The Drum (ABC online)

By John Barron

On the billionaire-quirk scale, I guess Steve Forbes's taste in coffee doesn't get him anywhere near poor old Howard Hughes sorting green peas by size while wearing nothing but tissue boxes for shoes, but it struck me as telling nonetheless.

Forbes was in Sydney last week for his Global CEO's conference, which featured an oddly nautical theme under the banner "Full Sail Ahead". There were plenty of references to Master Mariners being needed to chart stormy economic seas, and provided a fine target for the handful of anti-business protesters to put on pirates voices; "Stop the robbery on the high seas... ARRRRRRR!"

I had arranged to meet Malcolm Stevenson Forbes Jr for an interview in the kind of five-star hotel business suite that makes the city far below look like a styrofoam architects model. You can't hear the chanting pirates from up here.

I was interested in Forbes the conservative American presidential candidate rather than Forbes the publisher and businessman, although admittedly the two are hard to separate. Plenty of people will tell you American politics is all about money - yet over recent decades billionaires like Forbes and H Ross Perot, and even hundred-millionaires like Mitt Romney, John Kerry and John Edwards, have consistently failed to win the White House. When Forbes ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996 as a fiscal conservative pushing a 17 per cent flat tax on income and corporate earnings, he spent $37.3 million of his own money to win a handful of primaries. Four years later he spent another $38.6 million to do less well than that.

When Forbes is ushered into the business suite there is nothing imperious about his manner - in fact he seems more like a retiree on a guided tour, cheerfully heading wherever he's directed and finding most things quite interesting in a distracted sort of way.

Which brings me back to the coffee.

As we shake hands and settle down for the interview across the corner of a deeply polished boardroom table, a large take-away coffee is slipped into the hand that was shaking mine seconds earlier by a silent aide. It's one of those milkshake-sized chain-store coffees that have names like "El Maxima Choc-Buzza Caffa-Cino" and taste of anything but coffee - which he proceeds to sip over the course of the next 30 minutes.

Now, I can't say exactly what kind of a coffee I expected a billionaire former presidential candidate to drink - but at the very least, you would think the coffee beans should have passed through the alimentary tract of a civet cat. But no. Later, as we descend to street level from an ear-popping height, his no-longer silent aide explains Steve Forbes drinks the same "El Maxima" coffee from the same chain everywhere he goes in the world - and it is the same everywhere he goes.

It occurs to me that for all the talk about the pursuit of excellence, it's America's dependable, replicable mediocrity that is its real genius. Henry Ford's Model T wasn't the best car of its time, but it was dependable and accessible to farmers and town workers alike - all you needed to get to church on Sunday and to market on Monday. Most importantly, it got the job done.

Perhaps the same is true when Americans come to pick their president every four years, and why Steve Forbes never won the White House. Voters don't want someone who has a billion-dollar bank balance who views the world from 40 floors up - just as they don't tend to vote for any candidate who seems to be a member of "the elite". They don't need another hero either; only once in the past 50 years, with Jimmy Carter in 1976, did they vote for the candidate with the better war record. And a warning for president Obama, they don't like aloof intellectuals much either - when all is said and done, American voters want someone dependable and accessible to farmers and town workers alike, who gets the job done.

John Barron presents Inside America on ABC NewsRadio, Sundays at 12:00pm (AEDT). His interview with Steve Forbes aired on October 3.

John is also a Research Associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, and author of the book "Vote for Me!" about the 2008 presidential election campaign.