This installment of Ben Stein’s Diary appeared in The American Spectator‘s October issue. To subscribe, please click here.
IT’S EARLY AUGUST. Here I am in hot, humid, miserably oppressive Washington, D.C. It is a steam bath. I am on a good mission, though. Thanks to a woman named Ms. Brody at the USO, I am visiting Bethesda Naval Medical Center in Maryland to see and talk to wounded Marines from Iraq and Afghanistan. I have a driver and he’s doing all of the hard part, so I can concentrate on the scenery. I passed the intersection of Connecticut and Kanawha Streets, NW. Years ago, some pals from Columbia and I rented a house there. I had a bedroom with purple walls and used to get very, very high there with the woman who is now my wife. Alas, the house has been torn down, replaced with icky townhouses. Well, ou sont les neiges d’antan? What times we had there. Now I am still in touch with two of my roommates from those days, both doing well. But one of them borrowed my eyeglasses a month or so ago and has not returned them. I wonder why.
Then we drove farther on past the District Line to the gates of the Chevy Chase Club. Immediately, my stomach started to hurt and my head spun. I really had a major resentment towards that club when I was a kid. In those days, in the 1950s and 1960s, it was strictly restricted against Jews. No Jews would even be considered at all under any circumstances for membership. When I drove by it in those days I would feel a surging, crazed fury.
It hurts like mad insanity to be excluded on the basis of a condition of birth. Here the little Stein family was. My father was a successful man with impeccable manners. Both of my parents had gone to major schools. My father had served in the Navy during World War II. But we were too dirty and low to be considered for membership. We might start bringing in our shmatas and trying to go from member to member selling them wholesale. Or we might talk too loud or play pinochle or some damned thing.
Anyway, time has passed. I now think clubs should be free to exclude anyone they want under law. That’s because I think an intrusive government is a lot more dangerous than a racist club. But it still is personally insulting that (as I have been told and maybe I am misinformed) the Chevy Chase Club is still restricted against Jews. It makes me even more furious that the Los Angeles Country Club, less than a mile from my house, is also, de facto, restricted against Jews. They have a silly charade that they don’t discriminate against Jews. They just don’t take anyone in the entertainment business. Gee, I wonder if they would have turned down Ronald Reagan.
Well, enough of that. My life is great and I have very little indeed to complain about.
WE ARRIVED AT THE Bethesda Naval Medical Center, passed the old FDR-designed main tower where my very own father was treated during World War II, and then went to a new building. Three crisply dressed, very fit-looking Marines and a pleasant-looking Ms. Brody greeted me. They immediately introduced me to a young Marine missing both legs below the knee but walking around perfectly well and visiting with his lovely young wife.
He could not have been cheerier or more self-effacing. What a hero.
Then to several wards to see men missing limbs, missing eyes, often with severe, scary-looking machines implanted in them to make their bones grow again. To a man, they were cheerful, optimistic, eager to stay in The Corps. How unbelievably lucky we are to have them on our side, defending us. One star with a prosthetic limb said his only goal was to return to Iraq and help out his buddies. His wife, sitting nearby, looked sad.
There were actually a lot fewer men there than I thought I would find. Is the media making the war seem worse than it is? Hmm, 1,850 killed so far, many in accidents. That’s fewer than in Civil War battles we have never heard of. Each death is a tragedy and a curse. And I wish there were none. But is 1,850 deaths in a war a lot or a little? By historical standards, it’s not a huge number. In the Civil War, over 600,000 died out of a population very roughly one-eighth what ours is now. That would be equal to almost 5 million killed today. A whole Southern generation was essentially halved.
If this is an important war, we had better grit our teeth and accept that great men and women will die. It’s horrible, but there it is. If we really mean to win it, though, let’s get serious and have a much, much bigger Army and tax ourselves enough to pay for it. Wars are not won by tax cuts.
Anyway, I spent about two hours there and then went back to my apartment at the Watergate. I really do not deserve to be on the same planet as those men and their families and their doctors and nurses in Bethesda, but here I am, so I’ll just try to get out a message of gratitude to the real sunshine of our lives: our brave, glorious military men. Let’s not sell them out, again, please.
Off to dinner at the marvelous Watergate Hotel restaurant. I took my sister and Marina Malenic, also a contributor to this mag. We had a lovely meal looking out at the Potomac drifting by. We made small talk about the horrible East Coast climate, and then in strolled our Secretary of State, the redoubtable Ms. Rice. She was with two distinguished-looking men. I greeted her and she greeted me affectionately. I introduced my sister and Marina, and she introduced us. This is typical of Dr. Rice. She has the world’s most deferential manners. She is almost on a par with my pal, Phil DeMuth, in the manners department.
Then, off for a solitary walk through Georgetown. It was fantastically hot and humid. They were filming a movie on 31st Street south of M Street and the sidewalk was blocked. I went over to M Street, but it was so deserted that I might as well have been in a cemetery. The climate is getting unbearable, that’s the long and short of it. Is it global warming? Who knows?
Back to my little apartment to soak up the vibes of my deceased parents. I keep wondering how my father would react to the war in Iraq. I think he would say we would all be behind it a lot more if we had some shared sacrifice. It’s just not pretty that we civilians should be getting our taxes cut, get rich (on paper) from real estate, watch the stock market zoom, while those who signed up to defend us get killed and maimed for us. Can’t we at least have a small tax increase for the very rich? There are so many very rich and they have money to burn. (I know. I live among them.) They can spare a few thousand more each month.
Shared sacrifice is a major way to bind the nation. Maybe I’m wrong though. Maybe poor Dr. Dean would make hay with that.
NOW, I’M IN KANSAS CITY. This city has major significance for me because it is here that we adopted our handsome but teenage son, Tommy. He is so handsome but so much a teenager. Anyway, I am not here for a celebration of that adoption. I am here to speak to the First Marine Division Association. It is a sort of alumni association of the First Marine Division. Just in case you don’t know, they are the heroes who fought at Belleau Wood, Guadalcanal, Peleliu, Okinawa, New Guinea, Cho-Sin Reservoir, I-Corps, Fallujah, and, well, you get the picture.
These guys are so handsome in their uniforms and their medals you can scarcely believe it. And they stand so straight and tall and still carry themselves with total pride. At a reception before the dinner, I met a man who was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in Vietnam. He is now a deputy secretary of defense and his name is Barney Barnum. A quiet, unassuming man. I spoke to a man who was a hero at Guadalcanal. His wife told me how he had won himself a ticket out of the war with a wound, a “million dollar wound,” but then insisted on going back for the battle of Okinawa. His name was Mr. Cannell, I think. Anyway, he’s my hero, and he just rides the bus like everybody else. I met two men who had fought at Cho-Sin. They were still thin enough to wear their dress uniforms from 53 years ago. They laughed about getting shot at in 35-degree-below weather. But they brought home all of their wounded and their dead. And they taught the Red Army of China that Americans could and would fight and die for freedom.
(By the way, Marina enlightened me about how totally ungrateful the South Koreans are for our sacrifice. What is wrong with them?)
We had a long speech by General Natonski, currently commanding general of the First Marine Division. He told about incredible heroism in Iraq. He was a real warrior type and I liked him a lot.
Then I gave a short speech about how our whole life is dependent on the blood and sacrifice of the Marines and the Army and Navy and Air Force and Coast Guard and how we would not breathe one breath without them.
Really, how do we nasty civilians deserve any heroes like the ones in that room? The Marine band played “Waltzing Matilda” and “God Bless America” and I felt as if I were in a room of kings.
I AM UP IN THE WORLD’S most beautiful county, Bonner County, Idaho, eating spare ribs at Hill’s Resort, looking at Priest Lake, basking in the good aura, and a couple came up to me a few minutes ago. They were a good-looking middle-aged couple named Captain and Mrs. McMahon, USN. Captain McMahon flew 150 missions piloting an A-6 over Vietnam. Exactly 40 years ago today, while I was studying to be a pukey, whining trial lawyer, his A-6 caught fire and he had to eject over the South China Sea. A Soviet trawler was about to pick him up when a U.S. Navy helicopter swooped in and saved him.
He is still amazingly handsome, even jaunty, and his wife is beautiful. And they glow with their inner courage and bravery and patriotism. And — now this is the best part — they are thanking me for the few words I write about the military. I walked down by the shore of Luby Bay and looked at the lake and the mountains and the sky and the eagles at dusk and thought, when God sends messengers of good, he sometimes sends warriors with beautiful wives to do His bidding. Without Captain McMahon and the others like him, this would all be ashes. God bless him and her, and this magnificent place, this Idaho, this America.
I AM BACK HOME AFTER A GLORIOUS morning at the marina in Sandpoint. Perfect sun, balmy breeze, friendly men and women greeting me by name out by the sailboats. I felt as if I were in heaven, and I was.
But now I am back and wifey is still out of town with Tommy in Massachusetts. How I miss them both.
Let me now tell you about wifey, about the greatest creation of mankind.
On July 4, 1966, I went to a black tie ball at the State Department, where I was a 21-year-old summer intern. I met a stunningly beautiful auburn-haired 19-year-old woman with a perfect nose in a blue silk dress. She was from Idabel, Oklahoma. She looked like a dream come true and went to Vassar College, not far from where I was going to law school in New Haven, Connecticut.
Flash forward. It’s 2005. This woman Alexandra Denman — she goes by her maiden name because she was for a time a famous lawyer — has been my wife off and on for 37 years. In that time, we have been divorced, remarried, separated, reunited, and are now apart for the summer and fall as she works on an errand of mercy in New England and I swim and act in Beverly Hills.
This woman, this wifey, is a saint. She has the patience of Job. She never gets angry except at Democrats — just kidding, she really almost never gets angry at all. She forgives the most outrageous behavior, especially by her husband, and has the most spectacularly acute sense of humor on the planet.
She has a voice that makes music out of a simple call to have some breakfast. She works tirelessly for animal charities and travels all around the world rescuing poor helpless beasts.
And chief among those she has rescued is her beastly husband. From her I have learned what little bits of humility and kindness I have. From her I have learned what shreds of patience I have. From her I have learned the simple joy of being.
I have never met a finer specimen of humanity — and she is my wife. This is a stroke of such unbelievable luck, such astounding grace of God, that I am in awe of the gift every day.
I may be wrong but I suspect that for all of the tabloid talk of divorce, my situation is the more common situation among American husbands. We are married to wives better — far better — than we deserve. Here’s a thought for the day. Let’s tell them how blessed we are by their presence in our lives. Let’s not just assume they know. We won’t have them, and they won’t have us, forever. Or maybe we will. In either case, it’s worth a moment to tell them of the joy they are in our otherwise lonely lives. Go ahead. Do it. You won’t regret it.