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Jewish World Review Sept. 12, 2003 / 15 Elul, 5763

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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Consumer Reports

Ben Stein gets serious: Davis is a 'thug in a gray flannel suit' | Ben Stein is a familiar face to millions of TV-watchers and moviegoers for his eyedrops commercials, his Comedy Central quiz show, "Win Ben Stein's Money", and his iconic role as the boring teacher in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."

Few of those millions, however, know that Stein, a 1970 Yale Law School grad and son of economist Herbert Stein, is a conservative renaissance man who used to write speeches for Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and has authored 16 books about Hollywood ("The View From Sunset Boulevard"), mass culture, economics, investment policy and the business and ethics of high finance.

Stein, 59, who moved to Los Angeles in 1976, has lived happily ever after among the rich and infamous liberals of the entertainment community. He's also a novelist, screenwriter, steady Hollywood-based observer for American Spectator magazine and a frequent contributor to important editorial places like The Washington Post.

I caught up with him Thursday on his cell phone as he was being limo-ed to LAX for a flight to New York City:

Q: What's going on out there in California? Everything was pretty cool when I left in 1989?

A: Well, it's still cool. Life here is great. It's beautiful weather, friendly people, blue skies, palm trees. There's a political ruckus going on, but life is great here. Q: It's getting better, not worse?

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A: Life day-by-day is certainly great for me. It's great for the ordinary citizen. It's not great for Gray Davis. I just heard him on the radio complaining about how upset it made him that people complained about him, but he's a thug. He's a thug in a gray flannel suit.

His real problem is not that he's incompetent, because I'm not sure how anyone else would have handled the energy crisis much better than he did. But he's a thug. Whenever anyone challenges him, his smear machine goes into action.

He smears people whether they deserve it or not, or whether what he says is true or not. He's the worst political smearer I've ever seen in my life, except for maybe some of the Hollywood smearers, like Alec Baldwin. He's not a nice person.

It's common knowledge in California that Davis asks for money before he'll allow you to even discuss anything with him. You have to pony up money for his campaign before you can even breathe a word about anything having to do with state business with him. He's an old-fashioned, extortionist, smearing politician. He should go. I don't know if he will, but he should.

Q: Who do you think will win or lose in the recall election?

A: Well, it sure looks like the recall may fail altogether, so that's one thing. The second thing is that (Lt. Gov.) Cruz Bustamante is way ahead in the polls. I don't like him one bit, either. I think it's very revealing that he belonged to one of the most violent and provocative Mexican-American student groups (MEChA, a Latino organization that advocates the return of the American Southwest to Mexico) when he was a college student.

That's probably not a good sign about his emotional maturity, but I don't really hold that against him, because I supported the Black Panthers when I was a student. When people are students they do all kinds of things. Let's hope he's matured emotionally since then. He sure looks like he's going to be the winner.

Q: Do you know Arnold Schwarzenegger?

A: I've met him a number of times. I think if I ran into him on the street, he'd know my name and I'd certainly know his name. Once I ran into him in Santa Monica years ago when I was bicycling with my son, and he gave my son a very nice tour of his Hummer, and I thought that was incredibly nice of him. Other than that, I don't really know him much. Oh, I ran into him at a benefit for Milton Friedman many years ago.

Q: That's not a bad sign.

A: No, he's a wonderful guy. I like him a lot. I just don't like him enough to want to vote for him for governor. I support Tom McClintock because he supports right-to-life, and I believe right-to-life is the most important concern presently facing the nation.

Q: I watched that (recall race) debate on CSPAN (Wednesday) night. McClintock is very impressive all around.

A: I think he's very impressive. I've given him $1,000, and if I'm allowed to, I'll give him more.

Q: Is immigration destroying the social fabric of California?

A: I don't think it is. At my level, I don't see immigration destroying the social fabric. There are an awful lot of Hispanics, but, by and large, they are hard working and disciplined people. They seem fine to me.

In the neighborhood where I live, there is a huge number of Iranians who have immigrated here. Now their children are second-generation Americans. They live, it seems to me, perfectly respectable, decent lives.

Q: Are taxes too high out there in California?

A: They're very high, but we are somehow getting along. The income tax is very, very high.

Q: Is L.A. as liberal as we think it is back here?

A: It is overwhelmingly liberal at this point. It's funny. When I first moved here (in 1976) it was quite conservative. We had Mayor Sam Yorty. But now it has changed. It seems pretty liberal, but it doesn't affect me very much one way or the other.

What affects me is just day-by-day life and trying to earn my living. I think it's true of most people. We're not taking our temperature all the time and seeing if we feel the state is being run too liberally or too conservatively.

What we're all trying to do here is live our lives and pay our bills and get on with our lives. What the government does day-by-day and week-by-week in Sacramento doesn't really affect us much.

Q: After 27 years among the celebrities and the palm trees, you're no longer an outsider. You're almost a native, by California standards. If you hadn't fallen in love with the Hollywood crowd ...

A: I haven't fallen in love with the Hollywood crowd, but I love life in California.

Q: You may not have fallen in love.

A: If I hadn't become successful and made a lot of money here, I would have gone home to Washington. But I did manage to make a decent living here and I live a very good life here, so I'm still here.

Q: Do you plan to stay?

A: I plan to stay until I die.

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald