Ben Stein's Diary

My Father Was My Foundation

Every Father's Day is reserved for Herbert Stein.

By 6.13.14

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Father’s Day is upon us, and so, naturally, I am thinking of my father. I am thinking of him in particular about the subject of employment. Very recently, a friend lost his job through no fault of his own. He is terrified of what his parents may say to him when he tells them. I keep telling him that losing a job with no fault is not a moral issue, but it does no good.

In the meantime, I am thinking about how it is now Summer. And I got almost every summer job I ever had — in my youth teenage and college age children worked in the summer instead of going on safari as they do now — through my father’s connections. My mother helped a lot, too.

When I got out of law school, I was such a scary, rebellious looking (and acting) young lawyer that I had a hard time finding a job. My father stepped in and got me a job working as a poverty lawyer and an aide at the Nixon White House. I think my father had a hand in getting me every job I ever had until I moved to Hollywood. At least the fact that potential employers knew I was the son of the genius Herbert Stein helped me a lot. It especially helped me get the most exciting job I ever had, as a speechwriter and lawyer for President Nixon. You all know I love him no matter who else doesn’t.

Most of all, my father’s connections got me the most important job I ever had — as a summer intern at the United States Department of State, where I met my future bride, also an intern there, in 1966.

It went much beyond that. When I was working at a very large newspaper in New York after Nixon days, my boss made a mean comment about my dog and I wanted to quit but I had only modest savings. My father, who loved my dog, told me that he would support me until I got another job if I decided I had to leave that dog-unfriendly environment.

My father was my foundation, my rock, my support in a difficult world. Now, bear in mind, his own father had been a skilled tool and die maker at GE and lost his job for most of the Great Depression. He was unable to help my father at all. But my father more than made up for it with me. He threw himself into every single task I asked him for help with. I believe he did the same with my brilliant sister Rachel as well.

How he felt can be summed up in an incident when we were both working at the White House and I asked my father for some help in researching some data. “Only do it if you have time,” I said to him.

He looked at me with damp eyes and asked, “What do you think I have to do that’s more important than helping my only son?”

Or I could tell you two other stories about my Pop. In a great lost era under Reagan, when Cap Weinberger was Secretary of Defense, the newspapers told of a proposed U.S. Army “Wound Laboratory” of a ghastly nature. The facility was going to take pound animals, tie them to posts, and shoot them with different kinds of bullets to test the killing efficacy of bullets of various types.

It was a horrible idea, right out of hell. There has been many protests but the DoD was unmoved. I — an immense animal welfare advocate — read the stories and called my father. He was appalled. He called Secretary Weinberger and soon the nauseating proposal was shelved. I am sure many other factors were involved. But my father’s close friendship with Mr. Weinberger undoubtedly had something to do with the shelving of the horror. Years later when I ran into Mr. Weinberger at a Nixon alumni function, he cheerfully said that my father’s call to him had made a difference. He knew my Pop to be a sober, careful man and if even my father was horrified, it had to be a bad idea.

Some years after that, I wrote and published a book called ’Ludes about the cruel fate of a drug addicted ambitious young man in Los Angeles. It is a totally sad story based in part on me (the ambitious part) and a close friend (the Quaalude addict part). I sent it to my parents, of course, and I did not hear from my father for several days after he received it. That was unusual. He generally read my books instantly. But after a few more days, I called him and my mother said, “He hasn’t called you because he’s been crying for two days straight since he finished your book.” He was the most sensitive man who ever lived. When he did come on the phone, he simply said, “This is a triumph.”

How many boys get to hear that from their dads?

My father outlived my mother by about 30 months. She died on April 21, 1997. He was desperately lonely for her for most of that time. I made it a point to spend at least one week a month traveling from Los Angeles to DC to keep him company. I talked to him on the phone four or five times a day from L.A.

On my birthday in 1997, he wrote to me the most wonderful note any son could ever receive from his father. It was a fax and it simply said, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY, BEN. To the best son in the world. My confidant, support, advisor, companion and friend. Love, Pop.” It is dated November 25, 1997 and it is framed next to my desk. My father was dead less than two years later.

I have screwed up so much of my life, wasted so much time, so much money, made so many mistakes, but when I look at that fax from my father, I realize my life has not been a waste, at least not totally.

If you still have a living father, do whatever you can to deserve a letter like that, whether you get one or not. If you are a father, realize that you don’t make a difference in your child’s life: You make ALL of the difference.

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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.