns the majority stake in Forbes ? Last October, Mr. Forbes confirmed that he raised some of the campaign cash by selling off part of his stake to the existing shareholders of Forbes Inc.-that is to say, to his siblings. Since Mr. Forbes inherited 51 percent of the family business from his father, that likely means that Steve no longer owns the majority of the shares. Citing the fact that it is a private enterprise, a spokesman for the Forbes business would not reveal the identity of the majority owner.

Three recent newspaper clippings on Mr. Forbes have been tacked onto the cubicle walls of the fourth floor. One, a Washington Post profile from Nov. 12, is headlined, “Forbes Reveals Little but His Ideas; Rich Enigma Is Most at Ease With Policy.” The other two articles are a bit more telling: a Dec. 31 Wall Street Journal article reporting that Mr. Forbes’ gross annual income increased 67 percent in two years, to $2.5 million in 1998, and an Oct. 28 New York Times story looking into how Mr. Forbes was financing his campaign.

In that article, The Times reported that, despite his estimated net worth of $440 million as of 1996, “Mr. Forbes does not have the cash on hand to foot his enormous bills.” In order to come up with the money, the report said, Mr. Forbes sold some of his Forbes company shares and had slipped from being a 51 percent owner to being simply a major shareholder.

A Forbes Inc. spokesman told Off the Record recently: “He said, he has always said he has sold personal resources to finance his campaign,” but refused to discuss other details of the report.

While Mr. Forbes has been exploring Iowa and New Hampshire, Tim Forbes has taken control of the family business. He was a semiotics major at Brown University and attended U.C.L.A.’s film school before he joined the Forbes stable in 1986, at age 32, to run the six times yearly, advertising-free journal American Heritage . Shortly before his father Malcolm died in 1990, Tim was involved in the ultimately unsuccessful negotiations to buy Interview from the Andy Warhol estate. Tim headed up the 1990 launch of Egg , a vapid but beautiful life-style magazine for upscale urban hipsters that folded a year later.

In September 1995, when Steve took his first leave of absence, Forbes Inc. announced that Tim would “assume leadership responsibilities as acting chief executive.” After Steve dropped out of the race in 1996, Tim got a promotion to chief operating officer and kept his role as the overseer of day-to-day operations.

Forbes insiders said Tim’s role hasn’t changed much since then, as he continues to court advertisers and attend corporate functions as the representative of Forbes Inc. While Steve is rarely seen around the office, Tim is there almost daily.

Several Forbes staff members assumed that Tim was the sibling who bought big brother Steve’s shares, but Tim wasn’t talking and neither was the spokesman. As to what Mr. Forbes’ role would be now that he is back, it’s murky. The spokesman said: “Steve Forbes has his column which he writes and other responsibilities, which he did not detail to me.”

Other members of the clan include Christopher Forbes, the vice chairman of Forbes Inc., and Robert Forbes, who is president of Forbes Global and Forbes FYI .

EVERY SO OFTEN, a literary media star is born. In the early 90’s, it happened to novelist Donna Tartt, and later in the decade it happened to memoirist Elizabeth Wurtzel. Now it is happening to Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius .

The campaign began in earnest with The New Yorker in October of last year. The news: McSweeney’s “is a deeply intelligent publication that offers a mixture of playful postmodern fiction and quirky reported pieces.” A big color photo, splashed across two pages like a centerfold, showed Mr. Eggers and the McSweeney’s gang living the bohemian good life on a rooftop. Self-effacing quote: “I try to make the magazine as untimely and irrelevant as possible.” Six pages later, there was an excerpt of his book.

Then came the Hartford Courant on Dec. 28, 1999, page 2 of the Life section. The news: Staggering Genius picked as the best book of the year 2000.

Then there was a big profile in Shift magazine’s January 2000 issue. The news: “Eggers’s star is rising almost in spite of him. He does everything at the last possible minute, publishes only what amuses him, and never, ever compromises his beliefs for money or status.” Self-effacing quote: “It will never have a point,” says Mr. Eggers about his own Web site, “it will never make a dime, and that’s what makes it fun.”

Along came the February issue of Spin . The news: Mr. Eggers reviews his own book. Self-effacing quote: “Good lord it gets ugly and strange. And thus, while I feel comfortable recommending this book to anyone who is precisely like me, I hesitate to thrust it upon anyone else. Is any of this interesting to anyone outside his family and small, ill-bred coterie of friends?”

The Jan. 31 issue of New York was next, with a four-page profile, including full-page photo. The news: “He has a handsome Irish face … and when it crinkles up into a devilish smile, you know he’s pulling your leg, but you’re not sure why.” Self-effacing quote from Mr. Eggers: “You get tired of using the word ‘I.’ At least I do.”

The big one: The New York Times , Feb. 1, 2000. ” A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius may start off sounding like one of those coy, solipsistic exercises that put everything in little ironic quote marks, but it quickly becomes a virtuosic piece of writing, a big, daring, manic-depressive stew of a book that noisily announces the debut of a talented-yes, staggeringly talented new writer,” writes the paper’s chief book critic, the hard-to-please Michiko Kakutani.

Then it was Time , Feb. 7, 2000, page 72. The news: “Eggers, 29, is not the first person you’d expect to produce a touching memoir, perhaps the least cool thing a young editor could do.” Self-effacing quote: When offered a chance to see a copy of his book for the first time, Mr. Eggers said, “‘No! I asked them not to send it to me.’ But then: ‘Does it look good?'”

Then, the Daily News , Feb. 8, 2000, page 58. The news: Though film companies are bidding as much as $2 million for the movie rights to Staggering Genius , Mr. Eggers has rebuffed both Miramax Films and New Line Cinema. Self-effacing quote from Mr. Eggers’ book agent Elise Chaney: “There is no movie deal. The book is not on the market.”

The March issue of Vanity Fair hit the newsstands. Snuggled into the Vanities section was a photo of his by-now-familiar unkempt writing room in Brooklyn. The news: He made his publisher strike the word “memoir” from the title of his book. Self-effacing quote: “I’m a pain in the ass.”

The New York Times , Feb. 10. The news: The paper’s London correspondent Sarah Lyall flies to New York to tell the world, “In the throes of some early media stardom that seems guaranteed only to escalate, Mr. Eggers comes across as quizzical, friendly and very slow-spoken.” Self-effacing quote from an unidentified friend of Mr. Eggers, addressing the topic of his rising fame: “Oh, no, make it stop.”

The next day’s Style section of The Washington Post marked the beginning of what might be called the Eggers media backlash. The news: “There has been so much buzz about his book … that Eggers is almost passé, washed up at 29.”

CAREFUL READERS OF A.M. ROSENTHAL’S first column for the Daily News on Feb. 11 may have noticed that he had a little more space than the other columnists. Mr. Rosenthal’s column was 750 words versus the 600 allotted to the others.

“My column at The Times was 755, and theirs was less, and so they very nicely redid the page,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “I couldn’t write less.”

Is this a sign of special treatment for the News ‘ latest hire? “Absolutely true,” said editorial page editor Michael Goodwin. “We think he has something to say, and it is worth accommodating him.”

Mr. Rosenthal, who was the executive editor of The New York Times from 1977 to 1986 and an Op-Ed page columnist there from 1986 to 1999, said he’s very happy at the tabloid. “I’m not asked to do anything differently, and the understanding I have with them is the same as the one I had at The Times ,” he said. “I write about the subjects that interest me, and nobody interferes. Of course, I’m only on my second one, but that’s the understanding.”

He hasn’t taken an office at the Daily News yet. “I’ve been writing at home,” Mr. Rosenthal said, “which is a difficulty because my machinery, my fax, keeps breaking down. Can you fix a fax?”

Mr. Rosenthal’s column will appear in the News every Friday. He is also writing two columns per month for Generationa.com, a Web site targeted to people over 50. (The Internet column is even longer, at 1,400 to 1,500 words.) Mr. Rosenthal kept his syndication rights when he signed up with the News , so he is also currently looking for a syndicator to distribute his weekly column.

Pretty soon, Mr. Rosenthal plans to take an office at the Daily News. “Maybe they’ve got faxes that work,” he said.

He’s actually been in the building only a couple of times. Were people impressed to have the legendary Times man around?

“I’d like to think so. I didn’t detect it, but I’d like to think that,” Mr. Rosenthal said. “They treated me in a very warm way.”

Off the Record can be reached by e-mail at gsnyder@observer.com.