The sense of melancholy is unavoidable as you leaf through the 25th reunion essays for the Princeton class of 1970. The brightest of baby boomers assaying a mid-life reckoning, their submissions revelatory of divorce and death, of lives that have brought intense happiness, and more than a few that haven't.

There is humor and self-justification, and quotes from Yeats and Tai Chi Chuan and Jerry Garcia.

Then there's Malcolm Stevenson "Steve" Forbes Jr., who submits a resume. "He is a widely respected economic prognosticator . . . he is the only writer to have won the highly prestigious Crystal Owl award four times. . . . "

No hopes. No fears. No crack in his exterior wall.

In an empathetic age, it is Forbes's fate to be convinced that the obsession with personality is humbug. Substance and accomplishment should suffice. The millionaire publisher and Republican presidential candidate makes but a single concession for Princeton: He submits a photo of the "five Forbes filles," a k a his daughters.

It tends to deepen the mystery of a man who twice has spent fabulous sums of money in long-shot runs for the world's most powerful elected office and yet reveals so little about himself. Even as candidates for the humblest offices insist on sharing their pain, Forbes, 52, arrives as if from another age: a profoundly reserved horse country Republican, of the once dominant and now endangered Eastern variety.

So much about Forbes goes unspoken. How does he reckon with the legacy of his adored father, Malcolm Forbes Sr., one of the nation's great business showmen and magnetic personalities? His answer: He is running for president, not his father.

How did he make the transition from a candidate who grooved on flat-tax libertarianism and worshiped at the shrine of Latter-Day Reaganism in 1996 to a candidate who now embraces Christian conservative issues--antiabortion and prayer in schools--with an evangelical fervor?

His answer: He was "pro-life" in 1996, his aides can fax an interview transcript from four years ago that proves it. And he has a step-by-step plan to end abortion.

Why not acquire some lesser office--governor, say?--before running for president? Why court the jibes of press and pols, and sell off family stock, a chateau, even a Fijian isle, to finance his improbable presidential dreams? (Forbes sits at 5 percent in most national polls; George W. Bush generally garners about 60 percent).

His answer: I'm going into the public square to change the political landscape.

You can track Forbes for days, from Iowa farm towns to northern New Hampshire hamlets, listening to his precise, staccato rap, without ever hearing him open the window to the man inside. It's not that he's disingenuous; many voters seem to appreciate a candidate stripped clean of artifice, even if few seem ready to man his ramparts.

But to watch those eyes that blink only every 15 seconds or so, the arm that rises and falls at the elbow, the shy "Hello, I'm Steve Forbes" repeated over and over again as he works his way across a room, is to feel an instinctive surge of sympathy for someone plying an uncomfortable trade.

"Everyone respects his money but no one really knows him," said Whit Ayres, a Republican consultant based in Atlanta. "His candidacy seems a product of his money and his desire to get his ideas out there."

Ask about policy after stumbling through a painful five minutes on his personal views of religion, and Forbes becomes voluble, his pauses giving way to a stream of sentences. He offers opinions on everything, and for good measure speeds along faxes that arrive two and three times daily:

Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers "is guilty of malpractice"; "China's punishment must be swift and sure" for stealing nuclear secrets; D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams should sign a tax cut and "not deny the people of D.C. the freedom they deserve."

"I have more substance than all the other candidates put together," Forbes insists with the assurance of a class whiz who has drawn a bead on valedictorian. "The American people have had enough of mottoes, cliches and sound bites."

Isn't this what the PBS crowd always moons after, the rectitudinous politician who is all substance and can talk marginal tax rates until the eyes glaze over? But that reckons without a fact of American history: Even in the early 20th century, when voters favored a more austere persona in their presidents, voters wanted some hint of a back story from the man they would elect to the nation's highest office. And, with the exception of war heroes, they tend not to favor amateurs.

"His biggest problem is that most Americans don't think the presidency is an entry-level job," said Marshall Wittmann of the Heritage Foundation.

Ask friends about the private Forbes and they talk about a self-deprecating and witty man, who was concerned that he might become a laughingstock as a candidate. But little of that vulnerability shines through the cloak of his public personality.

"He's a natural leader but not a pol, and in politics that's a weakness," says Armstrong Williams, the conservative radio host and surrogate speaker for Forbes. "He has to worry less about being brilliant and more about connecting with people."

Decoding the Young Scion

"... [I] eventually hope to enter the field of publishing and to dabble in politics."

It's just a throwaway line sandwiched inside a three-decade old Princeton yearbook, Forbes's attempt as a 21-year-old senior to discern his future. If classmates of Bill Clinton were certain the incandescent Arkansan would someday run for president, it's doubtful anyone harbored such expectations for the self-effacing and awkward Forbes heir.

Decoding the young Forbes is no easy task. He frames his boyhood as a voyage into Leave-It-to-Beaver Land, often recounting a trip to Wyoming in the family station wagon, pressed shoulder to shoulder with assorted brothers, his sister, nanny and dogs.

Other times on the campaign trail he spins his family history into a rags to riches to rags to riches story. But the narrative isn't about him, it's about his grandfather, B.C. Forbes.

It seems the Hearst magazine empire offered to buy Forbes magazine before the Great Depression, and grand pops refused. Revenue dipped and B.C. had to squeeze pennies before becoming rich again. As narratives go, it's not a nail-biter.

But Forbes divines a philosophical bottom line. "Life never goes in straight lines," His dimpled smile flickers. "That's why you need a sense of direction."

His story is more rarefied. Forbes is a scion of the social register town of Far Hills, N.J., where sprawling homes are distantly viewed from the roadside and come with place names. The Forbes estate was "Timberfield."

The young Forbes attended Brooks School, an Episcopal boarding school in Andover, Mass. His family went to St. John's on the Mountain, a modest Episcopal church with a blue-blood congregation.

"While religion was low key, in terms of style, it was ever present," recalled Forbes. "There are obviously different doctrines and styles, but in terms of bedrock basic belief it's been there since I've been conscious."

The Episcopal Church has tracked leftward, and now opposes the death penalty and favors choice in abortion. While the rector at St. John's might reflect those beliefs, the congregation does not. "St. John's on the Mountain is a lovely, affluent congregation with a very liberal priest," said the Rev. Jack Spong, the very liberal Episcopal bishop of Newark. "But we are still very much the Republican Party at prayer."

At home, young Forbes contended with the shadow cast by a magnetic and charismatic father. Malcolm Forbes Sr. was the sort who purchased a Boeing 727 and called it The Capitalist Tool. Who wore kilts to parties, fetched guests in helicopters and threw gourmet dinners in the swank townhouse behind the company building in Lower Manhattan. Who was reputed to be bisexual. A French chateau, an island in the South Pacific, a Moroccan castle: Life was a showman's game.

Young Forbes was a soldier in his father's army. He and his brothers labored at galas, lugging bags and even donning kilts and hyperventilating on the bagpipes. When Malcolm Forbes twice ran unsuccessfully for governor of New Jersey in 1953 and 1957, Steve tagged along in the family car.

Forbes became a teenager in 1960. But he never dipped a toe in that decade's rip tides. His brother Tim once noted: "Steve didn't experience adolescent rebellion."

As Vietnam exploded, Forbes became a Young Republican. As Princeton came alive with protest, Forbes founded Business Today, a conservative magazine. As anti-war students took over Columbia University's buildings, Forbes offered "three cheers" for the police.

"We find it a refreshing sight to see the cops, their clubs a swingin', disrupt a band of willful ruffians disrupting an entire campus," he wrote.

It was sure to enflame in those super-heated times. But the Forbes editorials reveal the man of today: a diffident conservative, not much bewitched by doubt and not particularly sharp-tongued, favoring a puckish style spiked with the vaguely antiquarian (a love for words like "palaver" shows up then and now).

I "would most like to be remembered at Princeton," Forbes wrote at the time, "for co-founding Business Today, writing its editorials, and cutting class."

Towering Ambition

You sift through the Forbesiana--his twice-monthly Forbes magazine column, his new book, "A New Birth of Freedom"--looking for a hint of what drives this man in business and politics. But the hoped-for windows keep turning into mirrors.

His column addresses trade policy, politics and where best to buy foie gras and eat a roast duckling sauteed in poached peaches. His book expounds on dismantling the Internal Revenue Service and instituting a flat tax. But the column rarely mentions his family and the book index doesn't list his father, wife or children.

So you fall back on what is known: After Princeton, he spent six months in the National Guard, then went to work at his father's magazine. Malcolm Forbes Sr. came to his son at an early age and confided his plans for Forbes-style primogeniture: Upon his death, 51 percent of his business empire would pass to Steve, who would rule for the benefit of the family.

"He began turning over operation of Forbes Inc. to Steve very early on," recalled Jude Wanniski, the supply-side economist. "He became the showman, the balloonist and motorcyclist, and Steve ran the business. It turned a young guy into a very serious man."

As different temperamentally as father and son were, they found a bond, plotting their next issue or business thrust. They did spectacularly well: The Forbes empire now has revenue of more than $1 billion a year.

And Steve Forbes liked the magazine's controversial style of journalism. Friends often got the big smooch. Enemies got the kiss-off. As Forbes told New Jersey Monthly: "We're like a drama critic. We come to a conclusion."

Forbes's DNA is encoded with no salesman's touch. But he tries. Often, he ushers some CEO and a staff writer into the townhouse connected behind the magazine's offices. He serves stiff drinks and advises them to stare at a blurry David Hockney representation of a naked woman.

"Enjoy your drink and don't stop drinking until the woman comes into focus," he advised, in that arch awkward style. Every time, it's the same joke.

Forbes was a capable and fair boss. But friends detected a restlessness. He noodled in politics, got a Reagan appointment as chairman of the International Broadcasting Board. And he teamed with former Reagan adviser Lawrence Kudlow to write New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman's popular 30 percent tax cut proposal.

"Forbes would joke about being the lackey that his dad owned," said Michael Novak, an author who served with Forbes in the Reagan administration. "But he had an ambition no less towering than his father, with his smarts making up for a lack of panache."

In 1995, he lobbied Jack Kemp to run for president the next year as a supply-side standard bearer. If you don't run I will, Forbes said. Everyone laughed except Wanniski. He wrote an eight-page memo explaining why this awkward man could become president. "Steve always wanted to do something his father didn't do," Wanniski said.

A few days later, Forbes dialed up Armstrong Williams.

" 'Do you think people will take me seriously?' " Williams recalls him asking. " 'I'm not telegenic. I don't want to talk about abortion. All I'm comfortable talking about is the flat tax. . . .' "

Forbes was prescient about the ridicule. The millionaire jumped in and front-runner Bob Dole joked it would be good for the economy. Reporters made note of Forbes's rictus smile and the hands that are always cupped and the body language that isn't.

The provocateur filmmaker Michael Moore buttonholed a Forbes staffer. On camera, he asked: "Is your candidate an alien?"

On the Stump

Not long ago, Forbes stood in an old opera house in Littleton, N.H., a veteran candidate with that that ver-y . . . pre-cise . . . speak-ing style. He talked of freedom. From judges who favor abortion and from the political elites, the Federal Reserve and anyone who prevents prayer in school. From anything that's centralized and unGodly in America.

"Neglecting the moral cost of freedom has been terribly costly," Forbes says. "There is a disconnect between Washington and the country. But we can look to God."

His rap is more polished than four years ago. He can do flat tax forever. His patrician's antipathy for hoi polloi pols is palpable. And he talks of George W. Bush with the disdain of the A student who has sized up Good Time Charlie with the Gentleman's C.

This all rings true to the man. But his talk of God and his dance with the Christian Right is more curious. Just four years ago, Forbes hardly mentioned abortion and dismissed Pat Robertson as a "toothy flake."

Word got around that Forbes was a cosmopolite. A Manhattanite. His once-promising campaign spiraled to Earth. Forbes, a methodical soul, will not repeat his errors. So when Columbine High School was ripped apart, the once reticent Episcopalian sent out a fax:

"We've chased God out of classrooms. . . . It's an education devoid of respect for a higher power . . . and reminds us that our children should be allowed the freedom voluntarily to pray in school."

When the Kansas school board barred teaching evolution, Forbes declared that evolution and creationism are but competing theories, a view without support from mainstream biology.

"That whole field, from whence we came, is very fluid," said Forbes. "If parents don't want traditional evolution taught, they should be able to move their children."

Prayer in school? He favors it. Hanging the Ten Commandments in classrooms? Ditto. If the Joint Chiefs of Staff say so, he'll ban gays outright from the military. Now many of the Christian conservatives who shunned him in 1996 are leaders in his campaign.

It's difficult to know what to make of this. Were these always Forbes's beliefs or is he a convert to the Church of Political Necessity? A chapter in his book is entitled "The Moral Basis of a Free Society," but he doesn't address the trajectory of his own religious views.

Wanniski the economist, who used to eat breakfast with Forbes each month, takes a jaundiced view. "If Steve could ever get into the White House, he'd be great," says Wanniski. "But he's a political klutz and this flirtation with the Christian Right is so ham-handed."

Novak, the conservative author, is far more sympathetic. He sees a strait-laced WASP learning to court evangelicals who demand a confessional style. "Steve has that Scot Protestant background, where you don't prattle on about your beliefs," Novak said. "He had to feel his way into what a person could say in public."

In the end, maybe sincerity is beside the point. Polls are the cruelest bottom line. In 1996, a CNN/Time poll found that 57 percent of his supporters were in favor of abortion rights. Fifty-four percent said government should not promote a set of moral values. Many of those old supporters seem to be leaking away. Forbes is trailing badly in New Hampshire and Arizona.

So why? What drives him to burn great bonfires of cash to warm his admittedly long-shot presidential ambitions? Does he get frustrated? You ask the questions a dozen ways and get the same answer. Which is to say no real answer.

"Our campaign is going very well, we're getting organized in all the early states," Forbes says. "Even people who don't agree with us on everything will say 'Here is a campaign of substance, here is a campaign of seriousness, here is . . . ' "

His voice is even, reasonable, methodical. The house of his character is tidy and clean and the windows are clamped down firmly on the sill.