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Jewish World Review August 29, 2001 /10 Elul, 5761

Ben Stein

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Folks impact life, not government -- I HAVEN'T received my tax rebate yet. Of course, I'll be very happy to get it, and spend it, but it's not really a lot of money, and it won't change my life much. I'm not sure how much the deficit or surplus should be, and I very much doubt anyone else does either.

But this I do know: People, not government, have the biggest impact on my life.

What got me thinking about this notion was that recently I flew from Los Angeles to Spokane, en route to a boating vacation on Lake Pend Oreille in north Idaho. Two rude passengers sat behind me. They were loud. They kicked the back of my seat. They glared at me when I asked them to stop. The flight attendant snapped at my son when he asked for a soda. Together, they made my trip miserable.

When I got on the ground in Spokane, I went to the Avis counter to rent a car. The men and women at the counter, who remembered me from earlier trips, greeted me with smiles, jokes and a sparkling upgraded Cadillac. Suddenly, my spirits lifted.

When I got to my modest hotel, the desk clerk also recalled me and greeted me with a hug, a smile and a cup of huckleberries. That night, I needed food and batteries, so I went to the local Wal-Mart and Safeway. The clerks were totally helpful and enthusiastic. (No, I don't have stock in Avis or Wal-Mart or Safeway.) By the end of the evening, those rude passengers and flight attendant were mostly forgotten.

Old friends, happy days
The next day, every salesman, boat repairman and waitress was happy and eager to help. Old friends on the boat dock had funny boat-maintenance stories to tell. I was among friends, and I was happy. My son was in a great mood - itself rare enough for a teenager.

In the ordinary course of life, what government does has very little effect on my life. Aside from engaging in war, there is little the federal government does that makes me happy or sad. Maybe if I were a defense contractor or a rancher on federal land it would be different. But for me, a white-collar, decidedly civilian non-rancher guy, what most makes me happy or sad is the behavior of individuals, mostly total strangers, whom I run into in the course of a day.

In a free society such as ours, with limited government (not limited enough, alas), the great bulk of our interactions are with private citizens much like us. How they behave toward us is what helps us feel angry and frustrated - or happy and encouraged about life. These people are not susceptible to lobbying. They cannot be reached by the Sunday morning chat shows on TV. But they are us. The great old comic-strip character, Pogo, used to say, "We have met the enemy and he is us." All too true, but the friend, the helpmate, the cheerful face - that is also us.

One night after I arrived, I took my boat over to the Bottle Bay restaurant, a tiny place on a tiny inlet of the lake. I had a great meal, and then got stuck on a newly made sandbar on the way home. I panicked. But a helpful guy shouted out instructions on how to get loose and even came alongside in the dark to make sure it worked. This was not the government, but just a good guy in the dark on a lake. He shrugged off my thanks. "Some day you'll do it for me," he said.

A selfless gesture
What a great help we would all have on our days if we could be as useful and selfless as that man was. And what a giant insight we might have about making life in these United States better if we realized that it begins, not with a law or a mass march, but with little acts of kindness by each of us, Democrat or Republican, man or woman, white or black, rich or poor or middle class - and we generally get back what we give. Our investment in basic civility moment by moment pays off far more than political action.

America is run by 280 million individual Americans, not by the government, and we determine whether it's a good day for each other --- or not.

JWR contributor Ben Stein is a writer, actor and host of Comedy Central's Turn Ben Stein On and Win Ben Stein's Money. Comment by clicking here.


© 2001, Ben Stein