I’m 77 years old. My doctor tells me my health is excellent — not just good but excellent. But I feel old when I think of how long ago the key events of my life were.
Like many people my age, I start to think about a “bucket list” — things I would like to do before I “kick the bucket.”
To tell you the truth, there is very little on my “bucket list.” My life so far has turned out to be more interesting and challenging than I thought it would be.
Yes, at first it was bureaucratic, dull, and poorly paid. I worked for the Office of Legal Services, an arm of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “War on Poverty.” The work was excruciatingly dull, but the people I worked with — men and women, Black and white, Jew and gentile — worked well together and we saved many families from being illegally thrown out of their homes by their landlords.
Then I worked for the Federal Trade Commission. My task was to regulate the advertising for a fruit-flavored drink called Hi-C.
It was a hopeless task because there basically was nothing wrong with Hi-C’s advertising to start with. But I learned a great deal from working against vastly more experienced, better supported counsel for the CocaCola Co., which owned Hi-C.
On my side, I had inexperienced but thoroughly brilliant lawyers with me — especially Arthur Best, Gale Miller, and Ellis Ratner — and I have stayed friends with most of them since 1972.
At the same time I worked for the FTC, I also taught part-time in the communications department of American University at Ward Circle in D.C. I taught about the social and political messages of entertainment feature films.
There were no VHS tapes or DVDs or cable then. I showed every movie we analyzed on a screen in the front of the class. Then we discussed the movie for two hours, two days later.
The class was a roaring success. I had 60 students the first semester, 160 the second semester, and 360 the third semester — the largest student population ever in a class.
I loved the students and they loved me. On the first day of the second semester the students stood and cheered when I walked into the room. On the first day of the third semester, the students stood, cheered, and stomped on the floor until campus security was called.
I was in heaven. I am an attention hog and A.U. was paradise. I hated the humidity in D.C., though. I got a job teaching in College V at the University of California-Santa Cruz, basically about the same subject but also about constitutional law for undergrads.
U.C. was then by far the most beautiful campus in the U.S., and I loved it. But I ran into a great big lightning bolt of anti-Semitism from the dean of College V (now called Porter) and I went back to D.C.
I had made a big mistake leaving, but the FTC, under a smart, kindly man named Gerry Thain, took me back, sliding me into the smallest room in D.C.
And then a miracle happened: I started writing opinion pieces about the bias against Richard Nixon in the media.
The world was different then, and big papers including The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal ran my pieces. They got attention.
By a giant stroke of luck, my father, Herbert Stein, was chairman of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers. He was deep pals with the major honchos at the White House, especially Bill Safire, Peter Flanigan, Pat Buchanan, and Len Garment.
He was only two floors above me, and I spent a lot of time visiting him. I had long hippie hair then, but the bigwigs at the White House trusted me and they took me on as a speechwriter. Those were glory days.
I knew from day one that the powers that be in the media and in Congress would ruin Nixon’s stupendously successful career, especially as savior of Israel, most effective promoter of racial integration, peacemaker in the Vietnam War, and the man who won the Cold War by opening relations with Red China.
That made Russia the only large nation on Earth surrounded by hostile Communist states. They had to make peace with the U.S.
Meanwhile, I was writing speeches, messages, opinion pieces, anything I could. I wanted to make a mark and I did.
I got to have lunch with my father two or three times a week. I met Elvis Presley at the White House dining room, called the White House Mess. Fine-quality sirloin steaks and a vanilla and chocolate fudge sundae — $2.50.
One day I needed to know a statistic that I could not readily find in those pre-internet days. I went up to my father’s immense office and asked him if he could find that statistic if he had nothing more important to do.
My pop looked at me with a steady gaze and said: “What do you think I have to do that’s more important than helping my only son?” That was the best moment of my life.
I was incredibly privileged to become friends with Julie and David Eisenhower, as fine human beings as I can imagine on this Earth.
For some reason I still don’t understand, I was flagged down by President Nixon himself for conversations about race, ambition, fathers, Israel, dogs. He was especially fascinated by my close relationship with my genius father. He often expressed regret that he did not have as close a relationship with his father as I did with mine.
When he left office, I stayed on for several months to work for President Gerry Ford, as warm and likable, graceful, and intelligent a man as can exist. What the media did to him in the 1976 election was criminal.
My life has changed and exploded. I went to work as a columnist at The Wall Street Journal. I came to Hollywood 46 years ago to work for Norman Lear and his deputy, Al Burton, the best friend I ever had.
I wrote TV and movies and novels and nonfiction. I taught law at one of the great universities, Pepperdine in Malibu, California, for both undergrads and law students.
I became an expert in corporate governance and testified at innumerable trials about breaches of fiduciary duty and fraud.
I became a movie star in a very small way. I had my own quiz show that ran for almost 1,000 episodes. Our show won seven Emmys and I have three of them on my mantel of our home in Beverly Hills.
I swim every morning in my own heated, immense pool. And I have the absolutely best wife and the sweetest son on Earth. And a fascinating sister.
My life has a life of its own. I don’t need to make a “bucket list.” Fate has its own destiny for me. I’ll just keep on truckin’.
But, wow, do I miss those days at American University.
Ben Stein is a writer, an actor, and a lawyer who served as a speechwriter in the Nixon administration as the Watergate scandal unfolded. He began his unlikely road to stardom when director John Hughes hired him as the numbingly dull economics teacher in the urban comedy, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." Read more more reports from Ben Stein — Click Here Now.
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