Ben Stein, for those of you who have forgotten, played a bit role in the classic ’80s movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. He played the annoying economics teacher, a role he was uniquely qualified for by being boring and having been bored by his father, an accomplished economist. Stein parlayed his fame into a few books on financial planning and a regular column for the New York Times which was canceled when he became a spokesman for a scammy credit check service. Along the way he made what many regard as “one of the sleaziest documentaries to arrive in a long time.” In making Expelled, Stein tricked various scientists into being interviewed, using false pretenses to gain consent.
Stein is no stranger to secretive recordings, being a former speechwriter for the Nixon White House (a job obtained thanks to his father’s service on Nixon’s Council of Economic Advisors). Nixon, of course, loved to record his office conversations, including those where he and his aides discussed their plans to secretly bug the offices of the DNC and other critics.
It is perhaps because of nostalgia for those good old days that Stein wants to “Free James O’Keefe.” O’Keefe is a young conservative activist known for somewhat flashier roles than Stein’s. Most famously, O’Keefe went to ACORN offices to ask for advice about creating a bordello, then editing in footage of himself and an underage woman dressed as a stereotypical pimp and prostitute. A review of the tapes and transcripts by a retired state Attorney General concluded that the editing had changed the questions being asked of ACORN staff to make it seem that they were answering questions about creating a bordello rather than about protecting themselves from an abusive pimp.
O’Keefe returned to the headlines by trying to tap or tamper with the telephones at a district office for Senator Mary Landrieu (D‑LA). O’Keefe and three friends posed as telephone repairmen and tried to access the wiring cabinet in one of Landrieu’s district offices. Police arrested the crew of young plumbers and they were sent to live in their parents’ houses until trial. They don’t deny attempting to gain access to federal property under false pretenses for purposes of vandalism, and it’s possible that they were trying to bug the phones.
Ben Stein, perhaps recalling his own salad days, thinks that they shouldn’t be prosecuted. Why? “These men were journalists trying to get a story.” What story? Not clear. “The First Amendment!” Stein replies. But the First Amendment protects speech, not criminal actions. They didn’t just “go undercover,” an act which can and does result in criminal trespass charges. What undercover investigation was needed in the switching trunk at Landrieu’s office? What’s the journalistic purpose served by gaining access to the wiring?
Ben Stein’s real objection, clear because he puts it at the top of his column, is that these conservative activists are being charged with a federal crime while “a gang of men calling themselves Black Panthers showed up at a polling place in Michigan” and didn’t get prosecuted by the feds. Other than standing while black, what charges should have been brought? Stein claims that “They threatened any voter who did not vote for Barack Obama. This was witnessed and documented.”
Sadly, No! In point of fact, there were no reports of Black Panthers at polling places in Michigan. There were some stories about a group calling itself “the New Black Panthers” which went to a polling place in Philadelphia before being rousted along by police. There is no evidence that they threatened voters. As Joel Mathis writes for Philly Weekly: “What the Panthers did was â¦ stand there. [â¦] The incident was witnessed and documented, but what was witnessed and documented is a bit different from what Stein describes.”
And that’s why Ferris Bueller’s best move was skipping Ben Stein’s class. Ben Stein just makes you dumber.