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The shallow end of the think tank

At the Hoover Institution, jokes about Reagan are never a good idea.

February 13, 2007|JOEL STEIN

IT ALWAYS SEEMED like a dream job to me. I was never sure exactly what people did in a think tank, but it clearly required the least labor possible. "How was work today, honey?" "Oh, man, was it hard. I didn't get a break. Even during lunch, I was thinking!"

So when my college friend, Romesh Ratnesar, the international editor of Time magazine, told me he scored a media fellowship at the Hoover Institution, the conservative think tank at Stanford, I asked him for the name of the person in charge. I sent her an e-mail asking if I could think the same week that Romesh was thinking. She responded a few hours later, saying I was in. I was not only think tank material, I was same-day think tank material.

Hoover put us up in huge, fireplace-laden rooms at Stanford's spacious faculty club, gave us offices in Hoover Tower, paid us $7,000 and didn't ask for anything in return other than one speech. Finally, the soft bigotry of the Republicans' low expectations for the media was paying off for me.

After an afternoon of tennis and walking around our old campus, Romesh and I showed up at a cocktail party in our honor. That's when it became clear that I had only been accepted as Romesh's sidekick. I was able to parse this not just by the way the Hoover fellows talked to him versus the way they talked to me, but because the woman who sent me the e-mail said, "I let you in to be Romesh's sidekick."

Hoover fellows, I learned at the party, are kind of like professors who don't teach; they do research and write books and give speeches. And they are almost all extremely old, extremely white men. It is definitely the premiere place to go if you need to know how to dress for a country club event or are working on a craft project that requires eyebrow hair.

When they asked Romesh what he was working on, he talked about the trips he's taken to Iraq and Iran for Time cover stories. When they asked me, I said, "Lots of stuff." When pressed, I said, "Really, lots of different stuff." Eventually, a China specialist and a former Reagan political advisor both asked me what the last article I wrote was. When I told them, the China specialist very kindly responded, "Eating horse meat? Well, I guess there are two constituencies for everything."

I was pretty surprised to find that even these people hate George W. Bush. The main reason for this is that he is not Ronald Reagan. Hoover fellows love Reagan in ways even Nancy couldn't have.

Around about my third conversation about how awesome Reagan was, former Reagan advisor Martin Anderson offered to show me Reagan's speech at the 1976 convention sometime. Then someone whispered to me that Anderson was going to offer to take Romesh and me to his office at the top of Hoover Tower, which sometimes happens to very lucky media fellows. I was pretty sure we were about to smoke pot with a Reaganite.

We were not. We were going to look at a roomful of files of photocopies of Reagan's letters. And then the Excel spreadsheet cataloging all these letters. And then a map with pins showing every city Reagan's radio show was broadcast. Then we were going to see original movie posters of every film Reagan was ever in. The video of the 1976 speech was all cued up for us. And before we left, an hour and a half later, Anderson showed us a very realistic, life-size replica of a light saber he bought in tribute to Reagan's missile defense project.


DURING THE WEEK, I saw many Reagan books and even met Air Force Lt. Col. Scott Murray, whose nickname is Dutch, and not because he married a woman from Holland. Dutch gave me a copy of a paper he was writing for fun, called "Gallipoli, Iraq and the Perils of Amateur Strategy," and then he showed me his beer can collection. For a brief flicker of a second, I wondered if it was possible that I could beat up a lieutenant colonel.

When it came time to give my speech after a week of tennis, dinners in San Francisco and hanging out in the coffee house, I knew the topic they had advertised to alumni, "Columnists and the Web," wouldn't work, partly because it didn't make any sense at all. Instead, I figured I'd make Reagan jokes. This was not a good idea.

When that went poorly, I stammered, and briefly considered stealing from Romesh's well-received speech, "Iraq, Foreign Policy and the 2008 Elections." Instead, I started telling celebrity stories. It's tough to tell a funny anecdote about Tina Fey when no one in the audience knows who Tina Fey is.

When the disaster finally ended, the Hoover fellows actually thanked me for my speech. Then they talked to me some more about Reagan. I loved them for being so nice, and, for no reason, taking me seriously enough to talk to. It is, after all, what Reagan would have done.


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