THE BLOG
10/05/2010 06:20 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

What Steve Forbes's Books Teach Us

Earlier this year Simon & Schuster sent Steve Forbes an advance 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.

Steve sent me in return a witty 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 one itty-bitty reading assignment and received two hefty tomes in return - in the business world that's called leverage. But I am glad Steve sent me his books, because 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 recession, before vigorously countering, with "real-world lessons," each critique suggesting America's brand of capitalism desperately needs to be curtailed. Every "anti-capitalist" 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 dispatched with a sharp retort. Much of the HuffPost's audience would find the answers - how can I say this politely? - rather disappointing.

In contrast, Power Ambition Glory, published in June, 2010, reflects Steve's quieter qualities - the introverted intellectual with a taste for history lessons. (Steve took a BA in history at Princeton.)

In this book Steve Forbes and co-author John Prevas examine the leadership styles of the ancients, such as Cyrus the Great of the 6th century BC, the first leader to recognize basic human rights and rule 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, How Capitalism Will Save Us is the more popular book (38 reviews) - although probably not with the HuffPost crowd. Personally, Power Ambition Glory (22 reviews) caught my imagination.

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 - makes for good reading. Maybe I am naive, but I can't help but thinking that 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 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 captured Steve Forbes's authentic voice - his concerns and passions and worldview, even though each book in itself did 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.