Ben Stein's Diary

Hizzoner’s Handshake

Flying with Rahm, but remembering Stanley.

By 11.8.13


Scary. A friend appeared early in the morning to show me pictures of women who had answered his ad on a dating website. They were unhappy looking people. Not so much unattractive as frightening looking. These were mostly women 60 plus. My heart truly bleeds for them and for the men trying to befriend them. It is really hard to be lonely and it takes a toll on women’s facial features. They look like they have been in prison. I know I am a pitiful fat old man. I don’t think I look as if I have been in prison though. Maybe I do.

Yes, indeed. Maybe I do. I am in a sort of prison of fear about going broke. That’s my obsession.

Anyway, off to DCA to wait for my flight to ORD. I was afraid it would be a long, boring wait but I was pleasantly surprised. A simply beautiful young lawyer with the same first name as my wifey sat near me and we talked animatedly about the law for about an hour. She was as good at conversation as a person can be and also had a cheerful, flashing smile.

Then, off to the gate to get ready to board. A muscular man in the crowd saw me and cried out, “Bueller, Bueller.” Who should it be but the bodyguard or maybe a staff aide for Rahm Emanuel. Hizzoner the Mayor of Chicago. Rahm was standing there looking scary and self-confident. He gripped my hand and pulled me towards him.

“Wow, Rahm, that’s quite a handshake,” I said.

“I’ve been out on the stump a few times,” he said.

He was too dangerous looking to stand near so I walked a few feet away. I heard two women talking:

“I think that’s Rahm Emanuel and Ben Stein over there,” said one.

“Which is which?” asked the other.

Good question.

Rahm was in row one and I was in row three, and as I passed by him, I said, “You’ve had an amazing career. Phenomenal.”

He smiled at me as if to say, “I’ll kill you last.”

Then I added, “I think you’re the most successful ballet dancer there has ever been.”

He looked surprised but then genuinely happy. I told him his brother had been my agent for a time. “A strange man,” said I.

“That would be putting it mildly,” Rahm said, although his affection for his brother was obvious.

The dinner on the plane, breaded chicken breast, was the best airplane meal I have had in 20 years. Kudos to American Airlines.

In Chicago, I had a second dinner with John Coyne, my copain from Nixon days. I had just been re- re- re-reading Gatsby and especially the parts about how Gatsby, a poor farm boy, had formed an image of the dashing, romantic rich man he wanted to be and then made the dream real. At least for a while.

What was RN’s dream? To be a star football player? To get the girl? To be in Congress. Maybe at one point. But once he teamed up with Ike, he saw stars. Ike was not just a general, not just a politician. He was, as a book said, “Statesman and Soldier of Peace.” He treated RN poorly but Ike was a hero to the whole world. If RN could become a statesman and soldier of peace, he would have trumped everyone’s ace.

Then he met De Gaulle and Mao, men who (supposedly) thought in generations instead of election cycles, in centuries instead of mid-year votes, and this became his dream: to be America’s statesman who set the stage for a generation of peace. That was who he was.

But to do it, he took his eye off the ball of politics and break-ins, and the roof caved in on the statesman and soldier of peace.

Sad. John and I talked about it as if were happening now but it was four decades ago when John and I were young.

I went back to my room and read about two boys from my high school class who had just died; Kenneth Levin, a science genius, and Jim Wendt, one of the nicest guys on earth and a basketball star. Broke my heart.

Well, it is late. It is later than any of us dare think.

How long do John and I have? How long does anyone of us have? Stanley Kauffmann died a few weeks ago. Brilliant film critic in the New Republic and the New York Times. My teacher at Yale School of Drama in 1969-70. Encouraging, kind-hearted, told me to pursue my theories about the political content of mass culture, the hidden subtexts that political writers weave into movies and TV. Led to some of the happiest days of my life when he helped me get a job teaching about film at American University for three glorious semesters of adoring co-eds, then two stupendous quarters of sweet California girls at UC Santa Cruz What started in Mr. Kauffmann’s class led me to write a column about TV, movies, and political intrigues for the Wall Street Journal, then to write my little opus, The View from Sunset Boulevard, about how the politics of the writers and producers gave us the anti-business, anti-religion, anti-military, anti-rural messages of prime time. That had brought me to Hollywood as a critic and I never dreamed I would become an actor.

Mr. Kauffmann was patient, eloquent, down to earth, a perfect critic and a perfect gentleman. Too much dying.

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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.