Ben Stein's Diary

He Was the Perfect Man

Peter Flanigan, RIP

By 8.1.13

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Wednesday
Terrible day.

I awakened and got dressed to head over to CNN to talk about a movie about Richard Nixon supposedly made with the home movies of various White House staffers -- Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Chapin. I was extremely tired from the grueling trip back from Sandpoint to L.A.

As I was being driven, I opened my e-mails and was slapped across the face with barbed wire. Peter Bloch, my old pal, wrote to commiserate with me about the death of Peter M. Flanigan, a colleague and close friend of almost forty-five years’ time. I had known nothing about it and was put into a daze.

I first met Peter when he was a high aide for economic policy to President Nixon in 1969. It was at a screening of some movie at the Motion Picture Association and I recall two things about him: he told me abruptly to be quiet when the movie was running, and he was the handsomest man I had ever seen.

He was a close colleague of my Pop, who was then on the Council of Economic Advisers and often brought me to White House social affairs, where I saw Peter and got to be a friend.

Later, in 1973, Peter was instrumental in bringing me to the White House as a speechwriter and also as a lawyer. By that time, Peter was head of the Council on International Economic Policy. I often went to visit him in his lavish offices. He was invariably warm, witty, and welcoming.

At some social event, I met his spectacularly beautiful wife, Brigid, and the two of them were dazzling. Peter was a major league heir: father had put together Manufacturers’ Hanover Trust Company and the mother was Aimee Busch, as in Anheuser-Busch, founded by her ancestor.

Peter had gone to a super selective Catholic boarding school, Portsmouth Priory, in Rhode Island, and then to Princeton, and then had joined the U.S. Navy to be a carrier pilot in the Pacific against Japan. Now, bear in mind, he had all the connections and money a man could have, could have avoided combat, but he chose to fight in the most dangerous way possible.

I asked him about it repeatedly and respectfully. He said that the only hard part had been learning to make night landings on an aircraft carrier. “It looked impossible,” he said of his first solo flight. “It was just a postage stamp there in the ocean and I thought I couldn’t do it. Then I saw the guy ahead of me do it, and I thought, ‘That guy’s an idiot. If he can do it, I can do it,’ and I did.”

Peter downplayed the actual combat and made it sound as if he had been playing golf -- of course, he had been in engaged in mortal combat with a deadly foe.

After the war and finishing summa at Princeton, Peter went into banking and also into diplomacy and foreign aid (which I always suspected was really espionage, but who knows?), and then into politics, working hard for RN in the 1960 election that the Democrats stole. He then worked with Nixon on his comeback and was made a honcho in the White House.

I see I am not getting at what made Peter a great man. It was not his résumé or his money or his phenomenal good looks. It was his extraordinary intelligence, his brilliant wit, his knowledge, and his love of man and God.

Peter was the first to say to me, during the oil crisis after the Yom Kippur War, “There is no such thing as scarcity and no such thing as surplus. There is only price.”

Peter was the most loyal to Nixon of anyone I knew, and we were all loyal. He was also loyal to his friends. He got my father onto the board of one large corporation and one medium-sized one after the Nixon days. The pay was small, but my father greatly enjoyed the camaraderie.

Peter was a friend to me when I worked at the Wall Street Journal. He would often take me from my drab little cafeteria at 22 Cortlandt Street to the posh Recess Club where I dined among the swells. Peter never mocked me for my long hair and hippie looks, and absolutely never bragged about his success or his wealth. He was always perfectly dressed and never made much of it. He lived in a palace in Purchase, the kind of a house that Gatsby could only dream of, and he made it available to me, escaping from my tiny apartment in Manhattan, and never in any way made any kind of comparison.

He was a formidable disciplinarian, but his kids loved and worshiped him. He could make his dog stop fidgeting or whining just by looking at the beast intently.

He and I were joined by our love of Nixon, but even more so by our love for human life. Peter believed in the sanctity of all human life from conception and made no exceptions.

He was a fierce advocate for improving the education of the poor and racial minorities. He did this through the Student Sponsor Partnership, which took underperforming but ambitious black and brown students from the failing public schools and put them in under-crowded but high-performing parochial schools. He also was a hard-working advocate for school choice and vouchers.

Peter was also a major friend of Portsmouth Priory, now called “Portsmouth Abbey.” It was there, two years ago, that I last had a chance to visit with him at length. He had invited me to give the graduation speech and I did. Before and after we talked about advertising, about lawsuits, about World War II and how hard it had been to beat the Germans, about the absence of loved ones. His beautiful Brigid had died about ten years earlier, and he had only fairly recently found peace with his wonderful new wife, a lovely Austrian woman named Frau Von Oswald. As a gesture of love for her and family, Peter lived half of the year in Purchase and half in Salzburg -- which is where he died.

To me, Peter was the best of the greatest generation: steadfast, heroic, modest, hard working, generous of spirit. I frequently got letters from him (I don’t think he used a computer). My eyes always opened wide to see that perfect handwriting of his name under the perfect typing of the letter.

That was how he seemed to me: perfect.

We are losing too many of these big people and have far too many small people running things now. I see that my old marching companion, Ralph Nader, once said some negative things about Peter. I love you, Ralph, and you are a star -- but Peter was a rock of integrity, loyalty, and love, and he cannot be replaced.

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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.