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An Interview With Steve Forbes, Publisher & Presidential Candidate MAG
Steve Forbes is President and Chief Executive Officer of Forbes, Inc., and Editor-In-Chief of Forbes Magazine, the nation's foremost business magazine.
Mr. Forbes writes editorials for Forbes, under the heading "Facts and Comment." A widely respected economic prognosticator, he has appeared on many national news programs including "The MacNeil/ Lehrer NewsHour." Mr. Forbes is the only writer to have won the highly prestigious Crystal Owl Award four times.
In 1985, President Reagan named him chair of the bipartisan Board for International Broadcasting, which oversees Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. He was reappointed by President Bush and served until 1993.
In December of 1993, Mr. Forbes was elected chair of the Board of Directors of Empower America, a grassroots political reform organization founded by Jack Kemp, Bill Bennett and Jeanne Kirkpatrick. Two years later, on September 22, 1995, Steve Forbes announced his candidacy for President of the United States.
I know your father was a very successful and famous businessman. Tell me, what was it like growing up in his home?
Well, he was a very good father. He was a firm disciplinarian when we were growing up. We were expected to do chores, and to survive on our allowances. He was the one who meted out the punishments. My mother was the one we went to for mercy. But remarkably, as we got older, my father knew how to ease up and to let us spread our wings a little bit, without destroying ourselves. So as adolescents, we had a remarkable degree of responsibility and freedom ...
What kinds of lessons did you learn from your father?
There were a number. One is the virtue of hard work. He threw himself with gusto into everything he did. When we were growing up, my father spent a lot of time in politics. He was in the state senate for ten years, ran for governor of New Jersey, and as he put it, Awas nosed out by a landslide.' He was a man of great imagination. He always looked to the future, never let setbacks long set him back. He had a zest and a spirit for life that I think all of us found infectious.
When you were in college, what plans did you have for your future career?
I was fortunate. I knew from a young age that I wanted to go into magazine and newspaper publishing. When I was in grade school, for example, I put out news sheets for the class. When I was at Princeton, I was the founding editor of a magazine called Business Today, which we distributed quarterly to 200,000 students around the country. Students not only still publish the magazine, but also do several national conferences each year. So, I don't know whether it was the osmosis of growing up in a publishing family, but I always felt that I knew what I wanted to do.
Did you ever have a role model or a mentor? Who has inspired you?
Obviously my father was an enormous influence on my life. There were many historic figures who had an impact in terms of admiring what they did. Obviously Reagan, among modern figures, would come to mind. Then there are Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Teddy Roosevelt, and Harry Truman. In business, the creativity of someone like Henry Ford inventing the moving assembly line, as well as other great entrepreneurs. You even have a lot of them today. Twenty years ago people wondered whether entrepreneurship was sort of dead in America. Silicon Valley has proven that to be a false statement.
I know you are a very busy person. Tell me, when you do have some free time, what do you like to do?
Well, aside from being able to wake up in the morning and know you can roll over (it's always delicious after hard, hard work), I like to spend time with our children. I like to do things like swim, bicycle, and I try to play tennis. I play catch with our youngest daughter who plays Little League softball. So, nothing exotic. Fairly routine stuff. I also enjoy reading.
What mistakes did you make when you were younger and how have you learned from them?
Well, you may learn from mistakes, but I try to put them out of mind. When I helped start this magazine at Princeton, for example, we underestimated the detail that was involved. We were always on the edge of financial ruin, though we learned at an early age the meaning of the words like Acash-flow.' When I was in grade school, I once did one of those news sheets, and I did a critique of my teachers. I thought if they could write comments about me, I could write comments about them. I only did one of those!
What has been the most difficult thing you have ever had to do?
Throughout my life, I have always had the challenge of meeting and beating expectations. When you come from a family that is already involved in business, people assume you're a ne'er-do-well until you prove otherwise. They say they always assume the worst. So it is beating expectations. Obviously, taking over the magazine company when my father died, people felt, AGee, this will go down the tubes now that the great man is gone,' but we've successfully grown the business into new areas. Then too, plunging into the political arena - going into a whole new world.
What advice would you give to teenagers about education and careers?
Find out what you enjoy doing, then you'll figure out a way to make a living from it. You shouldn't look at careers just because they may be popular at the moment, because careers go through ups and downs. You'd better be in an area where you have a knack for it, a love for it, and that will see you through the rough times. In terms of education, don't specialize too early. You never know when you are going to have to draw on knowledge or the ability to analyze. Life throws a lot of curve balls, so you'd better have as broad a range of tools as possible.
Now that you are an adult, is it everything you expected it to be when you were a teenager? Have there been any surprises in adulthood?
There are always surprises. The joy of having kids, for instance. We have five daughters. The challenges (if this is a nice way to put it) of coping with adolescents as a parent. You never know, or realize, the gray hairs you gave your parents until you have kids of your own. But I have no real complaints.
Why did you decide to run for President?
Well, having five daughters, looking to the future, and wanting to do something for the future. At the time, I did not intend to get into elective politics, but there appeared to be a vacuum in the political field. The existing candidates did not seem to have a full appreciation of where our country was at, what its problems were and what its opportunities were. So I felt we needed to get some real issues on the table, and I thought that I could win the thing. So I took the plunge.
What was it like to be a candidate running for President?
It's a very intense experience - 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You have plenty of ups and downs. I enjoyed the early contests - the primary contests, caucuses, and having the back-and-forth with voters. The part that I didn't like is what I call Athe hazing process' from the media. Once they think you are a serious candidate, and you are getting support, you go through some hurly-burly and some punches and hits that you never anticipated. Part of the process is showing the voters, going through that critical phase of the media, that you can withstand the heat.
When you ran for President, one of the issues you were stressing was a flat tax. Do you still think that it would be good for the country and why?
Absolutely! The tax code today is a barrier to opportunity. It burdens our businesses. It burdens our families. It corrupts our politics. I think, with these recent IRS hearings, that more and more people are recognizing that the current tax code, and the IRS abuses, are symptoms of a corruptingly complex code. I think it has got to go. I think it is unfair, dishonest, and no one understands it. It's a huge burden - like a runner trying to run with a 50-pound pack on his back. He'd run faster without the burden.
Could you elaborate on your campaign position of taking power away from government and giving it back to the people?
The premise of the American experiment is that people handle many things better themselves than faraway bureaucrats can. That's why, for example, I proposed a simplified code to give to the people, so they could have a better chance and allow them to have more control over their resources. That's why I proposed a new Social Security system for younger people. Keep the current one for those who are on it (and those who are going to go on it for the next few years), but clearly the current system has very severe fault lines. The mixed metaphor is Athere are icebergs out there.' What we should do is phase in a new system for younger people where the bulk of their payroll tax goes to their retirement account. It couldn't be touched until a certain age, but it would be their property. This would be a way to take power away from the center (where they are not doing a good job) and handing it back to the people, and they'll have more control, and they won't have to worry about what politicians are going to do.
Health care is another area. Right now they have what they call third party, that is, you don't control those resources. Employers do. Governments do. HMOs do. That power should be in the hands of individuals and families. We should create medical savings accounts which, in effect, would put you in charge of those resources. Parental control of the schools is another example. The school system we have today is largely a monopoly. Monopolies don't work. Too many school bureaucracies are more responsive to their own interest rather than educating the kids.
Last week, Europe went to a single currency, which will probably go into effect next year. Where is the United States going to fit into the world economy and how is it going to affect young people?
The U.S. will still remain the most important economy in the world. The dollar will remain the most important currency in the world because of the strength of the United States. But Europe, especially Western Europe, has very severe economic problems. They are over-taxed and over-regulated. The Euro could be helpful if it is tied to something like the Deutchemark. In effect, the Germans run the system. So, that could be helpful, but the key is to remove these artificial restraints that are clogging Europe's arteries today.
What have you learned about our political system and the way we elect a President?
Well, for all of its flaws, it is still the most open political system in the world. Most countries have a parliamentary system, which is a closed shop. After a certain age, it's very hard to break into the system ... Also, most countries don't have what we invented 90 years ago - the primary system. If you are unhappy with what your party is doing, you can participate in changing its candidates or leaders. Now the flaws would include the current ways they finance campaigns. I don't believe taxpayers' money should be used to finance campaigns. Your money shouldn't be used for promulgating views that may not agree with your own. What I would advocate on campaign finance reform is removing the caps on individual giving as long as there is full and prompt disclosure. In otherwords, each day there is no reason why campaigns can't put their donations on the Internet. Let them (the voters) judge if you are selling your soul to an interest or a group.
What did you learn from your first run for President that you would change in your next campaign, if you run again?
Well, aside from the fact that if I do it again (and I'll make that decision after November), it is much more pleasant to win than to lose. But seriously, one change would be use of time. We started very late because I hadn't intended to get into this thing, and if I do it again, there will be more time to set up grass-roots organizations. We could only do it in a couple of states and that hurt us. Also, we would use different ways to get our message across. We had to rely very heavily on television ads, and I think next time we can do more lengthy presentations. We can certainly use the Web and use the mail more ...
What parts of your platform are most important to kids my age?
I think the thrust of the platform, if I run again, would be to enhance and deepen the words in our Declaration of Independence, Alife, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' All the positions I have taken are means to an end to make those words real again. The tax code, for example, is a barrier to the pursuit of happiness, or what they call opportunity of improving your lot in life. School of choice - to give people freedom to choose schools that work. Medical savings accounts so that you can choose doctors you trust. And something I think younger people would like is a new Social Security system, where they would own the assets rather than the politicians. So, as soon as you get a part-time job, you are starting to accumulate money for your retirement. The government makes the deposit for you. It's your choice. So that way your money just doesn't go into the black hole of Washington and you are building up a huge nest egg for retirement.
What do you envision as the future of our country in the 21st century?
If we make certain reforms, I think the future is extraordinary. No country has ever been in the position that we are today. We are the only superpower. Even the Roman Empire didn't have the global influence that we have today. We can help create an environment where democracy and those values can sink real roots around the world. That's why we need reforms at home and a strong presence in the world. n