On many, many occasions, latterday Renaissance man Ben Stein has written about his lifelong admiration for President Nixon and the days he spent as a speechwriter in the White House in 1973 and 1974. But earlier this week at NewsMax, the writer/actor/economist/game-show host discussed that part of his career at much greater length than usual.
Ben tells his story in his usual relaxed manner, acknowledging that sometimes his memories are a bit misty. He starts by recounting the day he went to the library and borrowed a book about RN, being much impressed by what was written about the President’s determination both as a student and in wooing his future wife. (In this article, Ben places this event in 1952 and thinks the book might have been written by Earl Mazo. But his earlier columns and articles, more accurately, give the year as 1956, and the book as Nixon by Ralph De Toledano, which came out that year and was indeed the first biography of RN; Mazo’s book was published at the end of the ’50s.)
As is always the case, Ben tells it all when it comes to RN. He writes that when he told his new bride in 1968 that he had voted for Nixon, she was so upset she got out of their car in midtown Manhattan traffic and stormed off. (This was one of several stormy separations, though ultimately the former Alex Denman reconciled with Ben and they are happily married today.)
After Ben underwent a radical period of his own at Yale Law School, he moved back to Washington and, working as a trial lawyer, happened to catch a brief report about a break-in at the Watergate complex in the middle of a local newscast. Then, after another somewhat countercultural interlude in Santa Cruz, he came back to DC, and, in the summer of the Senate hearings, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times defending RN. This came to the attention of Assistant to the President Peter Flanigan, and Ben was invited to join the White House speechwriting staff. (Since his father Herbert Stein was chair of the Administration’s Council of Economic Advisors, Ben had some prior familiarity with 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.)
With his customary clean and direct prose, Ben describes his surroundings and colleagues, then explains what he was involved with:
I also worked soon thereafter on RN’s proposal for universal national healthcare. That, also, was a nightmare of complexity. My recollection — which could easily be wrong, after 40 years or so — is that our basic idea was to find out who had health insurance and if those people could not afford insurance, we would send them checks to buy it.
We would also have rural healthcare centers and health improvement centers that would have people doing calisthenics or eating whole wheat or flaxseed oil. That whole idea was not even close to as controversial as it now is.
It is amazing to think about it, but that was a Nixon plan supported by a Republican minority in Congress. It was killed dead by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who later wrote that he regretted doing so.
We also had plans and ideas about how to improve education. Even then, we were well aware that education for black children was a disgrace and RN had plans to fix it. Obviously, again, those came to naught.
The most moving part of the article describes Ben’s final weeks at the Nixon White House:
How does one grow broke? “Slowly and then, all at once,” as the saying goes. That was how my time at the White House with RN ended.
General Al Haig, who was chief of staff, called us together in an auditorium, told us staffers how brave we had been ( “. . . as brave as any men I have ever led in battle . . .” he claimed, which was certainly not true of me), then told us he was, “. . . a harbinger of horror . . .” and that we could not survive much longer.
Then RN resigned and the next day he spoke an incredibly moving farewell to the White House staff and spouses. I was there with Pat, both of us crying. I was chewing gum and crying. My father and mother were sitting nearby. I have never seen my mother so distressed and sad, sobbing, despairing, in anguish. My father looked as if his father had just died.
The RN speech was the most candid speech I have ever heard from a public figure, straight from the heart about his pain. His family stood behind him. I cannot imagine the agony of that day for them. Then RN left out onto the South Lawn into a Marine helicopter and then he was gone — but not forgotten.
Julie stayed behind to pack more mementoes. RN was to have a small staff in San Clemente. I wanted to go but was not allowed to. I recall walking out of the White House to the EOB, still sobbing.
Fred Dent, the kind South Carolinian who was Secretary of Commerce, patted me on my shoulders. “It will be all right,” he said, but his voice was hoarse.
But the most unexpected part of Ben’s article is in rather a lighter vein. Quite casually, he mentions that during a visit to the White House to see his father, at a time before he started working there himself, he met Elvis.
Yes. The King and the man who gave us “anyone?….anyone?” actually crossed paths. Among the events of December 21, 1970, it is hard to picture anything quite approaching the iconic impact of the handshake of Nixon and Elvis immortalized in the National Archives’s most requested photograph, but this might have been a contender.
Unfortunately, none of the White House photographers seems to have had a camera ready when the man from Silver Spring (or North Woodside Park, as us South Woodside Parkers would say) met the man from Memphis, because the meeting took place in the White House cafeteria. Back in 1997, Ben described the encounter in an article in the Deseret News:
Because of the elder Stein’s status, father and son could dine together in the White House mess.
“So he and I were sitting there, having lunch,” Stein said. “For $2.50, you could get a very good steak and ice-cream sundae.
“And my father said, `Isn’t that Elvis Presley sitting behind you with Bob Haldeman?’ And I turned around and I could not believe my eyes. It was Elvis Presley, looking a bit – shall we say – sleepy.”
Ben Stein told Presley that he was a big fan, and got the trademark “Thank you very much” in return.
“It was just unbelievable,” Stein said. “It was like seeing a spaceship land. If Elvis can turn up in Nixon’s White House, then there can be UFOs.”
The brevity of the conversation described may be disappointing, but it has to be kept in mind that in late 1970, Ben sported not the close-cropped look he has nowadays but a gigantic white boy’s Afro that, if he had a ripped T-shirt and jeans handy, would probably by itself have qualified him to work as a Grateful Dead roadie. “El” may have been even more surprised to see someone with that tonsure in the White House than Ben was to see him.
In recent months, Ben has mentioned once or twice in his columns that he has thought about writing a whole book about his experiences working for, and talking with, RN. Here’s hoping that the NewsMax piece leads to just that.
Robert Nedelkoff is a writer for the Richard Nixon Foundation.