February is Steve Forbes' moment in national sun


February 11, 1996|By Don Aucoin | Don Aucoin,THE BOSTON GLOBE

Odds are that Steve Forbes will prove to be nothing more than the flavor of the month. But because the month of Mr. Forbes' fullest flavor happens to be the February of a presidential election year, attention must be paid to anything written about him.

In the Feb. 12 New Republic, senior editor Michael Lewis captures the GOP candidate's weirdly robotic quality in a few deft strokes. We learn that Mr. Forbes, the publisher of a magazine celebrating capitalist vigor, never asks a single question while touring New Hampshire factories, never "displays the slightest curiosity about or pleasure in how things work."

Mr. Forbes always gazes left to right at a crowd for eight seconds before a speech, then delivers the same speech, word for word, every time, and even grins and gestures in the same places. But Mr. Lewis picks up on even subtler behavioral clues to a man who is "so thoroughly uncomfortable in his skin [that] he is a match for the most constipated English aristocrat."

In Portsmouth, N.H., after a Rotarian honcho moves through a buffet line, Mr. Forbes watches him closely and takes precisely the food the Rotarian takes, in precisely the same portions, and arranges it identically on his plate. Then he eats the food consecutively: He finishes every grain of rice before he touches the chicken, all of the chicken before touching the beans, and so on. This is clearly not a guy who will have to be reminded by handlers to stay "on message."

Donahue assessed

A lack of spontaneity is about the only thing you could never accuse Phil Donahue of. In the same issue of TNR, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz assesses the creator of TV's cult of victimhood. Kurtz gives the just-retired Donahue points for grappling with serious issues from time to time and for pioneering the use of a microphone to harvest the unscripted opinions of average folks.

But Kurtz concludes that Donahue has only himself to blame for being eclipsed by trashier clones such as Ricki, Jerry, Montel and Geraldo, since "the very notion that people should wail about their sexual and social hang-ups before an audience of millions is the essence of the Donahue legacy."

Media assailed

I winced while reading James Fallows' cover story in the February Atlantic Monthly, "Why Americans Hate the Media," excerpted from his new book, "Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy."

Fallows relates how the media focus obsessively and often absurdly on the "how" of government -- political tactics, who's up and who's down -- while ignoring the public's hunger for details on the "what" of policy solutions to our problems.

Fallows adduces powerful evidence in his indictment of the media as hypocritical, lazy, morally obtuse and intellectually bankrupt -- and he names names. Let's just say that Mike Wallace, Peter Jennings, Michael Kinsley, Judy Woodruff and some others won't be recommending this issue of the Atlantic to their friends.

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