WASHINGTON -- When speaking of politics or policy, Steve Forbes has the concision of a columnist, which he is for his business magazine.
Cardinal rules of the columnist's craft are to be brief and change the subject frequently, and Mr. Forbes' ability to do both will serve him in his second run for the Republican presidential nomination: Televised politics is survival of the briefest.
When conversation turns to American history -- when he is asked which figures fire his admiration -- Mr. Forbes the writer is supplanted by Mr. Forbes the voracious reader.
"Polk," he begins briskly, bowing to one of the great nation-builders. Mr. Forbes' list of pinups continues with Grover Cleveland as presented in Allan Nevins' 1932 biography as a man of commendably starchy character who promoted lower tariffs and sounder money. And Charles Evans Hughes, who, if he had defeated Woodrow Wilson in 1916, might have managed an Anglo-American guarantee to France that could have prevented the Second World War, Mr. Forbes believes.
Political history tells the magazine publisher how unencouraging the precedents are for his foray from business into politics at the highest levels, but business history tells him to persevere: from Henry Ford to Bill Gates, history teaches that you can't foretell how people will react to a new product.
Mr. Forbes says that in 1940, when isolationism was strong, Wendell Willkie "sensed something big out there," and won the Republican nomination with no prior electoral experience.
Candidate Forbes' new product in 1996 was the flat tax. He considers that proposal not only a recipe for growth sufficient to sustain public services for an aging population, but also a political reform -- a way of taking the tax code out of the sort of political play that just produced a bill, from a Republican Congress, that tweaks the code in 824 ways.
The issue of tax reform is an asset enhanced by revelations of IRS abuses of the vast discretion inherent in an arcane code 7.5 million words long.
The warm reception of Mr. Forbes' recent address to the Christian Coalition suggests success in correcting one of his two largest mistakes last time -- his failure properly to address cultural conservatism.
His other 1996 mistake -- the negativism of his broadcast blitzkrieg against Bob Dole -- was dictated by something he has already avoided in preparing for the 2000 contest -- a very late start.
These days Candidate Forbes (unannounced, other than by his behavior) is a genteel dervish. Citing Theodore Roosevelt's maxim that it is better to wear out than rust out, he is traveling peripatetically and turning his organization, Americans for Hope, Growth and Opportunity, into the GOP's rapid response mechanism.
His organization's 57,000 dues-paying members may be the ground forces he did not have to supplement the broadcast air war he financed in 1996.
It has been said that an absence of honest passion defines professional wrestling and American politics. But Mr. Forbes has the passion.
Mr. Forbes' character, which is an alloy of an intellectual's zest and a gentleman's diffidence, is unintelligible and faintly ridiculous to much of the political class. But to an as yet undetermined number of Republicans, he seems an oddity in politics only because he is a practicing grown-up who talks to them as grown-ups.
He jokes about being "charismatically challenged." But his biggest challenge is to overcome the reluctance of voters to view the presidency as an entry-level political job.
If Mr. Forbes becomes the first person since Willkie to vault directly from business to a presidential nomination, it will be because his seriousness makes voters receptive to the adage that professionals built the Titanic, amateurs built the ark.
George F. Will writes a syndicated column.
Pub Date: 10/09/97