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Is Running for President the Ultimate Prep School Prank?

Education: We all know about Steve Forbes' privileged background. Perhaps his candidacy is his way of rebelling against it--or his way of giving back.

February 15, 1996|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANDOVER, Mass. — A long, winding road twists past a pond where a heron hovers, searching for food. White clapboard cottages are interspersed with solid brick buildings on a rolling campus that was once a farm. Chapel bells chime every hour. Boys in blue blazers rush off to play squash.

It's hard to imagine that anyone could think of Brooks School as anything but an enclave of privilege and opportunity. Unless you count the homework, life hardly seems daunting at an establishment where tuition for each of the 240 young men and women runs in excess of $20,000 per year. The only obvious obstacle to four years of teenage bliss is the beastly tradition of referring to incoming students as "beagles."

Yet there, incredibly, was Republican presidential aspirant Steve Forbes describing his four years at prep school as one of his major life challenges. He also mentioned day camp as a test of his youthful mettle. "I can understand why pioneers went out," Forbes told the Wall Street Journal about the perilous path from the family hearth to the frontier of manhood.

In New England, where boarding schools abound, some preppies hurried to his defense, while a minority expressed horror at the spectacle of such a buttoned-down member of their tribe scratching for high office. Not since George Herbert Walker Bush, an alumnus of Phillips Andover Academy, have preppies had someone to cheer for. John F. Kennedy prepped at Choate and Franklin D. Roosevelt graduated from Groton. But unlike Forbes, none of them described prep school as "a great liberation," and none proposed to liberate the wealthy from the burden of the U.S. tax code.

The 1966 Brooks yearbook lists him by his formal name of Malcolm S. Forbes Jr., but the future magazine magnate and flat-tax impresario was known then as "Stevie." The lenses of his eyeglasses were as thick then as now, and the frames were even thicker. He was skinny, and in a jock-y environment, there is little evidence that he was involved in sports. He was, however, active in the coin club.

Stevie Forbes also headed up the Young Republicans. He was a member of the chess club, as well as the investment, camera and film clubs. His debating skills won Brooks a string of victories over schools with far greater standing in the preppy pecking order, such as Exeter. Once, in an editorial for the school paper, Forbes whimsically urged more contact with working-class folks by suggesting Brooks get down and dirty and teach--get this!--journalism. He had a sly sense of humor and to prove it, he posed for group pictures with, tee-hee, a prop pipe.

Once a preppy, always a preppy: One can imagine his mother marching him off to Brooks Bros. at 14, and one can imagine him continuing to shop, even today at 48, from the very same tweed-jacketed salesman. The boxcar-shaped suits he still wears represent the ne plus ultra in preppy chic.

Once a preppy, always a preppy: Those goofy guys just love a good laugh, and running for president turns out to be the ultimate prep school prank.

"It's extremely preppy," said Lisa Birnbach, whose "The Official Preppy Handbook" (Workman, 1980) remains the definitive word on the subject. "It's like driving to the 7-Eleven blindfolded. It's like a prep stunt that someone would do drunk. It's so reckless, so unprepared."

The thick glasses, the dorky clothing and the big-boy-beagle smile that prompted Newsweek to crown Forbes king of "Geekchic" are all "unalloyed rich boy," Birnbach said. "The abundant confidence, coupled with the obvious lack of experience, are just so true to the background," she said, as if Forbes decided: " 'I'm ready to be president, and we're going to do this flat tax. It worked really well when we did it at the eating club. This is just a slightly bigger campus.' "

But at Brooks, senior Frank Ashburne Kissel--known to friends as "Ashie"--echoed the sentiments of the suddenly famous president of the school's board of trustees. "Prep school has taught me to be independent," said Kissel, a strapping soccer player from Forbes' hometown of Far Hills, N.J.

"All the little lessons you learn in life, you seem to learn when you're away at school," agreed Matthew Fleming, a junior from Shreveport, La.

*

Certainly, adolescence, the time when children ship off to prep school, is a critical period of change for any young person. "It's an age where they are more vulnerable, sort of finding their way," said Lawrence W. Becker, headmaster at Brooks. "What Steve said about his experience, many if not most boarding school students would say."

Becker made these observations in an office bedecked in blue Forbes-for-president posters. He wore a Forbes button in his lapel and has proudly placed a Forbes bumper sticker on his green station wagon. "Well, he is my boss," Becker pointed out.

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