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Jewish World Review March 24, 1999 /7 Nissan 5759

David Corn

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Liddy and St. Steve

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PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGNS ARE EXERCISES in self-parody: There is no way candidates can repeat index-card-friendly messages (read: shtick) over and over without descending into caricature. In this pre-preseason of presidential ambitions—with candidates tripping over each other to announce their campaigns—the marvel is that some wannabes start out their White House bids already packaged as punchlines.

Elizabeth Dole unveiled the formation of her exploratory campaign during a talk-show-like event, working the crowd, microphone in hand, and discussing her merits. Chief asset? "I am not a politician," said the two-time Cabinet member who served in three other high-ranking administration jobs and who has been married to Bob Dole for 23 years.

She’s so not a politician that she’s refused to take questions about her ideas on policy issues, including abortion. (The "Issues" section on her web site is thinner than the "about Elizabeth" portion.) And when she was reviving the gimmick that went down well at the 1996 Republican convention, she made sure to hit her marks for the best camera shots.

Not a politician? She’s Rosie without opinions. Her first appearance reinforced the obvious: too smooth and possibly too shallow.

Steve Forbes also played to his weakness on his first official outing of Campaign ’00. The geekiest of the GOP bunch, he announced his candidacy on his website, which was supposed to position him as a man of the future. Instead, billionaire Forbes, who possesses a spooky robotic nature and comes across as a fellow who each morning is wound-up and dispatched by a Wall Street cabal, appeared even more mechanical than usual in the jerky Internet broadcast.

In any event, it’s easy to imagine why he made such a big deal of his Internet announcement. Many Netizens are economic libertarians and could well be taken with Forbes’ vow to slash government and institute a simple, flat tax (which would—surprise!—be a great deal for the rich). But Forbes may have trouble bagging those Netizens, since in the past year he’s become a firebrand social conservative.

When Forbes stumped in 1996, he dismissed the Christian Coalition—accurately pegging the group’s leader, Pat Robertson, as a "toothy flake"—and wiggled like a worm around the abortion issue. At the time, Forbes looked like a fellow who was running to advance a policy idea—the flat tax—and who wouldn’t limbo to the music of his party’s social right. He so aggravated the Christian Coalition that its activists mobilized behind Bob Dole, a candidate of lukewarm allegiance to their issues.

Now Forbes has undergone a political conversion. Preparing for his second run, last year he repeatedly appeared before religious right rallies; he declared that outlawing abortion is more important than implementing his cherished flat tax. I don’t begrudge anyone seeing the light, and maybe he really believes his new rhetoric.

It’s just not surprising that Forbes would shift camps; he’s simply joined the whatever-it-takes caucus of presidential candidates. But it is stunning that leading activists of the religious right have embraced him. Don’t they believe in penance? There ought to be a rule: If a candidate decides to move from secularist to religious rightist, she or he should have to sit out one presidential election. Call it a show of good faith.

But the religious right has welcomed Forbes into the flock and allowed him the opportunity to become a shepherd. How’s that for gullibility? Forbes’ transformation is hardly a shocker for a politician, even if he, like Liddy Dole, claims to be not a politician, but it would have been heartening to see the religious right question the quick-change act. The lesson is: Mammon talks, and principles walk.

At least New Hampshire’s economy will benefit. The religious right’s acceptance of Forbes can only encourage him, so he’ll pour millions into a flood of negative ads aimed at his fellow GOPers. Back in 1996, Forbes blitzed Bob Dole with a fury of nasty ads in the first-primary state, softening him up for Pat "the Pitchfork" Buchanan. Democrats delighted in Forbes’ Normandy-like assault on poor Dole. I remember one devilish radio ad Forbes ran featuring Lamar Alexander criticizing Dole. Most listeners probably presumed the commercial was made and placed by Alexander, who could then be blamed for assailing a fellow Republican and breaking Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment. But at the end of the spot, an announcer noted the piece was paid for by the Forbes campaign.

It was a clever bank shot.

The day it ran, I encountered Forbes outside a New Hampshire television station. I asked him, "You’ve said you’ve stopped running negative ads against Bob Dole, but what about this radio ad being broadcast this morning?"

He stared at me unblinkingly—he has that iguana stare—and said he was no longer airing commercials badmouthing Dole. But, I protested, I just heard it three times on the ride to the station. He repeated his denial. I didn’t know how to respond. How do you ask someone about the smoking gun in his hand, if he says there is no gun there? Victor Navasky, then the editor of The Nation, later told me that I had missed a grand opportunity. I should have said to Forbes, "Oh, yeah, you wanna bet?"

Forbes is poised to reprise his slasher act. A p.r. operative in Washington close to the Forbes campaign says that the outfit is going full-throttle in its opposition research against Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the speak-no-specifics, unannounced frontrunner. Forbes’ burrowers are digging into every business deal W. ever sniffed at. They’re looking for examples of hot-headedness, chasing stories of temper tantrums and misuses of Texas state offices to settle scores with foes, real or perceived. Even though RNC Chairman Jim Nicholson and other prominent GOPers are urging the Republican presidential contenders not to carve each other up—and Forbes is the foremost target of these admonitions—don’t expect restraint on Forbes’ part. He realizes it’s going to take extreme measures to derail W. Since 1960, whenever the GOP had a true nomination battle, which has occurred six times, the frontrunner snagged the nomination in every instance but one.

The exception: Barry Goldwater vanquishing Nelson Rockefeller in 1964. This is proof of the Republican Sheep Theory, which states that Republican voters do what they’re told to by the party leaders. This election, it means voting for Bush the Younger. Forbes and the others are going to have to whack away at W. to have any shot. I wonder how Forbes’ new pals on the right will react when he starts behaving in a distinctly non-Christian fashion?

I’m also curious what Forbes’ new religious-right comrades think of the fact that the fortune he is spending was amassed by a man of libertine repute, his father. In the early 1980s, when I lived in Manhattan and engaged in (or tried to engage in) whirlwind socializing, I often heard of the wild parties on Malcom Forbes’ yacht. I was invited once or twice, but took a pass, since I was informed this party vessel was manned mostly by men seeking men. If only Malcolm could watch his son now, consorting with the intolerant right, with those who lie in bed at night fretting that somewhere out there men are making love to other men.

If Malcolm could have foreseen this, he might have become a fan of generation-skipping trusts.

JWR contributor David Corn is the "Loyal Opposition" columnist at New York Press. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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03/01/99: Post-Mortem Ad Nauseam
02/25/99: What’s Next?

©1999, NY Press