Scribner sent Steve Forbes an advanced copy of my debut novel, The Hundred-Foot Journey. It’s not as far fetched as it sounds. I worked for him for 25 years, as Forbes’s European Bureau Chief and Senior Editor.
I received from Steve in return a charming note and two (signed) copies of the books he recently co-authored. They were, Power Ambition Glory by Steve Forbes and John Prevas, and How Capitalism Will Save Us by Steve Forbes and Elizabeth Ames. Both books are published by Crown Business, a division of Random House.
I was amused. I sent Steve a reading assignment and received two hefty tomes in return – in the business world I believe that’s called leverage. But I am glad Steve sent me his books, for several reasons, not least of which is reading them back-to-back like that allowed me to empirically analyze what I have long considered a scribbler’s mystery.
When two authors share a by-line, whose personality and style carries the day? Does the marquee name win by sheer force of voice, or is it the lesser-known co-author who is presumably doing much of the heavy lifting? The advantage here is that I have known Steve for a quarter of a century and can recognize his voice. So I decided to use this unique reading opportunity to crack a technical writing issue that has long been a point of personal interest.
How Capitalism Will Save Us is closely aligned with Steve’s public persona. Here the take-no-prisoners defender of capitalism – a stance that built his family’s media empire – romps in full battledress across the book’s pages. Published last November, Forbes and Ames run briskly through a long list of media comments bandied about during this terrible recession before vigorously countering, with “real-world lessons”, each critique suggesting America’s brand of capitalism desperately needs to be curtailed. Every comment from “Don’t drug makers gouge consumers in a free-market?” to “Isn’t the free-market prescription for the economy essentially to ‘do nothing’?” is tackled head on in some detail.
In contrast, Power Ambition Glory, published last June, reflects Steve’s quieter qualities – the introverted intellectual with a taste for history lessons. (Steve took a BA in history at Princeton.) In Power Ambition Glory, Steve and co-author John Prevas examine the leadership styles of the ancients, such as Cyrus the Great of the 6th century BC, whom we learn was the first to recognize basic human rights and ruled his vast empire accordingly. (On the “Cyrus Cylinder”, the Persian King inscribed in cuneiform the world’s first known “Charter of Human Rights.”) Cyrus won the hearts and minds of the conquered by granting his new subjects “full rights of citizenship and participation” and benignly tolerating their “customs and religions.”
Flash forward to contemporary times, and the authors then show how Frank Gannett built his newspaper empire mimicking (consciously or not) Cyrus’s leadership techniques. Gannett acquired local newspapers across the nation, but similarly gave the papers editorial freedom, even though he, like Cyrus, extracted his financial “tributes”.
Based on the number of reviews on Amazon.com, How Capitalism Will Save Us is the more popular book (38 reviews); personally, Power Ambition Glory (22 reviews) caught my imagination. I can’t get too worked up about the “threat” of socialism. History teaches us there will be a natural swing of the regulatory pendulum after the kind of financial debacle we just went through; if it swings too far, a Reagan-like figure will rise and start pushing the pendulum back. To me, a far more serious issue of our times: why have so many of our public and civic institutions gone adrift?
Few public institutions these days seem to be fulfilling the reason they were brought into being. Whether it is chief executives richly rewarding themselves for failure and seriously undermining trust in publicly-traded companies; or members of Congress enacting laws that fill their campaign coffers rather than do the nation’s bidding; or SEC officials who know of a fraud and fail to protect the public; or policemen and firemen bankrupting local communities with excessive pension and retirement demands – wherever I look I see signs that our precious civic institutions have been undermined by the vanity demands of our deeply conflicted “leaders”.
That’s why Power Ambition Glory – and the timeless lessons therein – is important reading. Surely, one way we can help stop this institutional rot that bedevils our nation is by reeducating ourselves in the collective principles of honor and duty and leadership that have sustained Man over time. The myths and meaning and facts and failures of classic leadership are laid out, well-told and lively, in this neat book.
But to my mundane scribbler’s question about co-authors: after sucking my pencil, I’ve decided both books capture Steve Forbes’s authentic voice – his concerns and passions and worldview, even though each book in itself does so with a distinctly different flavor. The short, choppy thrust-and-parry of How Capitalism Will Save Us is very different in style from the ancient myths and poetic morality tales woven elegantly through Power Ambition Glory.
Let me use the art of wine making to make my point: Steve Forbes is the instantly recognizable Pinot Noir in both bottles of wine; there is no doubt that each vintage has been made from the exact same grape. But the terroir and aging techniques of the respective vintners (Prevas and Ames) have each given the Pinot Noir their own distinct characteristics – more red berries and citrus here, more mocha and quince over there.