Ben Stein's Diary

Liberty Weekend

Off to meet the chancellor of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell, Jr. From our July-August issue.

From the July 2009 - August 2009 issue

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Friday
Here I am riding through the lovely Virginia countryside in the back seat with my trusty driver, Bob Noah, at the wheel. You have to go out a long way actually before you get to the open spaces, but that’s progress, I guess. What were once verdant farms and trees are now hideous residential developments. For some reason, money, I am sure, builders now build homes that are quite tall but very narrow. I guess that’s to give the illusion of spaciousness. Specious spaciousness, as one might say. I don’t care for them, but then, tastes vary.

We stopped somewhere about 60 miles south of D.C. at a Super Target. Wow, what an immense store. Very clean and neat. Lots of friendly people. Just to my untrained eye, it did not seem as if the prices were a super steal. Frankly though, it was a pleasure just to be in such a clean store. It was almost like a museum of cleanliness. Plus it was very well lit. I love Wal- Mart but they could learn from this Super Target. How much trouble would it be to keep the Super Wal- Marts as shiny as this store? I am not an expert in retailing, so maybe I am missing something. Maybe Wal-Mart would not seem like a bargain if it were not a little untidy. Plus, no store has more helpful people than Wal-Mart. Not even Super Target, which has pleasant, friendly people indeed.

Anyway, back into the car and down southwest toward Lynchburg, Virginia, where I am giving the commencement speech at Liberty University. We passed through Charlottesville, home of Mister Jefferson’s University, and ran into colossal traffic. Then ever southwestward, until we passed the adorable town of Lovingston, Virginia.

There was a sign pointing out the “Historic District,” so we went over to the courthouse for Nel son County. It was a lovely old building, like a Holly wood set of a courthouse, only better. I kept thinking if I looked hard enough I would see Gregory Peck arguing for the life of a wrongly accused black man. But, no, it was empty in that courthouse. What would it be like to be a lawyer in Lovingston, Virginia? Actually, it sounds good to me. Near the courthouse, there was a statue of a Confederate soldier, that was, oddly, looking north. In my idiocy, I thought they always looked south. Maybe they always look north. There was a sign about a terrible hurricane, Camille, that caused immense loss of life and property damage in Lovingston. Many beautiful azaleas grew near the Confederate soldier statue.

As we looked for more historical mementos, we came upon a little knot of young girls, including one with neon pink hair. I went over and talked to them and to their boyfriends or brothers or whoever they were, sitting in a car and a truck. The girls were adorable. They said there wasn’t much to do there except hang out at the local coffee house. I took their pictures and then we went on our way. I sure hope they find something interesting to do.

We got to Lynchburg around nightfall. Wow. It is a confusing place. Very hilly, like Knoxville, Ten nessee, and many confusing intersections and interchanges. We found our hotel, a huge structure on the side of a mountain, and then went off to meet the chancellor of the university, Jerry Falwell, Jr., his wife, and their small party.

We met them at an aptly named restaurant called “Ham’s.” Everyone was super cheerful and friendly. Jerry is a handsome devil, movie-star quality, and his wife, Becki, is simply beautiful. Their son Trey, a college student, is also handsome, helpful, and amazingly strong. I had to ask him to ratchet his handshake down a bit lest he kill me.

Jerry and Becki have been together since they were teenagers. You can see how much in love they still are and it’s touching. Everyone was super pleasant and had a lot to say.

I contrast this with a faculty dinner or two I have had at colleges and universities in New England, where I felt as if I were caught in a spiderweb of suspicion and entrapment. These were really, really, open, friendly people. The owner of Ham’s came over and visited with us. He was super friendly, too. This is friendly countryside. 

Liberty, it turns out, is the largest Evangelical Baptist university on earth. It was founded, of course, by Jerry Falwell. He was from Lynchburg, where his family had long owned a large dairy operation. The kids come from all over the nation and the world to study and learn to follow Christ.

They make no bones about it. This is a school for believers.

As far as I can tell, it’s working great. Jerry, Jr., took over after his father’s totally unexpected death recently. He had been a quiet fellow but learned to go on stage occasionally and now he’s a pro.

I also met Jerry’s brother, pastor of the Thomas Road Baptist Church, a huge enterprise of worship right next to the school. He is also handsome and friendly.

It all seems extremely cozy and I like it.

After dinner, Trey led Bob Noah and me to the nearby supermarket to buy some midnight snacks. He is a very friendly, capable young fellow. There is a lot to like about this school. I felt warm and cozy just being there.

Saturday
I got up early to go off to Liberty. It was a perfect, sunny, slightly breezy day, which was a treat because the forecast had called for rain. We “dignitaries” all assembled in a room overlooking the stadium and watched thousands of graduates and parents and grandparents file in. I was told there were 23,000 in the audience, which would make it the largest group I ever spoke to in person.

Then they put a robe on me because they were giving me an honorary degree, and off we went to a large stage. Jerry, Jr. gave a speech. His brother gave an invocation. A fantastically gifted group of singers sang. Then a truly astonishingly good singer from the Thomas Road Baptist Church sang. I really felt the spirit of the Lord when he sang. Many people in the crowd lifted their hands to heaven to connect with the Holy Spirit as he sang. It was an amazing sight of faithfulness.

Then I spoke. My theme was that Americans—some Americans—had stopped believing that man had a spark of the divine in him. If man were just mud struck by lightning, as the neo-Darwinists say, then man could do terrible things to man and there would be no consequence. But if man really believed that all men were made by God and that to harm man was to harm God, man would act much better to one another. That, at least, was my theory as put forth in my speech.

I got a very good response and felt happy, happy, happy. This might have been one of the two or three best days of my life.

We had a fine lunch afterward at which we learned about many connections we all had. My driver and pal, Bob, is from the South and had some connection with people at Liberty and their friends. I signed autographs and posed for photos, but I was tired by then and wanted to go home.

But Jerry had other plans. He and Becki took me for a fabulous tour of the campus, including the house where Jerry Falwell had worked and died, and which had also been the manor house of Carter Glass, U.S. senator and co-author of the Glass-Steagall Act, which sensibly restrained finance in this country for many decades. I miss Jerry Falwell. He was absolutely unafraid and would debate anyone. When he was in a TV studio and the person he was debating would say a bunch of lies about Jerry or about Liberty or about conservatives, Jerry would interrupt him and say, very politely, “That’s a lie,” over and over again. I loved that.

We went to Jerry Falwell’s grave (deeply touching) and then up to a mountaintop to survey the city of Lynchburg. Jerry and Becki were holding hands the whole time.

Now, here comes the best part. When we got back to our hotel, a young woman graduate was struggling with a tub of clothes to load into her family van. Jerry, the Chancellor of Liberty U., simply asked her, “Can I help you with that?” Then he took the tub from her and carried it to her van.

I said, “I don’t think Kingman Brewster would have done that when I was a student at Yale and he was president of Yale.” I might have added that whatever eminence was head of Columbia when I graduated from there would absolutely without question not have even known of my existence, let alone helped with my luggage.

Jerry answered jovially, “This is the South, Ben. We take care of each other here.”

I love the South. My life is all about travel and I am in every part of the nation week by week. There is no part of the nation that I dislike. Not one. Not even New York City, although that’s my least favorite. But for a large region, the southeastern United States, which means the states of the former Confederacy, plus most of Maryland, especially around Baltimore, plus Kentucky. For reasons I do not know, the southeastern USA has the most polite and friendly people on this planet.

I am lucky to have married into the most polite family in the United States, the Denmans, originally of Mississippi and then moved to Arkansas, Oklahoma (which I should also have included), and Texas. If you want to see some amazingly polite people, the exact opposite of what you see in some other regions, Look Away, Look Away, Dixie Land.

Bob Noah and I got into our car and headed north. We stopped at a Chick-Fil-A, another of my favorite cafes. As always, the food was great but the young girl who served us looked extremely unhappy. I think she was having a fight with her boyfriend, but who knows? And who cares? I just know that I liked being at Liberty and in the South.

Friday
Here I am in my little home in glorious Beverly Hills. I spent the night at my much smaller home in Malibu. I was scared. The motion sensor lights in the back went on at about two in the morning and I had no gun, since it was stolen about a year ago. I tried to encourage the dogs to bark and scare off the intruder, whoever it was, but they just looked worried and went back to sleep. I figured that I really have no valuables at all in that home except my photos of Richard Nixon and his advisers and probably no one but me wanted them so I was safe. I guess it was a coyote or a poor homeless person.

Anyway, when I woke up, I lay in bed a long, long time trying to figure out what we learned from The Great Recession.

First, we learned that prudence in finance is never out of date. Prudence in the way we manage our finances as a nation and as families is simply never a bad idea. That means not overspending, not undersaving.

Second, we learned—again—that man is a greedy animal. If left to his own devices, he will steal. Man is also a hypocritical animal. If left to his own devices, he will steal and he will lie about it.

What we really had in the period 2002–2006 was a time of colossal fraud about corporate earnings and values. If the true liabilities of banks and insurers had been known, if a truly appropriate reserve had been taken at financial entities for the likelihood of default, we would have had far lower stock prices and less for them to fall.

If the truth had been told to potential borrowers and lenders about the likelihood of defaults, we would have had far less risky borrowing and lending. This would have led to a far more modest housing boom and a far smaller bust.

Third, it’s very risky to create financial instruments that have the power to destroy the whole world. Warren E. Buffett called derivatives “financial instruments of mass destruction” and I think he’s given a good description.

But we also had a booby-trapped system in which if one small part, sub-prime mortgages, were detonated, they would set off a chain reaction that would blow up all matter.

It was only very timely work by Mr. Bernanke that saved us.

Finally, we learned the limits of selfishness. Laissez-faire is great. Individual initiative and ambition are great. But there has to be some force controlling them and countervailing them. We have cut back so much on regulation and on private securities law enforcement that the financiers basically were on the playground without supervision—with nuclear weapons. Not good.

Well, just a few thoughts. Of course, as always, the real stars are in Ramadi and Tikrit and Mosul and Baghdad and Fallujah and the Panjshir Valley and Kabul—and more real stars are taking care of their families and their wounds at Walter Reed and Bethesda and all over the world. There is a lot to be said for the ordinary people whose work is caring and not making money.

Oh, by the way, I got a chance to think about this for some time because coming in from Malibu to Beverly Hills, usually a journey of one hour, took more than two hours because Mr. Obama has brought himself and his entourage to my little neighborhood of Beverly Hills. To show his solidarity with the people here who have lost jobs and homes in the Recession, Mr. Obama is attending a Democratic Party fundraiser. The tickets are $30,000 a couple. Yes. That is not a misprint.

Mr. Obama’s motorcade is messing up traffic, but then that’s not his problem. Gods do not worry about traffic.

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