Ben Stein's Diary

Poets of Construction

From the print edition, Ben remembers Roy Ash from the Nixon days. Plus much more.

By From the March 2012 issue

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FRIDAY

Here I am, downtown, at the new Ritz Carlton Hotel near the Staples Center.

I am at the annual meeting of the Beavers. Now, you may never have heard of the Beavers, but that is your loss. The Beavers are the biggest civil engineering construction firms in America. These are rough, tough, smart men who build immense bridges, huge tunnels, highways, subways.

When I walked into the VIP reception before the dinner, I felt as if I were a pygmy in a land of giants. These were impressively powerful men and you could just feel it in the room. I would not want to tangle with any of them.

I spent a long time talking to John Shea and his son Peter Shea. They are the owners, or some of the owners, of Shea Construction. This amazing firm was founded by Peter Shea's grandfather, who came from Ireland to America. He started out doing plumbing for bars that needed piping from beer kegs to taps. Within a few years, he was one of the key builders of the Hoover Dam and the Bay Bridge in San Francisco. The company were major builders of the Metro in D.C. In the present moment, they are building a new subway line in New York, under the streets of Manhattan.

Their crews use 8,000 pounds of dynamite every day blasting rock under Gotham to build the tunnel for the citizens and visitors. Every day, more than a thousand of their sandhogs go down 300 feet below the sidewalks of New York to build the tunnels. It's amazing, even if I say it over and over again.

There were other stories there like this one: very strong, determined, smart grandfathers who started companies and descendants who made the dream bigger and bigger.

The event went on late and by the time it ended, my head was spinning. These are amazing guys. Just incredible. Women construction people too. All strong and enviable. We men who live by scribbling feel small by comparison.

WEDNESDAY

"Bad news on the doorstep,/ I couldn't take one more step...."

We are down in the desert. It should be a time of rest, but it isn't. Even though Win Ben Stein's Money was canceled more than a decade ago, some people think it's still on air. A woman whom my wife and I considered a close family friend is seeking to play the game and use fantasies and fiction to Win Ben Stein's Money.

It's a legal matter and it takes a lot of time to work on getting through it. It came out of the clear blue sky, although I guess you could also say it comes out of one of the bedrocks of human nature…greed. It's providing well-paid work for lawyers and using up a lot of my peace of mind. I hope when it's over, I can get some rest. It might not be over for a long time, though. I have to be prepared. But it does organize my day and gives me lots of food for thought. It also brings back some of my training in law that I got at Yale. Nowadays we have computers to help and the Internet, but some of the old concepts like Laches and Voluntary Estoppel still come to mind.

I worked on the matter this morning. Then, I had a good 12-step meeting. Surrender always works. But that means surrender to God, not to man.

I came home and had a small lunch of leftovers with my wifey, who really is not feeling well. Hormel makes an incredibly good meatloaf. It takes six minutes to microwave it and let it cool and it's good for days afterward. I cannot stop eating it. I put a thin slice of butter on the leftover meat and heat it in the microwave and it is magnificent. Good work, Hormel.

Then I went out to the driving range to hit golf balls. The weather was perfect. But by an ill fate, the only other golfer out there was making horrible coughing and choking sounds as if he were trying to bring up phlegm. Disturbing. I could not concentrate. I hit many poor shots.

Luckily, he left soon and my drives improved dramatically.

Then a woman golfer appeared with all kinds of electronic gadgets to tell her how to choose which club to use. They hissed and clicked. Disturbing. Hard to drive straight. Finally, she put away her gadgets and I had a few minutes of peace. Again, my drives improved. Peace and quiet make a big difference. I was soon tired anyway. I sat in a chair and breathed in the desert air, watched the airplanes fly over—why is that such a great sight? But I was tired, so I went home.

Bad news. There was an e-mail from the Nixon Foundation telling me that Roy Ash had died. I knew he had been ill but I did not know he was that ill. It is a big loss.

I knew Roy from the Nixon days. He was head of the Office of Management and Budget. By all accounts, he was great at it. He and his wife, Lila, were pals of my parents and I met them many times. Roy always impressed me. He had grown up in modest circumstances in Southern California and had not gone to college. He worked at a branch of the Bank of America and told me once his ambition was to some day be a branch manager.

Instead, he had been a statistical whiz in the Army Air Force, a whiz kid at Harvard Business, and then, with fellow genius Tex Thornton, had founded Litton Industries, one of the first major conglomerates.

Conglomerates never made much economic sense but they made fantastic entrepreneurial sense. The founders started with a high growth electronics company, then used its highly valued stock to buy low growth but high earnings companies. The stock market generously allowed a high growth stock multiple to the combined enterprise, and immense fortunes were made.

Roy was extremely modest and self-deprecating, though. I once asked him about difficult moments when Litton was new. He remembered a time when he went to see the head of some old line company who asked Roy to come home with him and fix his TV set, if Roy knew so much about technology.

He was a genius entrepreneur and civil servant but also a poet. He often mused about how Litton, a name that sounded as light as a rose petal, was valued so much more highly in the world than a Conrock, a company that supplied crushed rock or civil engineering, and whose name—Consolidated Rock—sounded so formidable. That's a poet's question.

I got to know Roy well in 1978 and 1979 after I had moved to L.A. I had an idea for a financing company that would buy the income streams from long-running TV shows and buy stars' profit participations for cash and then own the stream of income. Presumably we would buy these things at a huge discount because the sellers needed liquidity and we would have (as Roy put it) a tax funnel that sheltered much of our income stream.

We would be in effect a large pawn shop for Hollywood.

Roy made me work hard on preparing this proposal—I well remember trying to figure out how to compute Internal Rate of Return on my HP-12C and reading about tax. But then he loyally went with me to New York to scare up investors.

Through my old pal Peter Flanigan at Dillon, Read, we came close but it never quite happened. I am just as glad it didn't. I would not have enjoyed being in that business. I am not really a businessman. Not at all. I am a braino writer type.

But Roy was a great guy. Here he had founded and run one of the most successful corporations on earth. I just had a pitiful idea and no money, yet he treated me as an equal. He was never condescending, never abrupt, always humble. He never lorded it over me. Really an amazingly down to earth, wonderful man.

He had grown phenomenally rich beyond his Litton money because gold had been found latterly on his ranch in Nevada—in immense quantities. He never made much of his wealth. "It's just a small number followed by a lot of zeroes," he once said. He was written about in his obituary as if he were a calculator, but he was a poet.

Long, long ago, in the summer of 1974, he threw the last party for Richard Nixon as Chief Executive at his estate in Bel-Air. Nixon said that he had asked Roy to have the party because Roy was the only man he knew who had a tent. Good sense of humor for them both.

Once Roy and I were having dinner at Mr Chow and he told me about his aggravation over someone owing him a few million dollars. "What can that possibly matter to a man with wealth like yours?" I asked him.

"It's liquidity at the margin," he said.

I guess I looked puzzled.

"It's nice to have cash," he said.

For the last thirty years or so, he has been restoring Pre-Revolutionary War estates in the Hunt Country outside Washington, D.C. I have never seen any of them but I imagine they are magnificent. Roy was a poet and had an eye for poetry.

Lila Ash and Roy's children must be devastated. He was a prince.

THURSDAY

My wife saw the doctor about her months of feeling ill. He told her to eat oatmeal with flaxseed oil. What on earth are we going to do? What can that even mean?

I am getting extremely worried.

I had many calls today from broke friends asking for money. It is amazing how many people hit me up for money, amazing how many people I know do not work—amazing how miserable they all are. And they do not know, not one of them, that there is no self-esteem without work. You just cannot be happy if you are idle. It's that simple. But so few people get it. Scary. Read Day of the Locust about cunning people in L.A. preying on normal working people. That's my story. Nathanael West, real name something like Weinstein, wrote it. He got it totally right.

I spent an hour sitting in on a class at Palm Desert Charter Middle School. It was on the Constitution. It was a fine class with a fine teacher. But I kept going back to my eighth grade Civics class. I guess it's just old age, but I recall we did the subject at a much more intense level than the class today. Probably it's just an old man's memory tricks. The class today was fine. (I keep using that word because John Coyne uses it. We talk a lot.)

I recall an eighth grade class where we were assigned to be Tories or Patriots debating the Revolu-tion. I was a Tory. I was saying that the Revolutionists were just "rabble rousers."

An incredibly, unbelievably smart fellow in my class named Arne Steinberg replied, "John Adams, Samuel Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson. Were they rabble?"

I have never encountered such a powerful comeback ever again in my life. That guy was a genius. He was also a fine pianist. Probably still is.

Anyway, I enjoyed the class but the windows do not open and I could not smell the new mown grass as I did in 1958 through immense open windows.

Autres temps, autres moeurs.

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About the Author

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.