Ben Stein's Diary

Fleeting Beauty

It's always something.

By From the February 2011 issue

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FRIDAY
Here I am at the Peninsula Hotel in Chicago. Did I tell you I was on the same floor as the Lakers and also, on a separate mission, Matt Damon? Anyway, I am. I met a whole bunch of Laker people on the elevator. I was amazed to learn that they had no curfew. "We try to assume they are grown-ups and will act like grown-ups," said one of their coaches (not Phil Jackson ).

This hotel is truly phenomenally comfortable. I strongly recommend it to anyone who needs to stay in the Windy City. It is a bit expensive, but it may be as good a hotel as I have ever encountered.

I got up this morning and betook myself to a place called "The Casino Club," where I met a group of about 150 extremely, and I mean, EXTREMELY, successful businessmen, investors, entrepreneurs, and industrialists. Wow, as I moved among them and heard their stories, I was just flabbergasted at how successful they are.

It is amazing to me how many different nooks and crannies there are in the economy, and if you make money in one of them, you often have the skills to make money in another of them and then maybe a whole lot more of them.

My host, a handsome, genial fellow named Jay Jordan, seems to own about half of the businesses on the planet. The man on my left, a Mr. Joe Steinberg, seems to own the other half. They were both super chatty and friendly. Interestingly enough, they were both pals of my old nemesis, Michael R. Milken. They spoke so glowingly about him, though, that I could not bring myself to disagree. He had raised money for them, helped them get deals done, seemingly behaved ex-tremely well toward them, although he had been a fierce negotiator.

I suppose that if Mr. Milken had helped me to become a successful businessman, I would be fond of him, too. Maybe even very fond.

Life is personal, and not political, as Wlady said long ago. Life is also personal and not theoretical. If people help you, you like them. Long, long ago, a truly great writer named Herbert Gold, author of one of the best novels I have ever read, Swifty the Magician, said, "If a man chooses truth over his father, that man is a fool." I am sure that if a man chooses some minor quibble about bond default rates over his friends, he is also making a mistake.

The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that truth is relative. There is a great story about Jesus before Pilate in the New Testament. Pilate says that Jesus has been saying he's the King of the Jews. Jesus says that's not so, that he's only been saying what he believes in, and that's the truth.

Pilate replies, in a highly poeticized version not word for word what is in the Bible, "But what is truth? Is it unchanging law? We all have truths. Are mine the same as yours?"

(This is from the brilliant musical, Jesus Christ Superstar. In the New Testament, I believe, "jesting" Pilate simply asks, "What is truth?")

In any event, the event went extremely well and the audience was super-smart, as you would expect. There were truly fabulously rich people there like the Pritzkers, real estate titans; Lester Crown, immense industrialist; Ken Griffin, billionaire hedge fund genius; and other hugely affluent people. I feel gratified that they considered listening to me worthy of their time and attention.

I really hope I can stay in touch with Jay. He impresses me, and even though he's a bit younger than I am, I feel as if I could learn a lot from him.

They are rich, but are they happy? I don't know but they sure looked happy. I am not sure I have ever seen a happier-looking group of men. Money is not enough by itself to make people happy, but these people sure do look assured, and that is a part of happy. A big part.

Anyway, off to ORD. I stopped once inside the airport, as usual, at the Prairie Tap, a fine bar/restaurant between the H and K gates at American, and I had a steak sandwich. It was beyond good. If truth be told, if I had not been embarrassed to do so, I would have had two. That's how good they are. I am sure they are bad for me, but do they ever taste good.

Then off to the gate for a long wait for our delayed flight. The only seats were for handicapped. Four slovenly-looking young men just blithely took them and lounged on them. Maddening.

Well, finally we got onto our plane and headed west. This is the last speech of the year for me. It makes me sad. I truly love speaking and I LOVE meeting new people. The ones today were uniquely interesting, but I never meet boring ones.

The best speaking experience of the year was at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. I had a fabulous audience. I had some great soup at Whole Foods, a store I don't normally like, and I met an amazingly well-dressed woman sitting near me at the soup counter.

I have never spoken to her again, but she reminds me of a line from Citizen Kane. The narrator is talking to friends of Kane and he talks to a man who was Kane's colleague at a newspaper. The man is old and he says he remembers every day a girl he saw getting on a ferry 50 years before. He never saw her again. But he never forgot her.

Many years ago, I saw a spectacularly beautiful bartender girl at a small hotel in Palm Beach. I never saw her again, but wow, was she beautiful. A few months ago, I met a stunning girl in the lobby of the Montage in Newport Beach. I did not even get her name. But wow, was she beautiful.

I sometimes see a sunset or a hound or a swimming pool I cannot get out of my mind. I can still vividly recall the sunsets from my apartment in Brooklyn Heights, when I worked for Bob Bartley at the Wall Street Journal, and that was now 35 years ago. My sister's apartment nearby had an even more spectacular view and still does.

Nine years ago, we had a party for my sister on a barge moored at Brooklyn Heights. It was September 10, 2001. The lights from the World Trade Center were sparkling like all of the con-stellations at once. That was a sight. It was too beautiful to last. Beauty. What a word. What a concept. My whole life is a pursuit of beauty.

Well, enough of that. I just will mention one more instance. The look on my dog Brigid's face when she is sleeping. That look. The German Short-Haired Pointer Look. That is true perfection. That is beauty.

I got to my seat and flew home. I cannot read the New York Times any longer without my reading glasses. Sad.

As I flew over this great America, I could not stop thinking of how blessed we all are to be here. I am a Jew. Jew. Jew. Jew. In every place where my ancestors came from (except Louisiana, where some of my ancestors came from), that was a curse word. Here, I get to live like everyone else. I get to be equal under law and custom. I don't care if some clubs won't take me down in Indian Wells. I am very happy just to walk down the street and be an American. What title of nobility was ever as great as, simply, "American"? What wild dream of my ancestors in Czarist Russia could compare with what I have now, how I live now?

Who makes it possible? The men and women who fight our wars, who have lost legs, who have lost lives, who have lost their minds to the cruelty of war. God bless them day in and day out.

General Electric used to have a slogan that was "Progress Is Our Most Important Product." Great line, and I recall Ronald Reagan saying it, but in the little world of me, gratitude is our most important product.

SATURDAY
A terrifying day.

It was raining like mad in Los Angeles so Alex and I decided to drive down to Rancho Mirage for some sun and warmth. We got caught in stopped dead traffic downtown for about 90 minutes. Then traffic opened up and we zoomed along Route 10 like banshees. I noticed, a few minutes east of Calimesa, what I thought was the car pool lane on the left. I went into it and tooled along. Suddenly, cones appeared on my right, narrowing me down to a little triangle where there was a concrete center divider on my left, six lanes of freeway on the right and I in a little half-lane running over cones. I was on the hands-free phone with Phil DeMuth at the time. I got off, cursed CalTrans for not marking what was obviously neither a lane nor a shoulder and for allowing me to get on it, came to a stop thanks to my great brakes, and felt my poor old heart pounding. I was scared.

Alex turned her head and I turned my head and we saw, mirabile visu, that there were no cars coming on my right. I sped up and ran over the cones and was back in a legitimate lane. No thanks to those idiots at CalTrans, a government agency here that exists to torture drivers. (Joan Didion wrote a super article about them many years ago. She said they basically did not give a damn about drivers.)

However, glory to God who saved me once again by allowing me to have enough space to hide in, enough of a pause in traffic to get out onto Route 10 again, and who gave me my Cadillac STS-V with the handling, braking, and power to survive. We only skidded a little bit in the rain, and that's at high speed on a rainy highway. The braking was perfect. Thank you, Cadillac Division of GM.

I really cannot count all of the times God has saved me from my own idiocy and carelessness. I should not really be alive. To Him, my endless praise and thanks. Literally, I should have been dead or in prison a dozen times and He saved me. I don't know why, but I am grateful.

It was balmy outside at midnight, so I swam for a long, long time under the silvery moon. I could see an immense cloud bank moving in. Rain is coming.

Meanwhile, what the heck is happening in Korea? That Kim Jong Il is scarily crazy. But can they go to war? Can they survive a war? They have almost no air force. But we have very little infantry left to fight. It is a bad situation when a madman like Kim Jong Il has one of the largest armies in the world and is not really responding to the appeals of sanity.

We need a MUCH bigger armed force. What if Pyongyang gets to Seoul before we can get mobilized? Then maybe it goes nuclear, and fast. Not good.

It is always something.

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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.