November 18, 1999
so many years ago I really wanted to like Steve Forbes and
to tell the truth, I still can't help liking him personally; I find
his clumsy, crooked grin endearing and I think he's one of the more
substantive candidates American politics has coughed up in recent
years. Before he started running for president he would come out
to Orange County every so often to deliver speeches and I managed
to talk policy with him at some length and thought I got to know
him a bit understanding full well that almost nobody outside
his immediate family and close friends really seems to know him;
but then I also find the fact that he isn't eager to "share''
every detail of his private life with every podunk journalist in
the country more attractive than off-putting.
When he ran for president in 1996 he was generous with his time,
coming to the Orange County Register for several editorial
board meetings that were wide-ranging and genuinely thoughtful.
I think he enjoyed being challenged from a libertarian perspective
and for a long time I believed that he shared a lot of our assumptions
about the importance of liberating Americans from the death grip
of government regulations and taxation.
His embrace of the "flat tax'' was for all the right reasons
the conviction that it would not only lighten the monetary
burden on Americans but free up more of their time for productive
or leisure activities rather than fretting over tax forms. He seemed
to take a certain delight in the idea that technology, especially
the computer-communications revolution, was one of the more heartening
developments in recent American history, largely because the government
hadn't figured out a way to regulate it before it had moved a couple
of generations beyond the bureaucrats' ken.
Then came the war in Kosovo.
I had wondered a bit about Steve Forbes' all-out campaign to ingratiate
himself with the religious right, but being one of the few Americans
with little emotional investment in the abortion issue, I chalked
it up to pragmatic and possibly shrewd politics. I figured his religious
protestations were at least not too hypocritical the evidence
is that he was a steady churchgoer for years and years before he
got into politics.
The Kosovo war, however, put him too far over the imperialist edge
for me. I could understand a calculated reluctance to venture too
far beyond the establishment foreign policy consensus considering
the kind of abuse Pat Buchanan takes for his heresy. But Kosovo
really was an aggressive venture into new territory for NATO, which
had for decades touted itself as a defensive alliance, and before
the war began establishment figures like Henry Kissinger expressed
doubts and reluctance.
I permitted myself to hope that Steve Forbes, whom I still liked,
might at least express reluctance and some concern about a step
that essentially shattered the century-old consensus about civilized
nations not initiating aggression against internationally recognized
sovereign nations. And who knows, as an intelligent person who has
shown some evidence of actually thinking for himself, running a
campaign that depended more on his family fortune than on bending
to polls, he might show an inclination to question whether the United
States really ought to continue in its role as policeman of the
But he went the other way. He was critical
of the Clinton administration, but not for initiating aggression.
Instead, the burden of his criticism was that the administration
and NATO hadn't hit Yugoslavia hard enough, with enough heavy bombs
to do real damage, in the first few days of the war.
There might be a bit of consistency in such a position if
you're going to get into a conflict hit the country designated as
enemy hard and win the thing as quickly and decisively as possible.
What was really troubling about Steve Forbes' attitude was the virtually
uncritical acceptance of the notion that as a powerful nation with
interests around the world, the United States had to at least consider
fixing every perceived problem everywhere.
To give him grudging credit, when he came by the Register
for another editorial board in April, he stuck to his guns even
as he listened politely while we raked him over the coals. We tried
to persuade. We allowed that he was undoubtedly sincere when he
said he wanted the United States to be a freer, more prosperous,
more vibrant and innovative country. Then we pointed out that spending
time and treasure on every perceived problem in other countries,
especially using bombs as instruments of reform, would virtually
preclude such a transition. Empires have never cut taxes or worked
to make their people more free and it was unlikely the United States
could be an exception.
He listened politely and even seemed to absorb some of it. But if
anything his foreign policy has become even more bellicose.