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American Salute

On the road in Walla Walla, Washington, and other hot spots. A fresh installment of Ben Stein’s Dairy.

By 5.10.04

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Tuesday
I have said it before and I will say it again. You will simply never guess where I am. Go ahead and try. See, you can't. I am in Walla Walla, Washington, in the southeastern part of that beautiful state. I am about to give a speech at Whitman College, thanks in large part to the Young America's Foundation.

I think I have discovered heaven. It is America outside of New York, Beverly Hills, and Santa Monica. Just several days ago, I was in Scottsdale, Arizona, again, as I often am. I had dinner at PF Chang's with my dear pals Barron and Steve, indispensable friends, and then we shopped at the great Barnes & Noble and then had tea at Starbucks. The night was warm and dry and breezy. The faces were friendly. The stars were out. It was paradise. The next day I spoke at the Troon Four Seasons in Scottsdale to a group of kindly insurance people. Two nights later I was in Grand Rapids, Michigan, home of my old boss, Gerald R. Ford. I gave a speech to execs and customers of a fine bank called Standard-Federal. Then we had supper at a fabulously good cafe called the 1913 Room, and then we had a long political discussion. No one raised his voice. No one tried to make the other look stupid. No one bragged and everyone laughed a lot. Life between the coasts is blissful. I have discovered heaven and it is heartland America. Walla Walla, Scottsdale, Grand Rapids, even Las Vegas, which is basically Midwestern and kind. What did I ever do to deserve to be in America? Thank you, dear Lord.

Everywhere I go I preach the good gospel of gratitude, humility, reliance on God, patriotism, and devotion to one's family. And it all goes down extremely well.

However, I have been warned that at Whitman College there are almost no Republicans and virtually zero supporters of Mr. Bush. So I am a little nervous. Plus I have been told that I will be faced by militant demonstrators, something that has never happened before.

The only solution is to go for a ride into the lovely surrounding countryside. I was told about its beauty by the kind people who flew here with me on a Horizon Airlines plane last night. We all rendezvoused at the Seattle Airport and then headed to the small plane. A man named Lessard, who makes and sells wine, talked to me about what a great small town Walla Walla is, and how I must see the wheat fields and vineyards outside of town.

A kindly college boy named Bruce has taken the car of the charming young woman who runs the lecture series, and we set out to the countryside. Alas, I was so nervous, I thought I would surely not enjoy it. WRONG! The countryside outside Walla Walla is magnificent. Rolling fields. Horizons of snow-capped mountains. Crystal blue skies. Immaculate small farm houses. On top of one hill we spied a funeral plot of ancient vintage with gravestones from the mid-19th century, overlooking a landscape that probably has not changed since the Indians were displaced. (They took their revenge by killing Marcus Whitman and his family, founders of the community.) One of the gravestones said, in large carvings I could easily read, "Earth has no pain that heaven cannot heal." I thought this was quite good and I have tried to remember it.

I took many, many photos of the area. I used up three rolls and I only wish I had brought more film. If Wlady allows, I am going to accompany this article with a photo, which I think you will like a lot.

I returned to my magnificent small hotel suite at the Marcus Whitman, a renovated hotel from before World War I, ate the food I had bought at Wal-Mart the night before, toasted some toast in my Wal-Mart $6.87 toaster, and girded my loins to speak. I did that mostly by praying, which is always the best preparation for anything. I will say what I have to say and if they boo and hiss, it will not kill me.

Midnight The Same Day....
Well, I gave my speech after a rollicking dinner with the College Republicans. Everything went great. The students loved me and I loved them. They were not hostile at all. They asked me many questions about my stand on the right to life of unborn children, but I answered in what I hope was a forthcoming way, and they all clapped mightily and stood up when I finished to give me a standing ovation.

The usual questions I get about abortion are "What about a woman's right to choose?" and "Do you want to go back to the bad old days of back alley abortions?"

I always answer that it is not about choice. It is about killing a totally innocent baby, and it is really not an issue of choice when one human being has the right to kill another human being without that human being having due process of law.

Then I usually answer that any unnecessary deaths in back alleys are sad, but that whole problem has been wildly overstated. The real problem is 1.4 million of the most innocent among us getting murdered every year, a Holocaust that has cost us about 40 million lives so far, or about 40 times as many as in all of our wars.

The only really hostile audience member was a wild-eyed woman who (in between talking on her cell phone) said that those beautiful fields I admired so much were cultivated by illegal migrant labor that did not get proper schooling or proper school lunches. I said I thought they were still probably better off than in Mexico, or else why would they have come at all.

After all, I said, they are probably here illegally, and it is amazing that a nation gives social services to families who are here illegally. But, I added, there are humanitarian standards that must be upheld whether the families are here illegally or not.

The woman was about to start out on a major tear, but she was distracted by a call, and wandered off.

I signed autographs for about an hour, had some snacks, and then went off to bed.

My old pal Carl Bernstein, who has been saying terrible things about my hero, George W. Bush, told me years ago that the best thing about speaking was going out into America and seeing how wonderful Americans are. He was so right. Most of this country is friendly and cheerful. The angry people you see on TV are only a tiny fraction of the population.

In Walla Walla, life is good. Rain fell outside my hotel room as I slept. I awoke at three in the morning and looked out at the streets of downtown Walla Walla. Perfectly peaceful. No sirens. No gunshots. No drunks. The peace was total. God bless America, and Walla Walla is the America we salute when we salute the flag.

Tuesday
Here I am in Las Vegas. It was a major struggle to get here. Last night in Palm Desert I spoke to an amazing group at the Marriott Desert Hot Springs Resort, a really lovely hostelry. The audience was there for the Computer World IT 100. They were an impressive crew. Smart, good senses of humor.

But then, to my dismay, this morning I discovered I had mislaid my driver's license. So I had to go to a special line at the Palm Springs airport and get searched with a fine tooth comb. Then, to my further disgust, my United Express flight was canceled. Quick like a bunny, my pal Barron, who walks on water, got me a flight on a private plane to Vegas. It was a small twin-engine turbo prop, but it was fine, and in no time, I was there at the Mandalay Bay Hotel.

Private planes are God's gift to weary travelers. Jets are best, but any private plane is fabulous.

I am here in Vegas for a big event for Pepsi which I am in and which I helped to produce. Talk about nice people. Cathy and Alan and Dave and Richard and Jeff and all the folks from Pepsi and their ad agency, BBDO, are fabulously capable people, hard-working, utterly devoted to Pepsi and its amazing drinks, and a lot of fun to work with.

We put on a show starring Gary Shandling (hilarious), David Spade (hilarious), Mo-Nique (the best of all), and a tiny part by me, and also great show and tell by Dave Burwick, SVP of Pepsi, and the maestro of Pepsi ads for 50 years, Alan Pottasch. The audience was the nation's bottlers of Pepsi, a lively and happy bunch.

It all went well and I felt fabulous when it ended, but sad. It was a bit like a high school graduation. A lot of excitement, but who knows what happens when it is over. I wandered around the Mandalay Bay, saw many drunken people, and then went to sleep. What a lucky life I lead.

As I sat in my chair checking my e-mails, I had the sudden realization that I don't have a real problem in the world except for mortality, and as I have often said, faith takes care of that. What a blessed guy I am. I don't deserve it. But then neither do any of the lucky Americans I know.

Friday
Well, here are some people who are not quite as lucky. I am at a gathering honoring Holocaust Survivors and a museum they have made in Orlando, Florida. The Holocaust Survivors are a spectacularly sprightly and lively group, especially the leader of the group, Tess Wisse. She is still beautiful and still full of fight. She gave a brilliant speech, and I followed it with a few jokes and a speech about devotion to one's parents.

When I finished, I got a huge ovation. A smallish older Jewish man named Eddie came up to me and hugged me. His tears soaked my shirt onto my chest. "I am a survivor," he said. "My father did not survive. They took him away the night before Yom Kippur. He said, 'I will not survive, but you must survive to bring up your son the way I brought up mine.' No one has ever brought up the feelings in me he did until I heard you tonight. Thank you for making me think of my father in this way and on this night.'" And then he hugged me for so long I started to cry, too.

This is a great way to live. And when I walked out of the auditorium, there was no SS, no Hamas (the Middle East wing of the SS), no NKVD, just glorious, free America. God bless, God bless.

Sunday
But what is this? I just finished speaking to another Jewish group, this one the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. They were a mixed audience, mostly very hostile about right to life, but overall very friendly. But one lunatic came up to the stage to say he hated me for blaming the Palestinians for the problems when the blame obviously fell on the Jews. WHAT! At the U of J? Well, wait a minute, this is Los Angeles...where up is down and down is up and white is black and black is white....

I thought a lot about how patient a speaker has to be, thanked him for his frankness, got into my limousine, drove along Mulholland Drive back to Beverly Hills, and wished I were back in Walla Walla, looking out at the perfect rolling hills and the empty, peaceful streets of God's country.

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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.