Sunday, May 15, 2005

Ithaca College Commencement 2005 by Ben Stein

Thank you very much, thank you very very much one and all. Thank you President Williams, trustees, graduates, parents, grandparents, thank you very much. Doreen and Bonnie, I am so happy to be here. I am so happy that this weather is so great. I can’t tell you. I looked out of my room last night and I thought, my God it’s a monsoon, and then, suddenly it cleared up. I love Ithaca. I love the Commons. I love the waterfalls. It’s a fabulous place. I can well imagine why some of us are welling up with tears as we get ready to leave. This woman is my favorite. She’s going to be teaching autistic children. She’s crying because she’s leaving.

Anyway. I want to make it clear that although I am one of probably eleven or twelve republicans at most in this field today, I am not here representing President Bush, I’m not here representing Karl Rove. “I’m representin’ for them gangstas all across the world, hitting corners in them low low's girl, I’m takin’ my time to respect the beat and I still got love for the street.” [quoting from the rap song “The Next Episode” by Dr. Dre] And I also want to say, I also want to say, that…I want to thank all of you for doing the things that make it necessary to use Clear Eyes because you guys have been paying my mortgage for a long time and … don’t stop.

Anyway, now I know that in this audience there are many, many very successful people, the trustees and the parents, and the students are very successful people. I doubt if any of you is as rich as the king of Saudi Arabia, and the king of Saudi Arabia is, as you know, fantastically rich, and he has many children. His favorite is a little boy named Hassan who is about to turn 12 years old and he says to Hassan, “You know, you’re about to turn 12 years old and I want to do something for you that you’re going to remember all your life, so assemble your 25 closest friends at the palace in Riyadh and we’re going to have a heck of a party.” So the kids assemble and the next morning a fleet of Rolls Royce limousines takes them to the airport and there they board a specially outfitted Boeing Triple-7. It’s an incredible plane, there’s EverQuest and Counter-Strike and Day of Defeat, and every other kind of wireless computer game at every seat. Each kid has his own flight attendant, they can have all the food they want as they’re flying across the Mediterranean and across the Atlantic. And the king says to his son, “Son, how do you like this specially outfitted Boeing Triple-7?” Kid says, “Dad, I love it.” King says, “Yes, but do you really like it?” Kid says, “Dad, it is the best plane I’ve ever been on.” King goes, “Great. (Claps twice) I bought it for you.”

So the kid is in shock, but he’s delighted, so they fly on to JFK, refuel, fly on to LAX, fleet of Cadillac limousines meets them, takes them up to the Beverly Hills hotel. King has rented the whole Beverly Hills hotel…not as nice as the Ramada Inn here in Ithaca, but a nice hotel…and the king has rented it and the kids are having an incredible time. Each kid has his own suite. Each kid has his own room service attendant. Again, there’s wireless internet connection so the kids can play Day of Defeat and EverQuest til their eyes fall out, and they’re having a great, great time. They can hit golf balls into Sunset Boulevard and tennis balls to snarl up traffic, and they’re having a great time. King says to his son, “Son, how do you like the Beverly Hills hotel?” Kid says, “Dad, this is the best hotel I’ve ever been at, it is fabulous.” King says, “Yes, but do you really like it?” And the kid says, “Dad I just told you, it’s fabulous!” King says, “Very well. (Claps twice) I bought it for you.” So the kid is in shock, but again, he’s happy.

Next day, the king takes the kids down in a fleet of Bentley limousines to Disneyland. He’s taken over all of Disneyland just for his son and his son’s 25 closest friends. It’s closed to everyone else. The kids can ride any ride they want, as many times as they want, all refreshments are free, all souvenirs are free. The kids are having an incredible time, incredible unbelievable time. After a few hours, the king catches up with his son, says, “Son how do you like Disneyland?” And the kid says, “Dad, this is truly the Magical Kingdom. It is just fabulous, it’s the best place I’ve ever been. I love it.” So the king says, “Yes, but do you really like it?” And the kid says, “Wait. Dad, I know where you’re going with this. Please don’t buy me Disneyland. You’ve already bought me way too much, you bought me a jetliner, you bought me the Beverly Hills hotel, you spent way too much money on me.” And the king says, “But, but, son, it’s your birthday.” Kid says, “Dad, look, if you want to make me happy on my birthday, you’ve bought me so much already, just buy me a little Mickey Mouse outfit and I’ll be totally happy.” So the king bought him SUNY Cortland. [State school that is a nearby rival of Ithaca College athletic teams.] Anyway. Anyway. But I know that this rivalry is a good-natured rivalry, so I’m telling you, they’re your friends and brothers and sisters, so don’t hold it against them.

Anyway. I want to talk very briefly about what I wish had been talked about when I graduated long ago in 1966. I was going to tell you about what my son, who is 17, has taught me about how to ruin your life, and he knows quite a lot about that – that’s how I know about EverQuest and Counter-Strike and Day of Defeat – but instead I’m going to tell you how to save your life and make your life meaningful and I’m going to make it really pretty darn short. Here you are, on this beautiful campus, in this beautiful part of New York, in this beautiful America. Everyone of us in this place has plenty to eat (some of us like me have too much to eat), plenty to drink (we have plenty to smoke), and plenty of freedom and our Constitution and the protection of laws. If we want to we can go out and protest Walmart or Wegmans or the war in Iraq, and we have warm beds and air conditioning in the summer, and we can sleep in late if we want when we have classes, and organize ourselves to get tofu and get organic tofu if we want, and we can go on jet planes to see our parents. And we wake up and there’s no Gestapo chasing us down the street or killing us because we’re Jews or whatever else we are. We’re free people in a free and glorious country. We have problems in this country. There’s no question, you’d have to be blind, deaf, and dumb not to realize we have problems in this country, especially of extreme economic inequality. But we solve them with ballots and discussion and debate on CNN and NBC, CNBC and Fox, instead of with bombs and bullets. We are blessed. Blessed beyond…beyond…reason. Beyond any historical precedent in this country, and I might add, also in Canada as well. [Ithaca College president Peggy R. Williams was born in Canada.]

Your fine president, Peggy Williams, said to me last night, she was telling me about her exercise program, and her exercise program is beyond belief. I mean, it’s absolutely beyond imagining. I mean, kayaking and canoeing and swimming from one end of Lake Cayuga to the other before she gets to work every morning, and bicycling through Europe and running hundreds of miles and then playing six sets of tennis. And, I thought to myself, what exercise did you do, fat old Benjie? And I thought, well, I don’t do that much exercise, but there is one exercise I do every single morning and every night. It’s a really simple exercise. I get on my knees and I thank God for waking up in America. And that is a great exercise to do. And I might add, for President Williams, I would do the same thing if I were in Canada, I would wake up and get on my knees for being in Canada. It’s a great place, too.

And this I wish I had been taught when I was graduating from college, has something to do with this, has something to do with what your fine chaplain was just saying. Life should be very largely about gratitude. Gratitude to be here at Ithaca College graduating today, but gratitude also for all the fine men and women who made our great lives possible, and I mean going back a long way to the men and women who founded this country, who fought at Valley Forge and Trenton and Cowpens. Gratitude to the great men and women who liberated the slaves at Gettysburg and Shiloh. Gratitude to the men and women who fought at Iwo Jima and Bastogne and the Huertgen Forest and the Philippines and at Okinawa. Gratitude to the men who stormed the beaches at Omaha Beach. Gratitude to the men and women who followed behind them fighting and healing across the Pacific and across Europe. Gratitude to all the men and women who fought and won the Cold War.

You know, we sit here and we think to ourselves, “Wow, it could have rained today. It could have really been miserable. Could have rained.” What about if it’s raining and snowing and someone’s shooting at you and you’re hungry and you’re starving and people are shooting at you and you’re getting shrapnel and you still have to keep fighting? These are the incredibly brave men and women who made our lives possible. But they are just the beginning of those to whom we should feel gratitude. Gratitude to the men and women who are in the fire departments and police departments and EMTs all across the country. Gratitude to the men and women in hospitals. Gratitude to the men and women in emergency wards. Gratitude to the scientists developing new drugs to fight multiple sclerosis and muscular dystrophy and cancer and heart disease. Gratitude towards the men and women, and I have met an incredibly fine one just this morning, who are going to spend their lives taking care of autistic children. Gratitude toward these men and women who are working with the developmentally challenged.

You know, we have lives in this country, everyone of us is in this great beautiful space overlooking the lake have lives that are just astonishingly great by any historical parallel. The lives of mankind have been desperate things by most standards. We live lives of incredible abundance. There’s a great writer named Twitchell who’s an expert on mass media, who wrote a book recently in which he made an astonishing assertion. He said that if a fish could think, the last thing the fish could think about would be water, it just takes water for granted. We are like those fish. We just take for granted freedom, prosperity, abundance, opportunity. But these are the things that mankind has been fighting for for all eternity and we have them in great, great, great abundance, and we don’t even think about it every day. And we don’t have this by accident. We’re all heirs and heiresses, not heirs to huge fortunes like the Rockefellers or the Gates, but to a society of freedom and plenty and abundance that most of us did absolutely nothing to get. It just fell into our laps. We have to go through our lives with gratitude about those people. We have to think to ourselves, “What have we done for mankind, compared to what mankind has done for us?”

Or you can look at it another way. I am 60 years old. Except for Professor Musgrave, I think I am about the oldest person here, and Professor Musgrave, I might add, is an incredible asset to this place. You should all be very grateful for having him. [Frank Musgrave is an Ithaca College professor of economics.] But when I was a young man, when I was the same age that you guys are that are graduating, racism and anti-Semitism were a basic part of daily life in America. Quotas at private schools against Jews, restricted neighborhoods, blatant racism in hiring, and against African Americans, the situation was absolutely atrocious. Just absolutely shocking, stunning. That did not go away by itself. It didn’t just happen by a snap of the fingers. It went away because of the incredible heroism of the civil rights demonstrators who got beaten and jailed and shot and lynched because they wanted to be free. It went away because of the inspiring leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Medgar Evers, and of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner in Mississippi. If we, as men and women, as Jews, as African Americans, are free, it is because someone struggled and sacrificed to make us free. We have to be grateful to them for our whole lives.

You know, when you’re young, if I am to judge by my own youth and by the people I knew when I was young, and certainly if I am to judge by my teenage son (clears throat – get a little bit of a catch in my throat when I think of him. I must have done a lot of sins.) Anyway, when you are young, you spend most of your life wanting more, asking for more, demanding more, protesting this, demanding that, criticizing this, criticizing that. That’s fine, that’s a free society at work. But let’s be smart and true to those before us, and that involves gratitude. It’s honest and it makes us feel better.

I talked to some people, and I was on the Commons, I talked to some people as I’ve been wandering around town for the last three days, and they asked me various ways of getting to feel rich and quick, to get rich quick and happy. The fastest way to get rich quick is to feel grateful. Gratitude is the fastest, smartest way to feel rich quick. It doesn’t involve unethical behavior, it doesn’t involve long, sleepless nights, it involves just getting it into your heart to be grateful to those who went before us and made our lives so easy. And a huge, huge, huge part of that gratitude should go to your parents and grandparents. You know, you cannot know until you are a parent how hard it is to be a parent. It is incredibly difficult. Yes, you are served very well, extremely well, by the teachers, staff, counselors, administration, everybody here who were in loco parentis for you at Ithaca College and throughout your other educational endeavors. But being a parent is a lot harder than any of that. Being a parent is incredibly difficult. I urge you to start today in a whole new program of being more grateful to your parents. And I’m going to give you, just going to close with this story, it takes a couple of minutes, but only a couple of minutes.

I have had many different careers. I was a reporter, I was columnist for the Wall Street Journal, I was a speechwriter for two presidents, I wrote about financial fraud for Barron’s, I was a trial lawyer, just a million other things. And none of it meant as much to me as something I started doing about 18 years ago. About 18 years ago, thanks to a program that largely involves gratitude, I had a breakthrough, an epiphany in my thinking. And it was this – I am an economist. I’ll never be as good an economist as Professor Musgrave, or as Milton Friedman, or Paul Samuelson. I am an economist, but I’m never going to be a really great economist. I am a writer, but I’m never going to be as great a writer as F. Scott Fitzgerald, not even in the same universe, nor as Joan Didion, not even in the same universe. I am a comedian, I’m never going to be anywhere near as funny as Chevy Chase was, oh say 25 years ago. But, there was one thing I could do better than anybody else. I could be a good son to my parents.

I was the only son they had, so I could be a good son to them. They were getting old. They were lonely, they were by no means poor, but they were lonely, and they were feeling the effects of age, and I started a program in 1988 in which I went every month for four or five days or a week from LA to Washington, DC, to visit them. I’m not a brain surgeon, I’m not a psychiatrist, I didn’t do anything breakthrough with them, I just hung around with them. Many, many people in this space have dogs and cats. The dogs and cats don’t talk much, but we love just having them around because they’re warm, appreciative bodies. So I did that with my parents, I just hung around with them. They were old, so they spent a lot of time watching reruns of “Murder, She Wrote,” so we would watch that, we’d watch the Redskins, we’d watch Pete Sampras, we’d watch the Yankees, just hang around with them, hear stories about my mother growing up in the Depression without a father, her father died when she was very young. Hear stories about my father’s horrors that he witnessed during World War II when he was in the Navy. Just hear stories about that and go through their day with them. And, at first, they were bewildered, because they were probably like many of your parents, and they weren’t used to their children giving much of a damn about them, but, little by little, they became extremely dependent upon my visits, and they would really perk up and brighten up, and my mother wrote me a letter at the beginning of 1997 and she said, “You know I never thought anyone would pay as much attention to my childhood as you have done. It made me feel as though someone for the first time really understood what I went through, and it has redeemed my life.”

And I was really looking forward, very much, to many more years of hearing those kind of things from my mother, and then she died quite suddenly of a heart disease, a seizure that no one had seen coming, in April of 1997. And I stood at her gravesite and I thought, you know, I miss you terribly, mom, but I’ve done so much wrong in my life, and yet, I did this right. I took care of you and I made you feel that your son cared about you. And when she died, my father was desperately alone, I mean desperately alone. He had never even been out on a date with another woman besides my mother. If he walked down the street with me and we saw a beautiful woman passing by, he would avert his eyes. He was an amazingly devoted husband. He was bereft without her. I stayed with him, kept him company, took an apartment down the street from him on 25th Street and Foggy Bottom in Washington. Just kept him company. If he wanted to go out to lunch, fine, if he wanted to go to a concert, fine, if he wanted to go for a drive to the Hunt Country in Virginia, fine. If he wanted to just sit home and watch Pete Sampras or reruns of “Murder, She Wrote,” that was fine, too. Little by little, he perked up. Little by little, he started going out to social events. Little by little, he made friends again, and he found a woman that he was very attached to and they were an item, and he was happy. And on my birthday in 1998, he wrote me a fax for my birthday (cause he was a frugal sort of fellow), and he said, “Happy Birthday to the best son in the world, my support, my confidante, my advisor, my friend. Love, Pop.”

Now, I have many, many things in my house – I have wonderful diplomas, I have pictures of me with many presidents, I have a very nice letter from Bill Clinton, actually, a very nice letter because we were in law school together, and I have lots of wonderful things in my house. But this letter means the most to me of anything I have in my house. And I thought, wow, this is a great thing to have redeemed my father’s work and incredible sacrifice, because he had had a very difficult life and he had made my life just a sumptuous palace of material comforts. And I thought, this has made my life worthwhile. I can’t wait to spend many more years with my father, and then he was taken to the hospital in the summer of 1999 with heart disease, and he never left. And I spent six weeks with him in the hospital, and I would read him financial columns from Barron’s and the Wall Street Journal. We’d watch the Redskins training camp on TV. We would spend a lot of time just sitting there. He had a tracheal tube in, he couldn’t talk, I just held his hand. And this went on, as I say, for six weeks, and if I didn’t show up even for a few minutes after visiting hours started, he would write a note to the nurses, “Where is my son?” And I still have those notes, splattered with his blood because they were constantly drawing blood from him. And I thought to myself, what a blessing my father has given me to let me take care of him. He took care of me for most of my life.

You know, he was chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors for two presidents, and I would call him up and I’d ask him to find a statistic for me and I would say, but only do it if you don’t have anything more important to do. And he would say, “What do I have to do that’s more important than helping my one and only son?” I am sure that everyone of your parents and grandparents in this beautiful place feels the same way about you. Feel happy about that. Feel grateful and express that gratitude. On September 8th of 1999, the doctors came to me and my sister, my sister and me and said, your father has blockages, he’s in a coma, there’s nothing more we can do for him, we’re going to remove him from life support. And my sister and I sat with him, on one side and the other, reading him the Psalms, and watching him disappear into immortality, and I thought, you know, I don’t know how I’m going to live without him, but he gave me this final gift of letting me know that if I could take care of him, I could also take care of myself and my wife and our son. (I’m not sure about the son part, but anyway, but wife anyway.) And that was his final gift to me, and at 10 minutes to 3 on that day, his life support systems showed that he had entered immortality. And I was heartbroken. I missed him then, I miss him every single minute.

You guys are blessed. You’re young. The great majority of you have living parents, many of you have living grandparents. Be thankful to them. And don’t just assume that they know it. Call them, e-mail them, send them letters, send them flowers, send them presents. Let them know that you repay their love for you. That is a very vital test, and if you do that, if you care about the people in your life who have cared about you, that by itself is an incredibly successful, great life. That by itself is more than winning prizes and money.

I am, as I just said, a few minutes ago, an active republican. But I am positive that I learned the most useful thing I ever learned in my life from a democrat president, John F. Kennedy, who left us with some words in his inaugural that we should all strive to live by. He said, “We all ask God to do great things for this country and for the people we love, and we all ask God to go to work for this great country and for our great principals and ideals, and for the people we love in this country, and God answers back, ‘Here on earth, my work is your work.’”

Thank you very much and congratulations.

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