Economist Ben Stein is one of the country's most visible libertarians. He's a regular contributor to conservative publications and he's well-known on the conservative and business speaking circuits. And in May he's scheduled to speak in New York at a Citigroup-hosted event for pension and endowment funds. Or rather he was scheduled. He's now been canned after a women accused him of making sexist jokes at an event earlier this year.
If you just look at the allegations, the case seems open and shut. Sexist jokes no longer have a place in society. He apparently cracked some. But then you hear this: the woman who made the accusations (via e-mail) admits she couldn't exactly remember the jokes, so she copied them off the internet, and Stein denies telling them the way she claims he did.
Making things even more interesting? The new vice chairman of Citigroup’s investment bank is Obama's former budget director, Peter Orszag. He is also scheduled to be a speaker at the May event. And guess who forwarded the woman's e-mail complaint to the sales executives? Orszag, who is the furthest thing from a libertarian.
“We have decided to present the conference without Mr. Stein’s participation,” Citi spokeswoman Danielle Romero-Apsilos told Bloomberg News.
The accuser, 41-year-old Lynda Villarreal, attended a March event in Dallas where Stein was speaking. According to Bloomberg and the e-mail Villarreal sent to Citi and Bloomberg, one of the jokes involved a woman taking her clothes off on an airplane:
Villarreal’s e-mail to Orszag told of three jokes at the Dallas conference she said were disparaging to women. One joke was about a wealthy man, his wife and his mistress, she said.
Another involved a female airline passenger who, realizing the flight is about to crash, takes off her clothes and asks if there is a man aboard who will “make me feel like a woman,” according to Villarreal’s e-mail, which was also sent to Bloomberg News. A cowboy in a hat removes his shirt, hands it to the woman, tells her to iron it and fetch him a beer.
But that differs from Stein's account:
Stein, in an interview, said his jokes were mischaracterized and that the company didn’t call him before canceling.
Stein, a Yale University-educated lawyer and former speechwriter for President Richard Nixon who played the droning high-school economics teacher in the 1986 movie, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” said in an interview that his jokes at the Dallas conference had been incorrectly retold.
“I’ve been in this speaking-gig business for a number of years, I’ve told these jokes before, and I have never gotten one syllable of complaint,” he said. “I don’t think any woman in the world would call me a misogynist. For this woman to say this is just fantasy.”
Stein, who has written columns for Bloomberg News and appeared as a guest on Bloomberg Television, said in the interview that the joke targeted the man, not the woman, and that in his Dallas telling the woman didn’t remove clothing.
“It’s usually a joke understood to be making fun of a kind of cloddish, dopey guy,” Stein explained to Bloomberg. “When I was finished with this speech, dozens of women in the room came up to me and wanted their pictures taken with me, wanted autographs from me. Dozens of them. I got fan mail from women who had been at the group saying how much they liked the speech.”
Apparently, Stein's contract stipulates that he will get paid even if he's canceled.
As for Villarreal, vice president of business development at Trident Trust, which provides accounting services to hedge funds and private-equity firms, she couldn't be happier:
“I am delighted that Citi has taken this action,” she told Bloomberg. “It shows their corporate leadership and respect for women in the financial industry as well as their clients.”
I wonder if Orszag is, too.