Ben Stein's Diary

Unsequestering Defense

It really is time to get serious if we are to remain a free people.

By 10.21.13

Here my wifey and I are in Washington, DC, my hometown. The skies are drearily gray and a light drizzle has been falling on and off all day. The temp is about 60, and I would call this a typical Fall day in the Nation’s Capital.

Makes me glad wifey and I are usually in Sunny Cal at this time of year. My old boss and pal, Bob Bartley, often talked to me about how seriously men and women were affected by their physical surroundings and dragged down by dreary, dim surroundings. I was working as an editorial writer and columnist for the Wall Street Journal which was then at 22 Cortlandt Street, across from the World Trade Center, at that time. Our quarters were relentlessly Spartan, crowded, and gray. The cheapest possible gray metal furniture, a far cry from the grand office decor at RN’s White House. Bob said he knew it was creepy there but that he didn’t want to ask for the money to make it more cheerful.

Long time passing. Bob was a fine boss, but we came to a parting of the ways over supply-side economics and about Michael R. Milken. Bob was for both and I was against both.

Now, I have come to a new appreciation of Milken. I still have serious questions (to put it mildly) about how his junk world worked. And, of course, he did plead guilty to many felony counts. But I am simply amazed at how complex an operation he oversaw. The dimensions, the wheels within wheels, the whole astounding empire were like works of art and scientific genius put together. I have written that it was not a wholly heads up deal (again, to put it mildly), but what a menagerie he ran. Breathtaking. It was really as if he were ruling an entire separate world.

As we all know, I am the world’s most ardent student of The Great Gatsby. That’s a story about a man working high up in some kind of highly questionable network of bond sales who tries to win back a woman who, when she was a teenager, he had loved. Gatsbyesque has become a synonym for lavish wealth and success. But Gatsby was a piker compared with Milken. Milken was the king of financial empires. Not a hero to me at all, but a just astonishing human being. And he apparently did his prison time bravely and that counts for a lot. Enough about that. For now.

Anyway, to change the subject, we have a giant supernova public policy problem here in America. The sequesters are still grinding on. They are wearing down the defense capabilities of the nation. They are hollowing out the ability of the armed forces to defend the nation. The heads of all of the armed forces have testified that they cannot guarantee that they can defend the nation if the cuts go on.

This is drastically serious. What would we do if North Korea invaded South Korea, bombed Japan, and overran Seoul in a day, if, at the same moment, Iran invaded Saudi Arabia and started launching deadly Silkworm missiles at the crucial shipping in the Straits of Hormuz? We would be shown to be weak and unable to do much.

Look, I like low taxes just as much as Bob Bartley did. But defense is greater than opulence, as Adam Smith famously said. We must have higher revenues and lower taxes just don’t work to get them. Let’s be clear on that. We upper income people (I am lower upper income) must have higher tax rates. It’s not that complex. We have to be responsible enough to pay for our own defense and right now, we aren’t. This has to change if we are to remain a free people in a world at peace.

No frill for us rich people is worth anything like risking our national defense. That is the ultimate good: peace and freedom.

BRIEF PAUSE HERE while my wife and I had our little dinner of meat, potatoes, peas, and applesauce.

One other subject of great social and political importance, as Janet Joplin so aptly said so many years ago:

About a month ago, I met a woman at a meeting. She told me she wanted to be a writer. She sent me a few very brief selections of her work. It was amazingly fine stuff. I told her I would help her become a self-supporting writer, but she has vanished from the Internet. My febrile brain kept cranking though, and I have a few tips for those who seriously want to be working, paid writers:

Contacts are everything. Aspiring writers should be friends with those who are already successful writers. Your servant was helped incredibly by friendship with the great essayist, columnist, historian, and novelist. Bill Safire. Through the intermediation of a fine man named Earl McGrath, I became friends with Joan Didion, whose book of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, is as good as any book of essays I have ever read. She is a living legend and she was extremely helpful to me and I worship at her shrine. My old professor of film at Yale, Stanley Kauffmann, the kindest, best teacher I ever had after Lowell Harriss, took me under his wing. He used his amazing power as Film Critic for the NY Times to get me jobs teaching and writing. He just died and he is missed desperately. These people were giants. Their help for me was immeasurable. Later in life, encouragement came in by the carload and my favorites were letters from Herb Gold, a genuinely great novelist. (Buy and read his book Swifty the Magician.)

You really cannot make it as a writer without connections.

Write about topical issues, at least at first. You can write about your dating life at some point, if you wish (and I used to a lot). But when you are starting, write about something in the news -- like, how does a budget crisis affect my life as a designer of handbags? And if it doesn’t affect it, why is the budget crisis such a big deal?

Use the force and power of the news to advance your own career.

Do not try to be too stylish or too cute in what you write. Just describe straightforwardly and don’t try to set a new standard in stylized prose.

If at all possible, do not now or ever take a writers’ workshop. Don’t let other people take up space rent-free in your brain. Write as well as you can and as much as you can, and don’t let other people -- unless they are Joan Didion or Herb Gold -- tell you how to write.

Write every single day except the Sabbath and read great writers like Fitzgerald and Nabokov all day and all night. And get enough sleep.

Off from the Watergate to DCA. My wife looked so beautiful when she waved goodbye it was almost unbelievable. Magical, beyond anything else I have ever seen. Just sunshine coming off of her, lighting up the whole world.

Then, DCA. A stunningly beautiful woman was in line ahead of me at US Air. "You are startlingly gorgeous," I said to her.

"Yes, but so old," she answered.

"You look a lot like my wife," I answered, "and she's the most wonderful woman on the planet."

The woman looked sad and walked away without saying a word.

I passed through security, where I was examined by a 2007 graduate of Blair High School.

At the 5 Guys, I met a staggeringly handsome couple, blonde, fit, gloriously radiant. They were from Wilmington, North Carolina, home of many a Confederate blockade-runner, now a major military area. The boyfriend is a colonel who has served in Iraq, Afghanistan, Djibouti, Uganda. The girlfriend, just a super beauty, grooms animals.

Then I met a slew of other military officers… they had been in a military marathon, all around DC, and they were truly heroic. There was a woman Major who had flown medevac in Iraq, Afghanistan, East Africa, had been shot at with machine guns and RPG's, and had come close to death.

I met a beautiful (that word over and over again!) logistics officer, also a woman, also in many combat deployments.

They all told me they had been losing readiness because of the sequester. THIS IS INSANE!!!!!

We flew to Huntsville, Alabama, a lovely, clean airport with many military equipment ads, and then in a car to a Starbucks in Athens, Alabama, where I signed many autographs and posed for pictures with church groups and students, then to a small gas station in Rogersville. I talked to a sheriff, signed many cards, and then bought some delicious chicken tenders.

Thence to Mussel Shoals. I ate a hearty meal of biscuits, she crab soup, steak, and a truly heavenly chocolate cake.

That was at the hotel lounge where a musician sang perfectly as a sexy blond girl danced with her boyfriend. I asked the musician to play Sweet Home Alabama and he did, but he did not want to play Dixie.

Oh, well, no one is perfect.

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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.