Going Places - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Going Places

Travel, travel, travel. It is the last week in February of 2004. So far, since New Year’s Eve, I have been to New York City on two trips, to Australia (which is great but had a lot of angry-looking Moslems staring at me), to Washington, D.C., three times, to Orlando three times, to Miami, which brought back upsetting memories of Garth Wood, M.D., to Colorado Springs, which is where the Air Force Academy is and where I spoke, and to Santa Barbara. There I spoke to probably the nicest people on earth, the men and women of Ryland Homes. They are princes and princesses as far as I can tell. I spoke to them on a mountain top, next to the home of the head of Ryland Homes, a great guy named Chad. He and his wife are so kind it makes me cry.

The great part was that the next thing after the speech I was whisked to the Santa Barbara airport and flown by private Lear 60 jet to Orlando. Let me tell you that there is nothing better on this earth than flying, all by yourself, on a private jet. No lines. No security. No crowds. No waiting. Just pull up in your car, get into the jet, and bam, you’re on your way. I had the plane catered with fried chicken, and I ate some, and went to sleep. No noisy fellow passengers, no lines at the bathroom, no delays on landing. Just land, and a limo is waiting and takes you away. It is the way I always wanted to live.

I often remember a book by Norman Podhoretz. He talked about how long it takes to adjust to being rich (although he had a very humble idea of what rich was — student at a high end English university). He said it takes about thirty seconds. I think it takes one ride in a private jet. And this is my third ride this year, so I am rockin’ and rollin’.

Anyway, today, I am not on a private jet. I am with my wife on a Boeing 757, a miserable, narrow body, very long, ugly plane, and heading off to Washington, D.C. again. I love going to D.C., mostly because I still think of it as my home town. Plus, I still own my apartment at the Watergate that my parents left to me and my sister (I bought her out of it). In my mind, my parents are still there, puttering around and watching Murder, She Wrote and the Redskins and my mother is offering me grapes. So, when I go there, it’s like I am seeing my parents again. I did not throw out my parents’ clothes, and they still have my mother’s scent and my father’s aftershave on them, so it’s all very nice.

The flight was fine, although the food was literally disgusting. I brought cashews, as always, to tide me over, and they worked fine. But here comes the funny part, the part that is eternal Washington.

Our driver was a large black man named Mr. Mack. I have often had him as a driver and he’s always great. He was a news reader for years on an early black R&B station that Carl Bernstein and I used to listen to long ago. It was called WOOK, or as they called it, “the Wookin’ man’s station.” Now he’s a happy driver for a limo company. He was waiting in baggage with a sign, and as soon as I saw him, he asked me about Arnold’s ballot measures for California. In great detail. Then, in the car going along the magnificent night-time route into D.C., along the Dulles access road and then along the Beltway and then along the George Washington Parkway, he grilled me about outsourcing, the balance of trade, tariff policy towards South America, chaos in Haiti, and Bush’s military record. Oh, also about gun control and legalizing drugs.

He was a straight-up-and-down liberal. That was fine. But the great part is that in Washington, even the limo drivers are policy wonks. We got to my apartment, paid him off, thanked him for his aggressive nagging of me, and then entered my apartment. Alas, it had been worked on (the “condensate pipes,” whatever they are) and the workers had left a huge mess. It took me a while to straighten up, and then we grabbed a cab to the Vietnam Georgetown Restaurant. The cab driver, a Senegalese, was listening to NPR, where some poor woman from Time was being interviewed from Port-au-Prince. In Washington, the cab drivers listen to NPR. After dinner, we took another cab back. The driver, a Jordanian, was listening to “NP,” that awful show from Canada where everyone tries to prove he’s more holy than the next. Don’t get me wrong. I love Canada, but that show is a bit off-putting. The driver asked us how we thought U.S.-Jordanian relations were. “Great,” I said. “Just great.”

In Washington, taxi drivers want to discuss Near Eastern affairs. It is great.

MY REFRIGERATOR AT THE WATERGATE has everything good in this earth. Fudge from Julia Long. Orange juice. Eggs. Bacon. Sausage. Arnold bread, the best bread on earth, English muffins. It is all perfect. I sat in my father’s chair and answered e-mails while I looked at the lights of Virginia.

Then I rummaged in my father’s desk drawers. I came across a fragment of my mother’s diary from 1981 when she and my Pop were on one of their endless trips to Europe. She was talking about how worried she was that my Weimaraner, Mary, was sick with cancer. How Mom loved that dog. She often told me that the happiest days of her whole life were when I left Mary with them for two weeks in 1976 when I went to L.A. to look for an apartment that would take a dog. She used to just sit on the couch with Mary, talking to her for hours and looking into her beautiful blue-gray eyes. But why didn’t they get a dog of their own?

Probably the biggest mistake anyone can make in this country is to fail to have a dog. And a cat. And then a second dog.

If I ever run for President, which I will not, my main plank will be Right to Life, but second will be legal rights for companion animals.

My wife lay in bed reading a mystery and I read of my mother’s love for my beloved Mary. I could not sleep for hours. Where is Mary? Where is my mother? Where’s Pop? In my heart. I am so lucky my sister is still alive and very, very well. But above all, my wife is my lifeline to sanity. I see her lying there reading and I realize she takes up about six cubic feet on the planet in the infinite universe. But if I did not have her, I might as well be as alone as an atom in another galaxy, cold, desiccated, and dead. (By the way, are planets made of atoms? If so, aren’t the electrons whirring around all day long? Isn’t that life?) She is my connection with the world of love. Perfectly genial, perfectly generous of spirit, endlessly beautiful and forgiving (the same things, really), and what I live for.

Still, I could not sleep. I think my parents are talking to me. What are they saying? Remember us, but enjoy being on earth at the Watergate, among the policy wonks and limo drivers and Arnold bread. It won’t last. Well, maybe it will. I am pretty sure my parents are still here. We Jews believe that souls stay around where they last lived for at least a long while. Can you imagine how many anguished souls must be in Poland and Germany?

How lucky my parents were to live and die in America.

Up early and off to Capitol Hill to testify about retirement planning. I have been to the Hill to testify on many occasions. My father often used to go with me. He was a 50-year veteran of congressional testimony. He gave me the single best piece of advice anyone has ever given me about testimony. “The hearing might go on longer than you think. If they put a big glass of water in front of you, don’t drink it.” The last time I testified was in ’98 about the National Endowment for the Arts. My main opponent was a highly belligerent Alec Baldwin. My Pop was there with me and it was all swell.

Anyway, the shocker this morning is that there is an amazingly long line to get into this Rayburn Building. Apparently everyone is being searched thoroughly and it is taking forever. Plus, it is cold out here. I fell into conversation with a lovely woman and then with several men representing hunters in Pennsylvania and then with a young man. That worthy fellow turned out to be the son of my across-the-street neighbor from my youth, Alan Akman. He was a likable U. of Michigan grad and we had a nice talk, and finally got in.

The hearing was delightful, except for some bickering about Secretary Rod Paige (Education) and his calling the NEA a terrorist organization. After that, the conversation was fine. The basic problem is this. There are about 77 million Americans racing toward retirement age. These are the baby boomers. On average, when they retire, they can expect Social Security to pay for many 38 percent of their expenses. But only about a fourth have defined benefit pensions. And only about that many have 401K’s or IRA’s or Keoghs. So, what do these people do? The average sum saved for retirement of those who have saved is about $100,000 and of everyone (including those with nil savings ) the figure is more like under $50,000. At today’s interest rates (or any day’s interest rates) that does not pay much. The gap between what is needed and what we have as a nation for the boomers is probably in excess of two trillion dollars, and on a household basis, it’s several hundred thousand dollars.

Where will this money come from? I am up here on the Hill to encourage people to plan, to save a lot more, to buy stocks, mutual funds, especially annuities, since they take the risk of outliving your money out of the picture, and especially variable annuities since they allow your money to grow along with the stock market and also allow you to avoid “longevity risk.” My parents had those variable annuities and they did great. Just great. My sister and I still get the benefit of them.

The hearing went on for a long time and I was glad I had not drunk my water. The Representatives were quite cordial, although the Democrats did a lot of sniping at Mr. Bush, surprise, surprise, including some charges that just are not true (surprise, surprise).

After the hearing, the Committee Staff had their photos taken with me, and that was fun, and then on the way out, I met my hero of the Right to Life Movement, Henry Hyde. We had a few pleasantries together and then off I went.

The trip back to the West Coast was a nightmare. My United flight to Seattle was very late so I flew with my wife to L.A. Then we had terrible seats, and I was in a foul mood. But then I was home with my dog and in bed.

Still, I miss my parents’ aura in that apartment and the smell of Arnold Bread in the morning.

I am back in L.A. now. I did my gig for the Public Library association. That is about 8,000 librarians, the nicest people you would ever want to meet, and my sponsors, from Gale Research Software, which can do wonders. And the day went fine except for a stint at a pretentious restaurant that made us eat a very expensive and inedible tasting menu. Still, the Gale folks and the librarians at the dinner were so pleasant that the evening was worthwhile. What great people those librarians are. To help young and old people get the information they need, the mysteries they need, and then to do all of that for so little pay that it shows true devotion. Well, I am touched.

Anyway, I am back at my house in Malibu and I cannot sleep at all. I am thinking of what good examples my father taught me about saving — although I still worry that I don’t have enough — and about hard work, and about politeness. I came across some memos and letters my father had written about budget policy for an AEI conference he chaired in 1996 with the good Senator Kerrey. The letters and memos were so diffident, so devoid of any kind of boasting, so genuinely decent and open-minded to Democrats and Republicans alike that I was truly moved. I hope I can be that polite. My wife already is, but I must strive to do better.

Then I thought about the future, and how I have already lived most of my life. What do I recall as my happiest moments? I think, for sure, early days dating Alex, Tommy’s childhood, and my time at UC Santa Cruz in the forests and in the sunshine. Glorious, glorious, glorious Santa Cruz. Glorious days. Every single other person there was a Democrat, but I still had glory days in the redwoods. Where can I go now that would be as free and easy? “Wooden ships on the water, very free, easy the way it’s supposed to be, tell the people on the shoreline, we must be, very free, and easy….”. Who knows what song that’s from? I do. “Wooden Ships.” By Jefferson Airplane maybe. Or Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. My only links with UCSC now are John Mankiewicz, family man and screenwriter, and Larry Wilson, ace magician and orchestrator of the slip’n’slide, which I will tell you about another time….

And then I think about the catastrophe about right to life, and it breaks my heart.

Anyway, I got up and called my wife. She was still awake at our house in Beverly Hills.

“I had an adventure tonight,” she said. “I went to dinner with Pam Morton at a new Italian restaurant on Beverly. On the way back, my car overheated because the hoses [on her BMW 740iL] had come loose. So we stopped at Morton’s, where they’re getting ready for the Oscar Party, to which, as always, we are not invited. There were a whole bunch of English guys who helped me by pouring bottle after bottle of Evian into the radiator. From glass bottles, not from plastic. Isn’t Hollywood great?”

At first, I thought, “What extravagance, what waste. What pretension.” Then I had a better thought. “What nice people to help out my wife.” I think that’s what my father would have thought.

And then I could fall asleep.

Ben Stein
Follow Their Stories:
View More
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.
Sign Up to Receive Our Latest Updates! Register

Be a Free Market Loving Patriot. Subscribe Today!