Ben Stein's Diary

Breaking Fast With Bill Safire

Another monthly installment of Ben Stein's print edition diary.

By From the November 2009 issue

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SUNDAY
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.

MONDAY

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.

Then I got to see a sweet-looking young woman. She smiled and said, "Well, now we can make an appointment for you to talk to someone about Medicare."

"Wait a minute. You mean I have been waiting half an hour to make an appointment?"

"Yes," she said cheerfully.

Okay, this is the future.

The elevators were all broken by then. I had to walk down and could not find my car in the dark, miserable garage. Finally, I found it. It was scary. Then rushing over to CNN to talk about the death of Bill Safire. Dave Gergen was on the show and was genuinely great and kind to me. He really is a great guy. Paul Begala, a Democrat, said there really was a conspiracy by "moneyed interests" to hurt the Democratic Party. This was "the vast right-wing conspiracy" that the Clintons always talk about. Moreover, this truth was "proved" by a book by a legal commentator for CNN, a very bright fellow named Jeffrey Toobin.

Now, that really made me laugh. The hostess kept introducing me as a "conservative humorist," so I said, "The real humor is that anyone would believe anything was proved by a book, even by someone
as brilliant as Jeffrey Toobin." What a joke. There are books on every side of every issue. Putting words between covers tells exactly nothing. Toobin may be right. He really is smart. But it sure looks to me as if the money is all on the left now. Anyway, it was sad talking about my dear pal, the great, great Bill Safire, in the past tense.

Off to Yizkor services, remembrances of the departed, at my very left-wing temple. It was upsetting:

1. Some speaker, I do not know who, told us we should pray for the Iranians to be happy. Way too much like in 1937 Jews praying for Himmler to be happy.

2. Another speaker said we needed national health care. Hey, is it a synagogue or a rally for Obama?DON'T ANSWER. I ALREADY KNOW.

3. The rabbi read a list of the members of the congregation who have died this year. Right in the middle was the following: "Senator Edward F. Kennedy." This is so infuriating on so many levels I can scarcely control myself. Kennedy, of course, is not a member and never was. He is a killer. He is about the most mean-spirited person I have ever seen in politics. Why are we counting him -- son of the pro-Hitler father -- as a member of our temple? And doesn't this mock the whole idea of solemn memory, to make it a political statement?

4. At the most solemn moment of the service, when a violin was playing very sad music for the victims of the Holocaust, four teenage girls in front of me were giggling and texting.

And people think Jews are smart!

Anyway, I had been fasting and I had super good sushi dinner after sunset. Happy New Year.

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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.