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High life

Stanford Smarts

Broadsides from the pirate captain of the Jet Set

24 May 2003

12:00 AM

24 May 2003

12:00 AM

Palo Alto

Twenty-five minutes by taxi going south from San Francisco, Palo Alto is the home of Stanford University, the school where brainy types who wish to make lotsa moolah spend their formative years. There is something about Stanford smarts that infects even football players, American football, that is.

As some of you may know, American football is supposed to make one dumb. Players bump heads, and the harder one bumps one’s head, the more money one makes. The only player on the field who does not block or tackle – unless there’s an emergency – is the quarterback. He’s the one who leans over the centre, is given the ball by the man who is on all fours (there have been very few Greek quarterbacks for obvious reasons), and who then proceeds general-like to direct the play. Stanford is not a football factory like, say, Miami or Florida State, yet has managed to produce some great All-American and All-Pro quarterbacks. Frankie Albert, John Brody, and John Elway come to mind.


Quarterbacks are required to be smart, no ifs or buts about it, as they need to read defences in a jiffy, defences which have through the years become extremely sophisticated. A quarterback also has to memorise incredibly complicated plays and execute them while 400-lb behemoths are bearing down on him. Like many smart people, quarterbacks are paid more, and have longer careers. Like CEOs of large companies, they are cuddled, spoiled and more often than not are the coach’s pet. No team can consistently win without a good quarterback, and very few good quarterbacks go goofy after retirement. But back to Stanford.

The only friend I have who went to Stanford is an Englishman, Sebastian Taylor, a man who started with zilch and is now a very rich investor. He claims Stanford made him. (I say it was backgammon, and the pigeons he fleeced, but that’s another story altogether.) So when an invitation arrived to record a national television discussion show, I jumped at the chance. Who knows, perhaps Stanford can make me smart, too, I figured. Arriving at the quad in Palo Alto, it was just as I had imagined. Imposing sand-coloured buildings – if they had been green it would have been much too obvious – the Hoover tower, and a wide esplanade worthy of the countless millionaires the university has produced. The producer of the show, Bill Free, was waiting. ‘Where’s the co-ed you promised?’ was my first question. Bill has a sense of what English people have in abundance, so he laughed, although he did look nervous for a second.

This has been my opening line every time I visit a school, and the reason for it is that a very famous American writer, a professor – no, not Henry Kissinger – has been known to demand it. (It was told to me by another professor, Kenneth Lynn, alas now gone, but as the guilty prof [a Speccie reader, incidentally] is still alive, I shall keep his name to myself.) Mind you, Stanford is not known for its women. The few co-eds I spotted looked hurried and concerned.

Chinese men and women were in abundance, in fact the place looked like Tiananmen Square without the tanks. Why did the Chinese look as sullen as they did? Dunno, perhaps because of the bad joke making the rounds: Two elderly Jewish men are in a Chinese restaurant. ‘Do you think there are any Chinese Jews?’ asks the first man. ‘I never heard of one,’ answers the other. ‘Let’s ask the waiter,’ proposes the first. ‘Do you have any Chinese Jews?’ they ask. The waiter looks puzzled. ‘Let me ask boss,’ he says. He then comes back and says, ‘Only lemon juice!’

Oh well, I’ve heard worse ones. Uncommon Knowledge is the name of the show I appeared on, and it’s a series that looks at long-term policy issues in America, campaign finance reform and many other topics. The host, Peter Robinson, is a founder member of the White House Writers Group and a former Ronald Reagan speechwriter. He’s currently a Fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institute. I first met Peter in Gstaad more than 20 years ago. Bill Buckley had him to stay as a winter assistant, and we hit it off. Peter is not a kiss and tell type. He wrote some memorable phrases for the Gipper, but unlike some self-promoters of today, he kept it rather quiet. Uncommon Knowledge is in its seventh year and goes out on about 100 public stations across the good old US of A. I was up against a PhD, Steven Hayward, arguing the Neo-Con line, the poor little Greek boy defending the traditional conservative ethos of a republic rather than an empire. It was a courteous discussion, and I even learned a thing or two.

Flying to Los Angeles immediately after the show I realised that this was my fourth time in California. The first time was in 1957, in hot pursuit of a famous actress. The next two were during book tours, with a nubile young thing waiting in the wings. This time ditto, but with a difference. I saw her from afar, all blonde and suntanned. She was very pretty and ran to hug me. She’s the girl I love the most in the whole wide world. No, it wasn’t Ashley Judd, but my daughter. Welcome to old age.


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