Ben Stein's Diary

Amid the Collapse

Our Clear-Eyed Diarist in top form.

By From the December 2008 - January 2009 issue

Monday

Here I am in Atlanta. As usual, I am staying at the Ritz Carlton in Buckhead, one of my favorite hotels. When I checked in last night, though, the lobby was a little different from the usual. The Black Entertainment Television Awards is having a ceremony here in Atlanta. Many of the participants are staying at the Ritz Carlton. They are gaily decked out in bling and T-shirts and lop-sided baseball caps. Their lady friends are lovely and wearing actually normal outfits, quite different from the men. They scared me a bit, but then they started shouting out "Clear Eyes" to me, and all was well.

I ate at an Italian restaurant near the hotel. It was so horrible I really cannot say. The food and my reaction to it kept me up all night. This goes back to something I have often said, namely that fast food is better than expensive slow restaurant food in about 90 percent of cases.

Anyway, that was yesterday. Today, I spoke at Georgia State University. It is a huge campus, but mostly vertical. It does not have a big leafy lawn, at least not that I saw. On the other hand, it has many friendly students. They turned out in droves, major standing room only, to hear my little speech, then asked questions for about an hour.

Then we re-assembled in the lobby and I signed autographs and posed for photos with many hundreds of them. The kids were uniformly intelligent, cheerful, and polite. I did that autograph and photo thing for more than two hours, and I was really tired by the end of the session. But I figure if someone waits in line for two hours to get her photo with me, I owe it to her to sit there and wait.

Truth to tell, I love doing it. I think I should have been a politician, but now it's too late. I have done too many bad things to ever even consider being a politician. Besides, I would only like the campaigning part, not the actually working in the civil service part.

Especially, I would not like the getting up early part.

Well, anyway, I did that, and by the time I got home, I was so tired I didn't go out to my usual, New York Prime, for a fine meal. I just had eggs in my room and went to bed.

Tuesday

Up in the morning and off to ATL to fly to Austin, Texas. As usual, I was in the last row of first class. As usual, the mothers with crying babies were in the first row of coach behind me. I've gotten so I feel a bit on edge if I do not hear those crying babies behind me. But why do the airlines do it that way? What's the point of torturing us first class flyers with that endless crying? Maybe the kids have more legroom that way so they can kick our seats.

Anyway, I got to Austin and went to my hotel room at the Four Seasons. Really nice hotel overlooking Lake Ladybird, named for LBJ's late wife, a true saint and a believer in beautification. No one but me remembers this, but also a willing and eager participant in one of the most crooked empire-building deals of all time. That was when LBJ, as a powerful member of the Senate, got the Federal Communications Commission to shower TV and radio licenses on Ladybird and him. On a salary of about $25,000 a year, he assembled an empire worth hundreds of millions or maybe billions. Good old-fashioned graft. Now lobbyists cannot even take a Senator out to lunch. What a difference! But do we get better laws now? I wonder. I hope so.

Still, LBJ deserves credit for helping, mandating changes in civil rights legislation, change that has made possible our first partly black President, whom I expect to be elected a few weeks after I write this. I do not expect Senator Obama to be able to accomplish anything at all. But I do think that black people should feel that one of their own is Chief Magistrate. They have been feeling bad for so long, it's time they felt good. Well, I guess the ones at the BET show feel good, but the others don't. Or some of them don't. Anyway, you get my point. The problems this country faces are basically not solvable by government, so at least for ceremonial reasons, why not have a President who cheers up a long dispossessed part of the electorate?

Actually, I shouldn't say that. Government can do a lot about the current financial crisis. In fact, after my nap, I went out to a country club to speak to a large group of financial people about how government started this crisis. They started it by mandating home loans to people without credit worthiness, then made it worse by not regulating or banning credit default swaps arranged by people without any insurable interest in the bonds they "insured." Now, government can cure the crisis by guaranteeing solvency of inter-bank loans and by sharply curtailing liability under credit-default swaps. They are also going to need a real stimulus package of major size.

Of course, instead, under that imbecile, Henry M. Paulson, we get state socialism of banks and investment banks. The bailout has morphed from being a help to borrowers in Muncie to being an immense life raft for Paulson's buddies on Wall Street. This is a last, desperate act of rapine against the American people by Mr. Paulson and I do not like it at all. Yes, give them loans they have to repay. Yes, underwrite their loans. But don't buy them and continue to let their executives loot the system. Why on earth should a farmer in eastern Washington state have to prop up Goldman Sachs with his hard-earned money?

I really do not understand why there is not revolution. The bailout was sold as a way to stabilize the mortgage situation, i.e., money for banks to allow them to keep lending to homeowners. Now it's a rescue package for billionaires in Greenwich. How come no one is even saying, "boo!" about this?

So, I talked to these nice people and then we had some long talks afterwards. We actually had some long talks before, too. I spent a long, long time visiting with a man who had been three years ahead of me at Yale Law School. He's a lawyer and investment advisor in Birmingham. He told me how badly many of the city's most prominent families are being hit by the collapse of the regional banking sector. It was deeply upsetting.

I also spoke to him and his very smart son about their impressions of George Corley Wallace, former governor of Alabama. They did not like him at all. Since I think he actually paved the way for modern political life in America, we have deeply different impressions. Obviously, I hate and loathe his racism and the violence that racism engendered. I really believe he was in cahoots with some deeply evil men. But he also gave the white working class a voice they had been denied more or less forever, and I think that was a good thing. Plus, he relented and repented of his racism and I think that was a great thing, too.

 Truth to tell, I really miss him.

Wednesday

Off to Indianapolis. The city is abuzz. First, they are having the annual meetings of the Future Farmers of America. The town is just jammed with teenagers in dark jackets that say where they're from. The kids have a solid, beefy look to them and many of the girls are really pretty. Then, everyone is all atwitter because the Obama juggernaut is rolling into town tomorrow. The story is that Obama might win Indiana, typically a GOP state. So, Obama is coming here to stake his claim.

Well, none of this is up to me.

I checked into my modest suite at the Canterbury Hotel and went out for food at P.F. Chang's. As usual, it was a barely edible meal, but a very comfortable seat.

Thursday

I survived a difficult night at the Canterbury. I think I had some future farmers next to me making noise. They finally quieted down, though, and I fell asleep. Then I had a very poor lunch of poorly prepared steak, watched Senator Obama give his usual nonsense speech, and went off to West Lafayette to speak at the business school at Purdue. Now, there is a pleasant bunch of people. I especially loved a family named Frist. They are a Gold Star family. Their son was killed in Iraq. The mom, dad, and two sisters were just glorious people. I talked to them for a long time, mentioned them at length in my speech, and just fell in love with them.

What would we do without the Frists and the people like them?

By the way, my driver stopped on the way up to West Lafayette at a Starbucks. I met and flirted with a beautiful clerk there named "Destiny." Wow, was she cute. Eighteen years old. I took some photos of her on my phone. What a beauty she is. I told her she should move to L.A. and become a star, but that was probably not good advice. I stopped at the same Starbucks on the way back and she was there. I took more photos. Wow, is she beautiful. Better than a movie star. That's the way it is in middle America: just studded with beautiful girls like stars in the sky.

I also stopped at a Chick-fil-A. As I was eating my sandwich, a beautiful red-headed young woman came over and asked me how I was with the Lord. I said I prayed constantly and hoped I was all right. I asked her how often she prayed. "All day," she said.

But I started to feel sort of angry. The young woman worked at Chick-fil-A. She was overstepping her boundaries by asking me how I was with the Lord. The real answer is, "It's none of your damned business. It's between The Lord and me."

Anyway, I had a very good time in West Lafayette. I wonder if little Destiny is in my destiny. Frankly, I doubt it.

Friday

An astounding day. I awakened at 5 a.m. YES! Five a.m. EDT, which is 2 a.m. my time in Los Angeles. I staggered to the airport and flew, dead asleep, to Minneapolis. There I went to a super trendy, ultra-hip hotel called "The Graves 601" and took a nap. Then I talked to some more financial people, and then had lunch with them. They were lovely folks who, rightly, are concerned about Americans' retirement prospects. How is a generation of boomers who were ill prepared before going to retire now that their savings have been cut in half or so by the stock market crash? Nice work, Henry M. Paulson, for not doing the smart thing right away but instead letting world confidence in financial markets simply vanish. Has there ever been a worse Treasury Secretary than Mr. Paulson? I don't think so.

I took a short nap after my speech, then flew to D.C., to my beloved home town, and went out to dinner with my pal Mike Long and his son, Sam, the webmaster of my website. It was cold out but we ate outside at Bangkok Joe's and met many beautiful girls from U. Va.

Then, to bed and a long sleep.

I am pretty sure my parents are here watching over me.

Saturday

Off to Walter Reed with my pal, Russ Ferguson, future President.

The first wounded man we saw, a Private Kouchlar if I have that right, was an amazing man. He had both of his legs blown off in Iraq. He could recall every detail of the catastrophe. He could even remember what he was listening to on his iPod when the EFP hit him. It was Eminem singing "F--k You Osama bin Laden" and it was the part where there are spoken words by George Bush sampled by Eminem, words about finding bin Laden wherever he is. He could remember what he said to a black sergeant who kept him awake so he didn't die of shock. ("Keep your long alien fingers out of my face," was what he said.) He could remember what kind of Gatorade he drank as he was being hauled out of the blown-up vehicle. He could remember exactly how the men who hauled him out of the vehicle put their hands so they could lift him. ("I'm a big guy," he said, "and it's because the EFP hit me and I absorbed the shock that the two guys in the back are still alive.")

Anyway, Pvt. Kouchlar said he willed himself to stay alive so his brother, who was standing next to his bed, would not have to bury him, as he had buried his mother and father. Needless to say, I was sobbing.

Everyone else Russ and I met were also brave, magnificent men. Compare them with Wall Street and you really get upset.

We ran into a famous wrestler, Mr. Bradshaw, and his bond analyst lady, Meredith Whitney, both long-time colleagues, and they invited us to a country music concert that night in Fairfax. It was to benefit wounded soldiers. Russ and I straggled out there to hear Trace Adkins and Alan Jackson. It was wayyyy too loud, but we stayed for about half an hour and then left.

I am very tired.

Ben Stein's Diary runs in every issue of The American Spectator.

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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.