Malcolm Forbes, owner of Forbes magazine, will savage anyone in sight, in a decent sort of way. Teddy Kennedy? "He's a rich man who suffers guilt about his money. So he wants to redistribute yours." Jimmy Carter? "He reversed what happened to Jesus. He came down from the mountain and for three days he rose. On the next, he died."
Once, in his Fact and Comment column in his magazine, he wrote a succinct editorial about Florida's then-governor Claude Kirk Jr.
"If it's long on opinion and short on fact, I wrote it," says Malcolm Forbes.
He took up motorcycles at 48. At 52, he took up balloons. Now that he is shortly to turn 60, he may have something new in mind, though he says it won't be skateboards. "I no longer pride myself on a sense of balance," he says, shaking his head, making a little clucking sound with his teeth.
A month ago, he roared into Moscow on a Harley. He had on leather and goggles.His daughter, one of his sons, two journalists and a photographer were in tow. When he went to see the Mayor of Moscow, he brought along scarves and a tote bag for hizzonner's wife. The gifts had "Captialist Tool" written on them. That is also the corporate slogan for Forbes magazine, as well as the name that used to be lettered on the company DC-9.
"The major was laughing. He also stopped laughing pretty fast," Forbes says.
When Malcolm Forbes was 14, he became editor and publisher of a 5-cent weekly called The City of Dunc News. The City of Dunc was located in Forbes' basement. It consisted of 250 lead people, 60 toothpick cars, a couple of cardboard has always had a vivid imagination.
Malcolm Forbes, who can see his name staring back at him from about any newsstand in America, came to Washington yesterday. He didn't come in leather and goggles, he came in a blue suit and a rep tie. And he didn't come in a ballon, he came on the 8 o'clock shuttle from La Guardia. Actually, the 8:45 a.m. shuttle. Three sections filled up ahead of him. Forbes made the fouth. For a man who has a ranch in Montana, a chateau in France, a palace in Tangier, a mansion in London and a plantation in Fiji, that seems awfully sporting.
The president, editor-in-chief, and sole stockholder of Forbes magazine came to town to collect an award for "business spokesmanship" from the Eaton Corp. The award was made in conjunction with the International Platform Association, meeting here this week. Though Forbes was delighted to get the prize, he frankly wasn't sure what it was. On an elevator in the Hyatt Regency, someone told him it was "for the best words ever spoken."
"My god, what will Lincoln say?" Forbes said.Then he said, "Never mind. Tell them not to charge the wording."
Malcolm Forbes, and to some extent his magazine, is to the straight business world what Alfred Kahn is to bureaucrats: flip, funny, wrong.
He believes in doing things at 60-per, a cares not a fig what anybody thinks. "It's a short trip," he shurgs. "If there is another round, I certainly can't expect to have it as good as I had it in this one."
Some people think he's a kook. (After he started going up in bags of propane, setting world records left and right, and nearly killing himself several times, this took on a bit of credence.) Some people think he's a shameless promoter -- for himself and his magazine. "Yes, I've been accused of that," he says happily. "Our competition is chiefly The Wall Street Journal, Business Week, Fortune. Those boys are corporate gaints. They have the money to promote in a grandiose way. We have to get attention as we can. I have no objection to selling our wares. Why put them under a bushel?"
A lot of people would probably say he's a curmudgeon, and let it go. Forbes doesn't particularly agree. "If a curmudgeon is someone who's grumpily right . . ." He grins. "I prefer applause to booze."
He is sitting in a chair, squinting into light. One arm restts jauntily on his hip, the other makes vicious swipes through central air -- accompanying every thought and put-down. There seems almost a Teddy Roosevelt ruddiness, defiance, about this solid man with the heavy tortoise-shell glasses and the cockeyed grin and the smokes of black hair that singe comically from his ears. He seems youthful; though he has four grown sons.
There is little threatening or intimidating about him in the big-business, high-powered, captain-of-industry sense. This, despite his being the autocrat of his own company for decades. Forbes magazine is, to his knowledge, the only privately owned national magazine in America. He likes it that way.
"When you're in the catbird's seat and have no stockholders, it's very easy to tell a company what's wrong with their."
Forbes insists he's crazy about the world of business. "I think the corporate rat race -- not rat race, that's too strong, the corporate arena -- is far more interesting than, say, the sports world. Not to mention the greater impact on people's pocketbooks. I means, if Tom Murphy of General Motors makes a stupid decision, or even a stupid speech. GM's stock can drop 10 points like that. What we try to do in or magazine is get inside stuff like that."
Forbes magazine is larger than Fortune, the Time, Inc., publication, though as some have said, "who ever heard of the Forbes 500?" (There is one.) After being founded in 1971 by Forbes' father, B.C. Forbes, the magazine was nearly chased out of business in the '30s by its competitors. In recent decades, it has made a gigantic comeback. As of this July, Forbes says, only seven magazines in America carry a bigger advertising base than his.
Business Week, its arch-rival, is larger than Forbes -- and light years more sober. Forbes' circulation is just under 700,000. The magazine is not considered alternative reading, so much as supplementary business reading. You get your dividend news from the Journal, your corporate struggle from Business Week and Fortune, your pizzazz, the quirky story, from Forbes. As the president, so his magazine.
The prince of Forbes never goes anywhere -- not to the dinner table, not to the sauna that adjoins his lavish, art-splayed Fifth Avenue office -- with-out a pad and paper to jot down and idea for a column, a speech, a oneliner. "Ideas are for grabbing, they're right up HERE," he says, reaching up and grabbing down two fists of air.
Forbes has an opinion, not necessarily an idea, on anything -- black ants, atom bombs, aborigines. The energy crisis is not an oil company-sponsored mythy. "That's a dopey conclusion, which they have helped to feed, I might add." No, we aren't in a crisis of capitalism. "Communism is in a crisis of capitalism. The free enterprise system is going to bury Krushchey's grandchildren. Male fist rusts. Ideas don't. Freedom doesn't."
Sometimes he is wonderfully wrong: Spiro Agnew and Teddy Kennedy were to duke it out for the presidency in '76, he predicted. And he changes his mind constantly. "The only person who can't chance his mind is the president. It's better to be repetitive than reversible. Generally, I think consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.'"
His motorcycle trip to Russia last month was an eye-opener. "The practical inpracticalities of life over there. 'Jesus,' you say, "how is this a superpower?' In America, you go through a town and there is a sign with an H on it pointing to a hospital. Over there, they have a sign marking the house that has the telephone. The answer, of course, it they've put it all into military might."
The roar through Russia (six of them on five bikes) almost didn't come off. The Russians have come off. The Russians have laws about foreigners and motorcycles. Forbes got his friend Armand Hammer to cut through the tape. They picked up the bikes in Munich, hit Warsaw, Moscow, Leningrad. They turned in the Garleys and Hondas in Helsinki flew home on the Fourth of July.
"What is it about a cycle?" he says. is thinking aloud. "On a bike, you're part of the element. In a car, you seal yourself in. As someone said; you might as well mail yourself. Of course, there's no question as to the danger. It's your shins and bones against the other guy's fenders."
He comes close. Conspiratorially: "Sometimes my desire to show off takes precedence over caution."
One day in 1972, while being chauffeured to work from his estate in Far promoting balloon rides. He had never been near a balloon. Sounds good to me, he said. The sign offered a ride at $75 for one, $100 for two. Wanna go? Forbes said to his chauffeur. Sure, shrugged the chauffeur. Today, the chauffeur is the chief pilot of the Balloon Ascension division of Forbes, Inc. (Business Week does not have such a divison.)
And Malcolm Forbes himself became an internationally recognized balloonist, the first aeronaut to make a successful trascontinental flight. There he was, soaring over Nebraska and Iowa corn in his fur parka, red leather pants, black calf-high boots. Captain Marvel in the real, one writer called him.
He almost looks boyish. "The thing about a balloon -- it's a Peter Pan adventure. Remember when you got that helium balloon at the circus and desperately wanted to keep it around your finger but also wanted to see where it would go? Well, in ballooning, you get to go along."
He didn't get to go across the "atlantic. His 12-ballooned, 40-story-high righ, "The Windborne," which some likened to a Rube Goldberg contraption, got caught in its rigging on the morning it was supposed to loft in 1974. Forbes was almost killed when the gondola was dragged across the launch site. He was undaunted. He said he'd try again. He later gave it up.
He had nothing but admiration and huzzahs for the three balloonists who made it across the Atlantic last summer. "It was a nice justice, an American justice, don't you think? You see, they had once failed. They tried, and tried again. Of course, they had enormous luck. They just rode a front for seven days."
Though he doesn't for an instant seem about to slow down, Malcolm Forbes has had intimations of his mortality. When he dies, his kids will get the company, he says. His oldest son, Malcolm S. Forbes Jr., will get 51 percent. The other three boys and his daughter will get the rest. "I made a unanimous stockholder decision.
"I said the other day if there is a next life, people like me had better hope the devil is not as bad off as he's painted."
Hubert Humphrey once called Malcolm Forbes the "Bob Hope of business." Forbes doesn't know about that. He pefers to say he owes everything to "sheer ability (spelled i-n-h-e-r-i-t-a-n-c-e)."
Sounds like pop philosophy, he is told.
"Only by intention."
Glimmer of light: "There's nothing wrong with the Me Decade. I've been doing it all century." CAPTION: Picture, Malcom Forbes, by James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post