You are currently viewing the printable version of this article, to return to the normal page, please click here.

BOOK REVIEW: ‘What Would Ben Stein Do?’

- - Friday, November 11, 2011

WHAT WOULD BEN STEIN DO? APPLYING THE WISDOM OF A MODERN-DAY PUNDIT TO TACKLE THE CHALLENGES OF WORK AND LIFE
By Ben Stein
Wiley, $21.95, 210 pages

In 1973-74, Ben Stein was a bone-thin, intense, extremely hardworking young man, still in his 20s, graduate of Yale Law School, just hired onto the small, hand-picked White House writing staff, determined to do his very best for President Nixon (full disclosure: we were colleagues there). And he did, producing, among other things, the primary draft of the first and only national energy plan, as well as the first and last coherent draft of an affordable health care plan. Had it been adopted, there'd have been no Obamacare.

When Watergate devastated the administration, Mr. Stein was one of Nixon's fiercest supporters. And when the president was finally driven from office, Mr. Stein remained loyal, in later years visiting him in San Clemente to hear him discuss politics and world affairs, about which he knew more than any other living politician.

In the end, many of us from that period believe, like Mr. Stein, that Nixon was unjustly forced to leave office. But no matter. Mr. Stein moved on without excessive bitterness - politics, after all, ain't beanbag - and carved out a remarkable career: contributions on politics, culture, business and finance for the Wall Street Journal, Barron's, the New York Times, the American Spectator; for TV, Fox, CNN, CBS' "Sunday Morning" and "Win Ben Stein's Money"; a cult-classic movie, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off"; a cult-classic memoir, "Dreemz"; several well-received novels and a series of books like this one, offering both personal and financial advice based on common sense and a wealth of experience.

Much of that advice is aimed at sons and daughters - the kind of instruction that parents would like to give their children. As a father himself, and the sometimes rebellious son of remarkable parents, he speaks from experience. Your parents often throw away their own lives to care for you. "You absolutely have to show in a clear, convincing way that you are deeply grateful. To begrudge them this kind of appreciation is just plain wrong and even immoral."

Work hard: "Work connects you with the universe, as Freud again so wisely said ... Yes, you can beg. Yes, you can scam. Yes, you can live off relatives and friends. But those offer no emotional or psychological satisfaction. Actual work - the harder, the better - turns the trick."

Get an education: "Adam Smith (author of 'The Wealth of Nations') said that the real, lasting wealth of nations comes from the industriousness, energy, imagination, and education of its people. In Adam Smith's mind, education was at the very pinnacle of these assets."

On marriage: "I put this out there for you: If you possibly can, find a good spouse. Once you do, treat that spouse like gold." (He did and does.)

Money and financial advice: "You need cash and a home and stocks - maybe a little bit of commodities fund in there, too. So save and be diversified." Have your own stash. "We have learned we cannot trust the men with the silk hats, and we cannot trust the propellorheads, and we cannot trust the bureaucrats. We have to be able to trust ourselves and one or two personal financial advisers, and that's enough."

Getting rich quick: "If I genuinely feel that I am content with what I have, I am rich ... If you can banish envy from your life (a big if) and can genuinely concentrate on what you have and not on what you don't have, you will be rich."

Drawing on lessons learned from hard-earned success and a full and well-lived life, Ben Stein offers sensible advice in these and many other areas - the kind of advice most parents would like to pass on to their children, but as is the case in many families, have trouble initiating such talks. One solution might be to buy a copy of "What Would Ben Stein Do?" and pass it on.

They'll know who he is.

• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of "Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement" (Wiley, 2007).