Can money buy love for Forbes? Candidate: The wealthy GOP presidential hopeful is a man who has everything, except perhaps voters' respect.

January 16, 2000|By John Hendren

NEW YORK -- Bertie Forbes spent a lot of the little money he had to convince people that he was what he was not: rich.

The young journalist bought a suit and booked a room at the Waldorf. It was the best way to meet the business leaders he wrote about, the impoverished Scottish immigrant told friends. "It was spending, but with a purpose," says his grandson, Steve Forbes.

Eighty years later, Steve Forbes has no problem persuading anyone of his wealth. His concern is showing people he can be president. To that purpose, he's spending like a sailor with a trust fund and a two-day pass. He exhausted $37 million of his family fortune pursuing the Republican presidential nomination in 1996. He's expected to spend $50 million on his 2000 bid. Taking a cue from his grandfather, he spent $3 million on an advertisement that shows him in an Oval Office-style setting, looking like a president. The spots cost as much as the Bedminster, N.J., home he shares with his wife, Sabina, and five daughters.

Such lavish spending is significant for a man friends say is tightfisted in his personal life. At home, he's the frugal Forbes, a guy who drives from his 495-acre farm to the local grocery store in an old Ford station wagon.

During his 1996 presidential bid, he favored the $2.22 breakfast special at Friendly's. "He'd carefully count out the tip, too," says Jude Wanniski, a conservative political economist and former Forbes advisor.

But as head of the Forbes Inc. magazine empire, he's millionaire Malcolm Stevenson Forbes Jr., Fifth Avenue publishing magnate. He entertains advertisers on his 151-foot yacht equipped with a helipad (not deductible). He controls castles in England, France and Morocco and an island in Fiji. He travels in a private Boeing 727, "The Capitalist Tool." And with a fortune estimated at $500 million, he is worth more than any past candidate but Ross Perot.

Forbes is willing to spend liberally to enhance the prestige of the Forbes empire. His brother, Tim Forbes, says that, like their grandfather, Steve "thought there'd be a return on that investment." The candidate seems to treat his campaign like a business expense, calling his outlay to date "money well spent."

His deep pockets could help him outlast the more conventional candidates taking on the GOP favorite, Texas Gov. George W. Bush. But why would Steve Forbes want to be president? After all, campaign director William Dal Col calls him the only candidate for whom the White House would mark a decline in lifestyle.

He's hardly a typical candidate -- the famously bland son of a flamboyant father who made his four sons practice bagpipes and wear kilts to church or lose their 25 cents allowance. A stilted orator, Steve Forbes seems more at ease giving wonkish talks on the gold standard than mingling with voters.

He says he's emulating his grandfather, who founded a magazine after he tired of writing about other people's money. "Call it a mission, call it purpose, call it principles, but I want to make things happen," the candidate says.

But the third-generation publisher might be more his father's son than his grandfather's scion. Malcolm Forbes Sr. was an aspiring politician, a town councilman who twice ran unsuccessfully for governor of New Jersey, promising no state income tax.

"There is a feeling of carrying on for Dad" in Forbes' presidential bid, says Marshall Loeb, the former editor of Fortune, a rival magazine. "If Dad didn't make it to the governor's mansion in New Jersey, perhaps his son would make it to the White House."

Steve Forbes has assumed his father's hobby of collecting political memorabilia, in addition to the clan's famed collection of gilded Faberge eggs. As a freshman at Princeton University, Malcolm Forbes spent 18 months' allowance for a handwritten note from Abraham Lincoln.

Two sons, Steve and Robert, have expanded the collection, which includes Lincoln's stovepipe hat, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's note surrendering to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, and a draft of President Richard M. Nixon's letter announcing his intention to resign.

Forbes took his first steps into politics by crafting a tax plan for New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, a neighbor and former classmate at Far Hills Country Day School.

He denies inheriting his political aspirations, but he acknowledges one gift from his father: "His sheer spirit of living. You go at it with verve and gusto. If you have a dream, try to realize it, don't dream it."

A broad gulf in style remains between father and son.

Malcolm Forbes was known for extravagance, including a $2 million bash in Morocco for his 70th birthday, with Elizabeth Taylor as arm candy. The younger Forbes recalls that when he joined the family business, his father told him to develop his own style of leadership, "or it'll be a quick trip to the grave."

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