Another monthly installment of Ben Stein’s print edition diary.
A truly terrible day. It is the day before Yom Kippur, a big Jewish holiday, the Day of Atonement. For years when I lived in Washington, D.C., Bill Safire would have a party of the Jewish movers and shakers in government and media to mark the breaking of the fast associated with the Day of Atonement. He always invited my parents and allowed me to drag along. It was a festive and exciting event. Very big names would be there and I always felt extremely lucky to be allowed in.
In Los Angeles, basically I do not have any friends except Phil DeMuth and he’s not Jewish, so I never have anything much to do after Yom Kippur. Anyway, I was driving along Kanan Dume Road, a lovely mountain road to Malibu, thinking about how much I wished I could be back at the Safires for breaking the fast. Moments later I turned on the CBS radio news to hear the horrible news that Bill Safire was no more as a mortal.
Now, it was terrible when John Hughes died earlier this summer. He had been a super friend and a spectacular talent. It was terribly bad when Irving Kristol died the day before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, just nine days ago. Irving was a genius, a kind, decent, brilliant, patriotic gentleman such as we rarely see nowadays. He is desperately missed.
But Bill Safire — he was family. The best friends the Steins ever had never included any better friend than Bill Safire. Brilliant, co-servitor of Richard Nixon at the White House along with my father, one-of-a-kind genius phrasemaker and speech-writer, coiner of such immortal lines as “an effete corps of impudent snobs,” staunch defender of Nixon even when Nixon’s goons had been revealed to have wiretapped him, magnificent New York Times columnist, fine novelist — his novel about a president who goes blind and tries to keep it a secret was as good a poem about power as I have ever read, expert etymologist…this truly was a great man. He was, as far as I know, completely non-ideological, and certainly not a part of modern “traditional values” conservatism. He was just an old-fashioned cautious conservative who wanted to conserve all that was great about this best creation of man’s history — the United States of America.
But he was more than that to the Steins. I can put it like this: my father helped him with his understanding of economics for his columns and his books. In return, he plugged my father’s and my books, was a fantastic host to our little family on all of the Jewish holidays, and helped my early career as a writer in a major way. Or maybe I can put it another way: when my father died on September 8, 1999, I learned that I could not be a pallbearer under Jewish custom. The first call I made was to my nephew, and then to Bill Safire, and I can vividly recall the day in September when Bill held up his end as he always did.
(I might point out that Larry Summers, Bill Clinton’s genius treasury secretary, and Gene Sperling, high economic adviser at the Clinton White House, were also there. The GOP sent no one, a true embarrassment.)
Over the years that lurched by after Mr. Nixon left office, Bill was always there. His beautiful English wife, Helene, was one of my mother’s closest pals, and my mother doted on the junior Safires, Mark and Annabel. They must all be suffering the torments of the damned today.
Now, I know that Bill died covered in glory — Pulitzer Prize winner for his fine columns in the Times, 30 years’ worth, awardee of the Medal of Freedom, holder of innumerable honors. But to me his greatest glory was his loyalty. When the chips were down in the Watergate days Bill wrote what to me has always been his greatest column, “Nixon Never Did,” listing all of the things that various Democratic presidents had done — consort with prostitutes, hang out with the Mafia’s girls, conspire to murder heads of state, start wars over imaginary incidents, bug Martin Luther King, Jr. To me this has always been the single best defense of Richard Nixon. Loyalty is no small thing, as I learn in my declining years.
The many jobs and kind words he pushed my way after White House days were another sign of his kindness of spirit. The man simply had no smallness in him. And he had no fear. He had a kind of street toughness under his erudition. Like his great college roommate, Eddie Bleier of Warner Brothers, Bill did not run from a fight.
Well, he’s gone now. He was from a generation that was grateful every day to wake up an American. They are getting to be rare birds. “He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again,” as someone says in Hamlet. Fearless in an age of fear, honest in an age of dishonesty, brilliant with words in an era of illiteracy. What a friend this country has lost in a time when we need all the friends we can get. God bless the glorious Safire family. We owe them more than we can ever repay.
One of the strangest days of my life. Yes, it’s Yom Kippur and the aura is always weird on Jewish holidays, but this one was off the map. I think it has to do with the phases of the moon, by the way. Jewish holidays are set by the moon.
I got up and rushed over to see my great Doctor Bill Skinner. I am supposed to have a big test about my shortness of breath on Friday and I wanted to talk to Dr. Skinner about it. HE SCARED ME TO DEATH. He has real questions about the hospital where it is being done, which turns out to be a county of Los Angeles hospital, primarily for the indigent. This is not what I want at all. So, now I have to go back to the cardiologist and discuss this with him. He is going to be angry. He does not like being questioned. But hey, it’s my body and my life. So, yet more conflict, which I do not like. Plus, there is yet another shadow on my lungs, which means my permanent shortness of breath will stay for a while. I am getting used to it. It is sort of a part of me now.
Good news, though. Doctor Skinner read me the results of my last blood test. “I wish I had your blood,” he said. “It’s perfect.”
Then, over to Social Security to talk about signing up for Medicare. Now, this was perfect. The building is stripped down and miserable. I waited for 35 minutes in a room with nothing but folding chairs. There was a guard who searched me, but then went on his break and anyone could walk in with anything. A poor mentally ill man was trying to get his benefits explained to him in a loud voice. It was sad.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?