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IT'S ALL SUMMED UP IN A WORD M-O-N-E-Y.

Byline: Sandy Grady

JUST when I was wondering whatever happened to Ross Perot, he shows up in the 1996 Republican race. Only now his name is Steve Forbes.

Perot and Forbes are both fat-wallet egotists who'd spend their megabucks on that ultimate toy, the White House. I don't think Forbes, despite current media hype, will get any closer to buying the presidency than Perot. What they have in common is a willingness to spend like drunken sailors on TV time and national celebrityhood.

Sure, Ross and Steve don't sound or look alike. Perot with his what-me-worry? grin, floppy ears and twanging one-liners was entertaining, a one-man Grand Ol' Opry.

Steve Forbes is a dull, rich geek. With his goofy Forrest Gump smile and zealotry for a flat tax, Forbes is like an insurance guy who bores you to death until you buy a policy. So why is Forbes the Flavor of the Month? Why is he on Time and Newsweek covers? Why is he running second behind Bob Dole in Iowa and New Hampshire and panicking the GOP pack?

It's not his underwhelming charisma. When it comes to electricity and mystique, there are 400 members of Congress - OK, 300 - who stir more excitement than Steverino.

Despite hoopla, it isn't the flat tax. That idea, a boon for the rich, is hoary simplicity. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., campaigned on the flat tax before Forbes was on the scene. Specter dropped out, unable to buy air time.

Nope, the Forbes magic is crassly simple. It's dough, dipped from his deep coffers. He wrote a check for political fame the way most of us pick up a refrigerator from Wal-Mart.

Money may not buy happiness. But for Forbes it can buy an endless run of 30-second attack ads on Des Moines and Boston stations. And it can buy tough pros, including Carter Wrenn, who devised racially tinged ads for Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C. Suddenly Steve is hot and trendy as a Top-40 rap tune.

At least Perot made his billions with grit and guile. Forbes' wealth ($439 million) is a hand-me-down fortune from Malcolm Forbes Sr., a motorcycle-riding bon vivant who pitched his magazine to wannabe capitalists.

I understand why Bob Dole, a Depression-bred World War II vet, is annoyed by Forbes, this Ivy League princeling. Dole lost the nomination once to a rich guy, George Bush. So Dole dumped 29 years of tax returns on the table, daring Forbes to match it.

Forbes ducked the show-your-wealth game. "It's a diversion," he said slyly. "I won't use the class-warfare card against Dole."

No wonder other '96 Republicans seethe over Forbes' fat-cat assault. Lamar Alexander had to play the piano at 300 fund raisers to equal Forbes' campaign millions. Pat Buchanan sourly gibed when Forbes missed a GOP event, "I guess one of Steve's polo ponies got sick."

Sure, we've had wealthy presidents: Roosevelt, Kennedy, Bush. The Senate has been called, not with applause, a Millionaires Club. And spending your own loot doesn't lock up success. Morry Taylor poured his dough into the '96 Republican race without a dent. Michael Huffington blew $20 million on a futile California Senate campaign.

That's why I say Perot is back, disguised as Steve Forbes. They're using the same playbook. Both exploit sick-of-Washington cynicism. No accident that the angrier people got with the Imperial City's budget impasse, the faster Forbes rose in polls.

Like Perot, Forbes pitches himself as an outsider free of Washington lobbyists. His most biting TV ad trumpets: "Steve Forbes, conservative values. Bob Dole, Washington values."

And like Perot, Forbes hypes himself as a no-nonsense businessman who can "get under the hood" and fix the economy. Forbes, who has few unpaid loyalists on the ground, repeats Ross' made-on-TV gimmickry.

Sure, it's legal. The Supreme Court ruled in 1976 a rich guy can dish out his own wealth on a campaign. Free speech, you know. But to me, Forbes' money grab for the presidency seems queasily unfair. He's playing in the dark, drenching Iowa in TV ads, outspending methe Doles, Gramms and Alexanders limited by rules.

Perot and Forbes, rich oddballs who bought 15 minutes of fame. I suspect Silver Spoon Steve will hit reality soon. There's no "For Sale" sign on the Oval Office.

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Photo Steve Forbes A "fat-cat" assault. Associated Press
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Copyright 1996, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:VIEWPOINT
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 28, 1996
Words:721
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