By Ben Stein on 11.26.12 @ 6:11AM
Not a very happy birthday for your Diarist.
Alex and I are in Scottsdale, Arizona, one of our favorite places on this earth, for a dreary, horrible errand. One of the finest people I have ever known is about to go to prison for doing something foolish but by no means malicious. Basically, this man, whom I will call simply “B”, was in a small business that had done fairly well for many years and even decades.
Because of various business trends, he found it difficult to borrow money from banks for his business.
So, he borrowed money from private lenders at spectacularly high interest rates. He definitely did not adequately warn the lenders of the risks involved in the loans. Still, he would probably have been able to repay them if these were better times. But the economy crashed and burned and he could not pay back the loans.
One or two (or maybe more) of the lenders raised a huge ruckus about the loans and — to make a long horror story short — managed to persuade the state of Arizona to prosecute my friend for alleged fraud and many other improprieties.
Once the state was on the case, the result was bound to be terrible for B. He had no money to speak of, had always lived modestly, and defending a complex white-collar case against the government is wildly expensive. He had fine lawyers, but he could not afford long, complex litigation. By then, his business was virtually nil and he could only hope for the best possible plea bargain versus the state of Arizona.
My view of the case has always been that B basically did the same as millions of homeowners — borrowed money that he could not repay because of factors beyond his control. In no sense did he ever intend to fail to repay the loans: economic conditions made repayment impossible.
If B is guilty of a crime, so are millions of homeowners who could not pay their mortgages. So it seems to me. I very respectfully put that suggestion to the prosecutors, who brushed it off. I am sure they meant to do the best they possibly could for the state of Arizona and they are competent professionals. But B is not a criminal if by criminal one means someone who intended harm. That much is clear to me.
Anyway, it’s all over now, baby blue. B is going to appear in court tomorrow morning. Alex and I are here to show the flag. Tonight, we took him to dinner at a fine restaurant at the Scottsdale Fairmont Princess, a beautiful hotel.
We talked about what prison will be like (awful), how we can send him letters in prison (complicated), how we can talk to him in prison (much more complicated), and the kind of work he can do when he gets out. We reminisced about autres temps, autres moeurs, often at the much missed Morton’s. We talked about topics for books he can write when he is a free man again. He is a superb writer.
I felt wave after wave of panic wash over me as we ate. In my long life, I have known thousands of men and women. I have known maybe a hundred of them well. I have never met a kinder, more empathetic, generous spirited, patient, loving man than B. He is brilliantly insightful, never judgmental, always a fount of sympathy.
In a world of hardened, hidden personalities, B is open, giving, vulnerable. No one I have ever talked to, not even my stupendous super shrink, Paul, nor my ultra-thoughtful and wonderful Phil DeMuth, nor even the miraculous Al and Sally Burton, has ever been more encouraging and life affirming. He may well be even close to the ideal human — my wife — in kindness.
For the government to send this man to prison is, as they say, to kill a mockingbird.
Not to mention, B owes a great deal of money to his lenders. If he were put on probation, he might be able to repay at least some of it. But working making license plates or whatever he will do, at 15 cents per hour, then emerging with a prison record — well, repayment will be a tough row to hoe.
So, with heavy heart, we ate our meals, bid B good night, and then went back to our rooms. I can only pray that someone, somehow, sees the manifest nonsense and cruelty of sending B to prison and lets him out early. This man is a saint. I will miss him terribly. He will suffer terribly. The lenders will not get any money back. Where is the sense in this? Isn’t recompense better than revenge?
Meanwhile, back in my room, I watched the TV news about the war between Hamas (really Iran) and Israel. One of the beaux cadeaux of “Arab Spring” — Egypt, which once helped keep the peace, is now looking the other way as Iran sends heavy missiles to the Hamas and starts a war. What an idiotic idea it was for us to throw Mubarak under the bus. Typical. We did it to the Shah, too. The results might literally end the world.
For some reason I do not understand, I could not get Fox News on my TV and so I watched CNN. The show was “Piers Morgan Tonight.” Morgan was interviewing various Hamas people, pro-Hamas people, Israeli officials, and pro-Israel Americans.
It was a fascinating show. Piers Morgan’s dislike of Israel was vivid, at least to me.
When he talked to an Israeli, or a pro-Israeli American Jew, his lip curled in scorn. His voice and accent, ordinarily working-class Anglo-Irish, became surly and sneering. It was as if even if he, in New York, were interviewing an Israeli in Jerusalem, he could smell a bad odor coming from the Israeli. This is how it seemed to me, at any event. Maybe I have it all wrong. For all I know, Morgan is himself Jewish. I do know that Christopher Hitchens, a full-scale anti-Semite, was himself Jewish, so maybe Morgan is, too.
Maybe I have this all wrong. I am just offering an impression, which might be idiosyncratic and mistaken. Clearly, I make mistakes.
But the questions Morgan was asking were dismaying. At one point he asked someone, maybe Shimon Peres, a question generally like this: “So, the Hamas is murdering innocent Israeli children and Israel is murdering innocent Arab children. What’s the difference ?”
Well, let’s see. How about this difference? Hamas started it. Or this? Hamas is aiming at only civilian population centers in Israel where Israel is aiming at government installations. Or, this? Israel has said it will stop bombing as soon as Hamas stops rocketing Israel. Hamas has given no such assurance.
Never mind. I may have this all wrong. Maybe a question like that tells us he likes Israel. Mind you, there is no law that everyone has to like Israel and plenty, even some that I consider true geniuses, do not like Israel. But I have never seen anyone who seems to have such a powerful visceral contempt for Israel as Morgan.
Well, nothing to do about it.
I saw another segment of Piers Morgan where he interviewed an Arabist who said that it’s a myth that Hamas is a terror organization. One of its leaders is a trained physicist, said this expert. Another is a Ph.D. in chemistry. Ergo, they cannot be terrorists. This is all paraphrase.
This expert apparently was not aware that many of Hitler’s most ruthless killers, heads of killing brigades in Eastern Europe, were Ph.D.s in economics or psychology or some other subject.
The notion that an advanced degree means a man is morally upright is actually comical. This is especially true in the case of degrees in “science,” where “science” can tell you that it’s a great idea to kill “weaker” races or to exterminate certain social classes. Science is morally meaningless in most cases and energetically evil in many other cases. Then again science can save lives. But I wonder if what we in the 20th century called “science” was responsible for more murders or more life savings.
Der Tag. Alex and I were up early at the Scottsdale Fairmont Princess, had a Spartan meal, then went off to the courthouse in downtown Phoenix. We met on the 12th floor with B’s fine lawyers, a man and a woman, a woman character witness from the food bank where B has been feeding homeless for some time, two business colleagues, and a public defender. We were all morose.
Then B appeared, looking chipper and competent. We all hugged and then B had his case called. I spoke first on his account seeking to get him better terms of probation. I talked about his fine character and how he had been laid low by the recession and how he would fit right back into society when his prison time ended. Alex spoke mostly to the same effect, about his kindness and loving, harmless nature — no drugs, no gangs, first offense, easily able to work himself back into society.
The judge was an intelligent woman who asked intelligent questions. The other character witnesses spoke. One was able to sum up the case perfectly: “Heart Breaking.”
The courtroom was a modest affair, with what looked like laminate walls and the cheapest possible furnishings. The stenographer was a stunning beauty. The bailiffs bustled around and the clerk talked quietly into a phone.
Meanwhile, B, a saint of a man, is facing hard time for something he had little control over. Several men and women just doing their jobs and a man’s life on the line.
B’s lawyer spoke eloquently. His name is Paul Charlton. His partner, a lovely, able woman named Janey Hinze, also toiled ably. Paul kept his hand supportively on B’s back but B was standing tall and unafraid. B even frantically wrote a note to his lawyer pointing out a major lacuna in what the lawyer had said.
Then, the judge said she was moved by the testimonials and would ease B’s probation a tiny little bit, but she added that he would have to suffer some retribution before he got out and could start making restitution. (I don’t see why, but I am not the judge. Revenge is not a great human quality or act. Mercy beats it every time. So does restitution.)
So, she sentenced B to 3 years minus about 5 and a half months for good behavior. I dashed behind the little wall and hugged B. He smiled bravely and said, “We’ll see you soon,” and waved good-bye.
Alex and I flew back to LAX is stunned silence. Just amazed silence. This is just horrible. 2012 has been a year of legal problems, and this one is by far the worst. When you or someone you love gets involved with the legal system, it rarely works out well. It is like a hydra that just keeps attacking you until it has drained your blood.
Maybe I should say a vampire, not a hydra.
Well, I will be in contact with B as the law allows, but this man does not belong behind bars. What will he do with all of those other prisoners? What will a kind, gentle man like him do in Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s jail?
What will I do without the world’s most reassuring human being?
This whole thing is just awful.
Alex and I are down in Rancho Mirage. The weather is perfect. Our son and daughter-in-law, the magnificent Kitty, and their child, Cora, are down here, too. Except for Kitty, each of us feels a bit ill.
I wanted to see Skyfall, the super new James Bond movie again but no one would go with me so I went by myself. Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom. It was even greater the third time than the first or second. Just hypnotizing. The sequences in Shanghai and in Scotland are works of art in every frame. Just stupendously beautiful. These movies take the visual, the kinetic, the aural, to a new level. And as I have said before, Javier Bardem is the best villain I have ever seen. He is extremely understandable and likeable even as a cruel killer.
The major theme — of betrayal between mothers and sons — works spectacularly well. Really, all of the Bond movies are the same — islands, exotic locales, beautiful ethnic women, sadism, money — but each is also different in its own ways and Skyfall is by far the richest lode mined. It is almost as good as Blade Runner, also about parents and children.
I left the theater in a trance of fantasy as I used to do when I was a small child after a fine movie. I slid next door to a burger place called “Five Guys.” It has amazing hot dogs and I had me one. Sitting across from me was a family with a simply perfectly beautiful Asian-American daughter. Just a little doll. A sleepy, weary, doll.
Her dad, Tony, from Upland, wanted his photo taken with me and his new very lovely wife and his stepdaughter. The little Asian girl’s name was Vanessa. I talked to Tony for a long time about what ails USC. Then he and Vanessa were gone forever. Sad. Too beautiful to stay around long.
I walked across the path at the River Shopping Center for a hot brownie with ice cream. I was still in a trance. It tasted so good words failed me. I wonder what B is eating tonight in jail.
It is my 68th birthday. Wow, am I old. I slept very late, ate some apple pie Kitty made for me, opened presents. The best one was a book Tommy and Kitty had made about my life. It has great photos and witticisms about me through Tommy’s eyes. I was deeply moved.
Then, a late lunch at Mission Hills CC. I spent most of it on the phone with my glorious sister. She recommended that I eat a lot of prunes. Good advice for when you’re 68.
And yet I cannot stop thinking about B. Life is so random. When I was young, I routinely drove drunk. I routinely abused drugs, both legal and illegal. I possessed illegal drugs. That was decades ago. I came through unscathed. Then, this year, I get tortured by a famous torturing attorney, then watch as my heart’s companion goes off to jail, then prison. Life is challenging. All I can do is live it one day at a time and turn the results over to God.
Please pray for my dear friend in the lions’ den. And that Vanessa has a good life.
Ben Stein is a writer, actor, economist, and lawyer living in Beverly Hills and Malibu. He writes “Ben Stein’s Diary” for every issue of The American Spectator.
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