Q & A with Ben Stein

More than 20 years after he droned the now iconic question, "Bueller? Bueller?" Ben Stein is still going strong. His career has branched out into several directions since his appearance in the 1986 comedy film, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."

A noted actor, author and economist, Stein's career includes writing speeches for presidents Nixon and Ford, hosting the television quiz show "Win Ben Stein's Money," and appearing regularly on Fox News to discuss financial issues.

Stein also writes about finance for The New York Times and has penned several books. In one of those, "The Real Stars," he says without hesitation that the real heroes in society aren't million-dollar actors and high-priced athletes - they are the men and women in uniform who protect our way of life. Proceeds from the sale of the book go to Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, an organization created for the survivors of men and women killed while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.

Honored with the National Commander's Public Relations Award during The American Legion's Washington Conference in March, Stein spoke with The American Legion Magazine about his beliefs.


Q: Why did you write "The Real Stars?"

A: I'm asked all the time, "What is it like to live in Malibu and Beverly Hills near the stars?" And I've told people so many times that those people are not, to me, the real stars. The real stars are fighting in Fallujah, Baghdad, and Kirkuk, and Ar-Ramadi and Mosul, and they're not wearing incredibly expensive clothes from Armani. They're wearing battle-dress uniforms over body armor, and they're getting shot at and killed, and blown up, and losing their arms and legs for $1,500 a month. Those people are the real stars, and those are the people we really should be honoring and caring about. So I thought I would write a book about that.

My grandfather, David Stein, was a combat veteran. My wife's father (Dale Denman Jr.) was a big-time World War II hero. (He) won the Silver Star fighting in Europe. My wife's uncle, Bob Denman, was a big war hero in the Korean War. I was always wildly impressed with the idea that these people would offer up their lives to protect us worthless nobodies back home. It just struck me as incredible that people would do that. It still strikes me as incredible.


Q: When you talk to veterans, how do you express your thanks for their service?

A:It would depend. If it were at one of the parties that my late father-in-law used to have - I get so choked, I can hardly stand it. Here would be these guys, at that time, in their late 70s. I'd say, "What did you do?"


"Parachuted into Normandy."

I'm thinking, I was complaining that my hotel air conditioning wasn't working. These guys had been pinned down by German machine gun and mortar fire. They barely made it out alive. When they did make it out alive, they helped save the other people who'd been pinned down by machine gun and mortar fire. I can't tell you how much they did. You cannot imagine what these people did. What can we ever say to them that's enough? What can you ever say to a person who's put his life on the line for you?



Q: Do the troops deserve our unqualified support, regardless of what we think about the war?

A: Of course. They should have our undivided support. If they're sent there legitimately by the government of the United States, then, of course, we have to support them. We have to support them and their families and take care of them, honor them and love them.


Q: Should the U.S. flag be protected from physical desecration?

A: I certainly don't want anyone desecrating the flag. That's outrageous. That's the flag that people died for. It symbolizes everything we care about in life, in terms of our freedom and dignity, and liberty and opportunity. That's the flag we really care about. If people want to burn it, we hate them. There's not unlimited freedom of speech.


Q: Do you have any early memories of The American Legion?

A: I certainly do. I grew up in Silver Spring (Md.), which was then a small town, and I remember vividly a July Fourth parade going down George Avenue, and I remember The American Legion marching. My grandfather and father belonged, and they were always getting their magazine.


Q: As an expert in the field, what do you think it will take to fix the U.S. economy?

A: In the last year and a half, it's become very clear how little I know (about finance). It's going to take bailing out the banks in a sensible way, which is to say cancelling the credit-default swaps, which are the cancers eating away at the banks. And ending this horrific practice of market to market, which allows speculators, basically, to kill banks or other large financial institutions at will. It's going to take some sensible measures aimed at protecting the nation, not aimed at protecting speculators. At present, the law is totally rigged in favor of speculators. I'd like to see the law changed so it's rigged to protect the ordinary investor saving for his retirement.


Q: On a lighter note, did you ever think that your screen time in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" would become part of our pop culture?

A: No. John Hughes, the director and producer and writer, asked me to ad-lib two scenes: One, teaching, which was something I was familiar with, and, two, taking attendance. When I finished the scene, everyone on the set was gathered around and started applauding. Matthew Broderick came up to me and said, "Have you done much on Broadway? You're fantastic." I thought they were applauding because they'd learned something about economics. I thought, "This is really good. I could have a TV show teaching people about the principles of economics." I later learned they were applauding because it was so boring.

But I remember people were just congratulating me like mad, and I thought, "Maybe I have a future in this." I came home and my wife said, "How was it?" I said it was the best night of my life. She said, "Better than the night we got married?" And I said, "Well, second-best night of my life."