Published in National Affairs
In Washington, “neoconservative” is fired off as a pejorative so frequently and haphazardly that even the wariest of hawks have been wounded by its stigma. That is why it is so ironic that the Washingtonian who has most unabashedly championed the ideology remains virtually unscathed. “I am a paleoliberal, a supply-side infrastructuralist, a neomanifest destinarian, a numbers nut, a pro-natalist redistributionist capitalist, and still a hawk,” Ben Wattenberg wrote in the introduction to his 1991 book, The First Universal Nation. Six years earlier, he had praised the “neo-conservative creed” for comprising “[t]raditional values, strong defense, an America on the right side of history” prudentially paired with “a liberal, non-rigid, pluralist outlook on life.” And in 2008, he forthrightly devoted his autobiography, Fighting Words, to expressing his commitment to the creed — a bold move given that neoconservatism had since become, in the words of The National Interest editor-in-chief Jacob Heilbrunn, “the most feared and reviled intellectual movement in American history.”
Yet to this day, Wattenberg is missing from the ever-expanding lineup of suspects accused of recklessly selling the proliferation of democracy. His absence is due as much to the particulars of his character and career as to the penchant of detractors in general to gravitate toward and stay fixated on negative noise. Wattenberg has often been called a “perpetual optimist,” a personality type not usually associated with neoconservatives, who are, after all, liberals “mugged by reality,” in Irving Kristol’s well-known phrase. He has also been more of a practitioner than a theoretician. While he has spent his life advancing the cause of human liberty, he has done so — unlike many from his milieu — not exclusively, or even primarily, as a pundit writing in magazines and highbrow journals. He has been a publisher, editor, columnist, journalist, psephologist (a student of elections), think-tanker, presidential speechwriter, advisor, attaché, television host, and novelist. The diversity and lasting influence of Wattenberg’s pursuits have been as remarkable as that of any politico of the past century.
His most concrete triumph has been that every decade over a stretch of 60 years, he published at least one critically acclaimed title that challenged and reshaped conventional wisdom. Above all, he refuted time and time again declinist forecasts about America. By layering narrative with statistics — an innovative practice that he later termed “data journalism” — Wattenberg revealed in stimulating fashion that the country had consistently made astounding social, economic, and attitudinal strides. But beyond this happy revisionism, which was controversial enough, he further daringly — and accurately — predicted that America would continue to repeatedly surpass its own achievements.
His masterful use of statistics also allowed him to undercut the Democratic Party, showing that it was average Americans like the “lady from Dayton,” not partisans of the left’s progressive fringe, who determined the president. Wattenberg understands “the real America” like few Beltway insiders of his — or any other — generation. This, coupled with humor and positivity, has made him a vital figure in the neoconservative movement. His mission has been conquering the “corps of data-twisting professional ‘pessimoans'” who make an occupation out of “lying for justice.” “The fight for reality, at least as I see it,” he wrote in his autobiography, “is at the core of the neo-con persuasion.”
With liberty once more under siege both at home and abroad, it is worth revisiting Wattenberg’s life’s work, lest we forget the driving philosophy of neoconservatism: an unequivocal conviction that America, despite its flaws, is fundamentally just and exceptional.
AT HOME IN AMERICA
Wattenberg has always stood out because of his sanguinity, the source of which has been his ebullient faith in the American people. “We’re an adaptable folk, with ingenuity, common sense, a moral streak and a stubborn streak,” he wrote in 1974. These proclivities had borne “Americanism,” a universal ideology that is “open, mobile, individualistic, anti-establishment, pluralistic, voluntaristic, populist, dynamic, and free.” But Wattenberg knew this ideology could easily fall prey to pessimism and nihilism. Though it seemed at times that America played an almost providential role in history, he has never forgotten both the fragility of liberal democracy and the vicissitudes of human nature.
This awareness, and a related compulsion to preserve what is good and right, was ingrained in him in his formative years. While growing up, he was told how his mother’s family had left Odessa after the tsarist pogroms. His maternal grandfather, a Hebrew writer, poet, and publisher, journeyed to Kishinev, the site of the massacres, to survey the damage. He returned with a brick covered with the brains of a murdered Jew and kept the grisly artifact on his desk for the rest of his life. In 1933, Wattenberg’s mother, while pregnant with him, marched in demonstrations chanting, “We want Hitler with a rope around his neck!” And toward the beginning of the Cold War, his paternal uncle, a committed communist, was shot and killed along with his wife in a Soviet courtroom for the transgression of “cosmopolitanism.”
The accounts of these harrowing events, distant but certainly palpable, shaped Wattenberg. He was born in the Bronx and grew up in the Sholem Aleichem Houses, a radical hotbed built by Yiddish socialists in the 1920s. But unlike other working-class immigrant Jews who had been swept up by the winds of radicalism, his parents were solidly of the “moderate Left.”
Wattenberg graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School, which typified a bygone era when public education was still charged with pressing an assortment of ethnic varieties into the American mold. “[T]here was a pretty clear (if silent) value system deeply embedded in every aspect of the educational system,” he remembered. “It might as well have been written on the blackboard: Hard work and disciplined behavior gains a reward.” In 1955, he graduated from Hobart College in upstate New York, where he received a liberal-arts education that proved seminal. Such a curriculum was different then — that is, before it was perverted by postmodern theory, social history, and identity studies, which traffic in the demonization of dead white males. “From our readings we came to see that the heart and soul of our long Western tradition had something to do with the growth of human freedom,” Wattenberg stated in his commencement address to the graduating class of Hobart in 1975. “That tradition deserves to be, first, understood, and second, protected.”
Many of the so-called “New York Intellectuals” of the postwar period, after receiving their diplomas, set immediately to writing elitist invectives against “automatization,” mass culture, and capitalism. Not Wattenberg. Enamored by the energy of the free market and the rugged spirit of the common man, he went in search of what he would later designate “the real America.” He became a freelance writer, specializing in — of all things — marine matters. He was editor of the trade magazines Rivers & Harbors and Water Transportation Economics, as well as the McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology, to which he also contributed several articles. In 1961, he produced The Story of Harbors, an educational book for children filled with photographs of Americans hard at work on tankers, ferries, and cargo ships.
Three years later, Wattenberg put out Busy Waterways. In its conclusion, he proudly quipped that countries around the world were trying to emulate American commerce so that they too could “do with rather than do without.” On the back-jacket insert, Wattenberg was pictured — with hooded sweatshirt and steaming mug of coffee — steering the towboat MV Nebraska Citydown the Mississippi, from Cairo, Illinois, to New Orleans. His early quests were dissimilar, to say the least, from those of the “alienated” Jewish intellectuals, who, as Midge Decter once recalled, “didn’t feel at home out there.”
WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS TO BE STATISTICAL
Wattenberg began his prodigious publishing streak in 1965 at the age of 33 with the release of This USA, a volume that offered “An Unexpected Family Portrait of 194,067,296 Americans Drawn From the Census.” Inspired by Theodore White’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Making of the President, 1960, he had teamed up with Census director Richard Scammon to create a work that would assess American progress through a unique combination of hard figures and anecdotal shoe-leather reporting. “We hold these truths to be statistical,” Wattenberg and Scammon began their closing chapter. “Imagine!” Wattenberg recollected in 1986 of his motivation. “Using numbers to explain people, without boring readers!” It did not matter that he had never formally studied sociology or demography; like the majority of the New York Intellectuals, he excelled in scholarly fields in which he was not formally trained.
This USA provided a trenchant yet cheerful outlook on American life that confronted the erudite theories and alarmist predictions so popular with intellectuals. Looking back, Wattenberg attributed his “neo-con political views” in part to the realization that aloof academics were using research to promote radical ideologies. “It is time to call upon the carpet masters of the semantic fuzz, and the purveyors of the obfuscating, sophisticated phrase,” Wattenberg and Scammon avowed. “It is time to investigate the capital-lettered afflictions that seem to issue from every typewriter throughout the land, spreading apparent doom on an otherwise healthy society.” Notably, this questioning sentiment, which sought to understand the causes of trends and to align the consequences of actions with their true origins, was part of a current flowing among select left-leaning intellectuals. In 1965, the same year that This USA debuted, Irving Kristol, the so-called “godfather” of neoconservatism, established The Public Interest. Through objective inquiry, the quarterly journal meticulously uncovered the creeping progressivism lurking behind the impartial façade of government policy.
This USA was a hit among politicos, and Wattenberg was hired as a speechwriter to President Johnson, a position he held for two years. Upon first arriving at the White House in August 1966, Wattenberg sat down with special assistant Bill Moyers, who informed him that the administration was hoping to shift the national feeling from crisis to confidence. Moyers knew he had chosen the right candidate when Wattenberg, off the cuff, tossed out a perfect theme: “Look how far we have come; let us continue.”
Wattenberg was assigned the imposing task of composing “a hundred” speeches for Johnson, who was preparing for a ten-week tour across the country in an attempt to re-elect the 89th Congress, which had passed much of the Great Society legislation. The president’s tour was eventually called off, so Wattenberg instead traveled with Johnson to Manila for a summit conference with America’s allies in the Vietnam War. The attention lavished on the presidential envoy during stop-offs in New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, South Korea, and Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam persuaded him of what would become a neoconservative maxim: “Power and passion were required to maintain great civilizations.”
THE COUNTRY IS ALL RIGHT
Wattenberg and Scammon kept in close contact throughout the Johnson years and hit upon the idea for another collaboration while lunching in the White House Mess in the fall of 1968. Their second book, The Real Majority, was released in 1970 and quickly became an enormously influential study of American electoral politics. In the face of race riots, political assassinations, student insurrections, and other turbulent events of the late-1960s, Wattenberg and Scammon contended, as their book’s title suggested, that the prevailing narrative about decline, mainly disseminated by the media and academia, was uncorroborated by social, economic, and attitudinal data. In doing so, they not only bulldozed three pillars of liberal political thinking, they also replaced them with three new bipartisan pillars.
First, they argued that, contrary to the perception of the New Left, the American electorate was “middle-class, middle-aged, middle-minded, unyoung, unpoor, unblack.” Second, they razed the liberal belief that the “Cause People” were representative of the American people and, accordingly, discouraged the idea that future national elections would be won by tailoring the Democratic Party’s platform to ideological special interests.
Wattenberg, who had served as a speechwriter on Hubert Humphrey’s unsuccessful 1968 presidential campaign, was frustrated that the Democratic Party had kowtowed to the New Left, balkanizing itself and handing over the White House to Republicans. The key for the Democratic Party in 1972 was to become less progressive in order to remain in touch with mainstream America. Consequently, he and Scammon strongly cautioned in The Real Majority against ideological purity and posited that victory in national elections rested upon the ability of candidates to move to the “extreme center,” because the extreme center was where the preponderance of voters were situated. “A politician must either go to where the ducks are or convince the ducks he is where they want to be,” they wrote. “But the final choice is the choice of the ducks, not of the politicians.”
Third, noting the extent to which Richard Nixon’s campaign theme of “law and order” had resonated with the American electorate in 1968, Wattenberg and Scammon stressed that the “Social Issue” was rapidly approaching co-equal status with the “bread-and-butter economic issues” that had reigned supreme since the chaos of the Great Depression. The Social Issue, they expounded, was comprised of a constellation of cultural concerns involving welfare, race, crime, discipline, drugs, and promiscuity. They acknowledged that the Republican Party was in a slightly better position to address these concerns and, likewise, correctly estimated that the Democratic Party would continue to self-destructively bet the house on a progressive bubble that had already burst.
Amalgamating their insights, Wattenberg and Scammon introduced the most unforgettable feature of The Real Majority: “the lady from Dayton,” a composite “middle voter” who, in spite of her ordinariness, would decide the result of the next election. Notwithstanding the book’s exhaustive and personal description of this imaginary individual, LIFE magazine managed to locate a woman from Fairborn, Ohio — less than a twenty-minute drive from Dayton — who matched the criteria almost exactly. This exercise showed the striking degree to which Wattenberg and Scammon had their fingers on the pulse of the nation.
As the co-authors intimated — and the outcome of the 1972 election attested — the “out-of-town jasper with a pocket calculator” could not match their degree of insight into the real majority. “Now the young man from Yale may feel that he knowsmore about politics than the machinist’s wife from suburban Dayton, and of course, in one sense he does,” Wattenberg and Scammon granted. “But he does not know much about politics, or psephology, unless he understands what is bothering that lady in Dayton and unless he understands that her circumstances in large measure dictate her concerns.”
“Seldom has one book had so instant an impact on political affairs,” Sim Johnston wrote without exaggeration, opening his 1970 review for the Harvard Crimson. The Real Majority is frequently credited with having inspired the Nixon campaign address that aired on November 1, 1970, during halftime of regionally televised football games, two days before the midterm congressional elections. “It is time,” Nixon famously testified, “for the great silent majority to stand up and be counted.” The Real Majority went on to make the New York Times best-seller list, become “the bible” of the 1972 election, and, according to Wattenberg, “alienate most every liberal in America — except those it converted.” He later recalled that the book was aptly branded as “a neo-con lodestar,” for it had impugned the dogmatic tendencies of liberalism and its “ideological handmaidens”: social science and statistics.
In 1972 the Republican Party embraced the centrist prescriptions of The Real Majority, focusing on economic growth and improved social stability, while the Democratic Party rebuffed them, tacking sharply leftward with the nomination of Senator George McGovern, the anti-war movement’s darling. The result was the second-largest electoral landslide in American history. Democratic powerbroker Fred Dutton embodied the left’s myopia. Before the election, he had repetitively boasted that 80% of the 80% of young people who would vote would cast their ballots for McGovern. In the end, only 25% of the 30% of young people who voted cast ballots for McGovern. Young people were even more hawkish on Vietnam and more likely to favor Governor George Wallace, the third-party segregationist candidate, than their elders. These indicators, Wattenberg later retorted, “did not exactly fit the common portrait of the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.” Being proven right here, however, was not particularly gratifying.
In back-to-back presidential cycles, Wattenberg (like many of the proto-neoconservatives) felt spurned by the Democratic Party. But the second time around was especially personal. Wattenberg had worked tirelessly as an advisor and speechwriter for Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, who was robbed of the presidential nomination by new rules at the notorious 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach. (The event was later immortalized in Hunter S. Thompson’s collection of articles, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.) Wattenberg later noted that Jackson, his hero, was simply “too viscerally anti-Communist” for the Democratic Party, which had been hijacked by an aggressive form of isolationism. He believed that the senator, “a low-key, pleasant man” who was “so unphony it could be politically painful,” would have waged a robust race against Nixon. Wattenberg ended up voting Republican for the first time in his life, a decision he kept to himself for years out of fear of reprisals. He ticked the box for Nixon, not out of spite, but because he found McGovern “too dovish” and dreaded his dangerously naïve reliance on government to regulate “cultural, even metaphysical politics.”
In 1974, still attempting to reclaim liberalism from the New Left, Wattenberg published his first solo project, yet another groundbreaking and surprising “examination of the state of the union.” The Real America was dedicated to discrediting the left-wing vendors of the “Failure and Guilt Complex,” who claimed that America was in its darkest hour, teetering on the precipice, and requiring “a domestic shock treatment.” The book’s “central optimistic core,” once again buttressed by hard objective data, dealt with the related notions that, first, progress “in every sense” had occurred and, second, “this nation, its institutions, and its people, have learned to cope with adversity, and usually to best it.”
“Wattenberg is not an acid tripper or a Panglossian moron,” read a synopsis of The Real America in Kirkus Reviews; “he is promulgating something like an updated ‘If you don’t like Uncle Sam, go back where you came from.'” While other reviewers found the book a tad Pollyannaish, they conceded that its rigorous analysis and evidentiary support were difficult to dispute. “The colors are (to put it mildly) garish…but who knows?” Karl O’Lessker wrote sardonically in the American Spectator. “That may be you peeping out of the corner of the canvas with an entirely unself-conscious, hundred-percent American grin on your Archie Bunker face.”
A decade later, Wattenberg trained his sights on another purveyor of impending calamity: the media. When The Good News is the Bad News is Wrong was published, the country was fearful that Japan’s economy was about to leave America’s in the dust. Wattenberg arraigned magazines, newspapers, and television outlets for sensationalizing speculative claims about America’s lack of creative risk-taking and long-term planning. “The problem,” he explained, “is that they are missing the biggest stories of our era — about progress — and missing them regularly, consistently, structurally, and probably unwittingly.”
Wattenberg, by contrast, predicted a sustained American hegemony. International trade would deliver vast geopolitical and commercial benefits, while lost “smokestack” and “old-line” manufacturing jobs would be picked up within emerging high-tech industries. It was America, not Japan, that dominated world production and innovation. America’s purchasing power trumped Japan’s. And no country (Japan) that depended on another (America) to furnish its military defense could realistically aspire to global supremacy. “Sometimes the vehicle sputters for a moment or two,” Wattenberg concluded, likening America’s economy to a brawny 18-wheeler, “a tire may be low, the steering linkages getting a little loose. But we fix it as we go along and it just keeps barreling along.”
America had indeed become the world’s undisputed economic, cultural, and military superpower by the time Wattenberg published Values Matter Most in 1995. He had updated a principal conjecture of The Real Majority: As the title implied, the Social Issue had become the foremost factor in American politics and elections. His overriding concern was that American values, which bolstered democracy, pluralism, individualism, and markets, were precipitously waning both abroad and at home. In tune with the then-raging “cultural war” — paleoconservative firebrand Pat Buchanan had given his famous opening-night speech at the Republican National Convention three years earlier — Wattenberg reproached liberals past and present for incentivizing idleness through welfare, eroding merit through affirmative action, and legitimizing immorality through political correctness.
Breaking with other cultural warriors, however, he acceded that liberals had not meant to carry America “toward a culture of irresponsibility.” He was also far more enthusiastic than conservatives about the facility of public policy to rehabilitate American virtues: “[W]hat government has caused, government can cure; what government has done, government can undo; what government has screwed up, government can unscrew up.”
Values Matter Most generated considerable buzz, not least because it was disclosed that President Clinton had spontaneously phoned Wattenberg to chat about it — for almost an hour. The book was in large part a respectful critique of Clinton, who had underscored social issues early in his tenure; his somewhat conservative stand for “personal responsibility” and “no more something for nothing” had given way to “a generically and genetically liberal White House staff” and “a bureaucracy staffed and stuffed with liberal activists.”
Reporting on the presidential outreach in his newspaper column, Wattenberg professed that Clinton was “a convert,” that he had grasped the importance of values and, moving on, intended “to recapture that New Democrat ideology.” Although the White House downplayed the gist of the column — in not one, but two lively press briefings — the passage of time substantiated Wattenberg’s claims. “Strangely, said the president, he liked Wattenberg in spite of this predictable distortion and uproar….[H]e found Wattenberg engaging but not snide like most pundits,” maintained Taylor Branch, biographer and author of The Clinton Tapes. “Besides, he thought he learned something.”
THE BIRTH DEARTH
Wattenberg’s reputation as an authority on politics is indisputable. But the political world is not the only place Wattenberg has left his mark; his talent for numbers and social science has aided him in nurturing a longtime interest in global population decline, the subject of several of his books, including Fewer, published in 2004.
Of course, ever since Thomas Malthus issued his diatribe An Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, most of the world has been reeling at the “nightmare scenarios,” not of depopulation, but rather “of ever-more non-stop billions of starving people packed like sardines in a can.” Today, these scenarios continue to be propagated by scholars such as Paul Ehrlich and institutions such as the United Nations Population Fund. But Wattenberg has long believed that the world, particularly the developed part of the world, faces a different crisis. He first broached the topic of birth rates in This USA and has continued to revisit it throughout his career.
In 1965, Wattenberg and Scammon began disassembling what they called “the statistics explosion” with novel projections. Instead of using the conventional crude birth rate, which measures births per thousand women in the adult population, they used total fertility rate, which has the distinct advantage of assessing the number of births in proportion to the segment of the female population at childbearing age at any given moment. (Wattenberg later designated total fertility rate as “the single most important measurement of humankind.”) While Wattenberg and Scammon recognized that the American birth rate had risen after the Second World War, they showed that it had already begun to drop by 1958. They further stressed that America, both richly endowed and sparsely populated, could have instantly withstood the doubling of the 1960 population of 180 million people. Moreover, they demonstrated that the fertility rate had never even remotely approached disastrous proportions precisely because it is an intimate reflection of individual decisions.
Writing in The Real America in 1974, Wattenberg announced that a “Birth Dearth” had replaced the “Baby Boom.” He attributed this transition to feminism, education, employment, contraception, abortion, and delayed marriage. He also anticipated that it could “prove to be the single greatest agent of an ever-increasing, ever-wealthier middle class in America.” Before long, enhanced data displayed the conspicuous degree to which the statistics explosion had also warped the picture of the global scene. In 1978, U.N. demographers quietly amended findings from a decade before, rolling back a year-2000 population estimate by 300 million. World population was still increasing in real terms, but both its birth and fertility rates were slowing. And though this trend was most noticeable in developed countries, it was also occurring in the least-developed countries. In the not-so-distant future, world population would actually peak and then shrink. The nightmare scenarios were coming to an end.
But instead of greeting this news with relief, the “neo-Malthusians” continued panicking. Bureaucracy, after all, offers little reward for unorthodox thought. In 1977, President Carter commissioned the “Global 2000 Report.” Unveiled at a theatrical press conference in the White House Press Room in 1980, it warned that world population would approach 30 billion before the end of the 21st century. (World population in 1980 was approximately 4.4 billion.) In the summer 1984 issue of Foreign Affairs, former secretary of defense Robert McNamara promised that the view of “the end of the population explosion” was “totally in error.”
“Explosionists” like McNamara represented a vocal majority of the worldwide governing elite. As a result, the United States delegation to the second International Conference on Population in Mexico City in August 1984 stunned the international community by arguing that population growth was a “neutral phenomenon.” Unsurprisingly, Wattenberg was part of the delegation. “[W]hat’s important,” he wrote in 2004, explaining the United States’ “Mexico City position,” “is not how many people there are (within reasonable limits), or whether they are growing or diminishing, but how those people are behaving economically.” In other words, it was imprudent to believe in a “one-size-fits-all” solution for population, especially when numerous developed countries had fallen well below “replacement rate,” meaning the total fertility rate needed to sustain a country’s population level (about 2.1 children per woman).
Signs soon emerged that this line of reasoning was gaining traction. In 1985, demographer Michael Teitelbaum and social historian Jay Winter published The Fear of Population Decline, the oft-referenced title that outlined the reality of depopulation in Europe and discussed pronatalist policies, which Eastern European countries were already implementing. The following year, the National Academy of Sciences issued the provocative report “Population Growth and Economic Development: Policy Questions.” “Unless one is more concerned with the welfare of people born in the distant future than those born in the immediate future,” it heralded, “there is little reason to be concerned about the rate at which population growth is depleting the stock of exhaustible resources.” Wattenberg labeled the report “one of the most important pieces of research published in recent years” because it broadly confirmed the substance of “supply-side demographics.”
With The Birth Dearth, released in 1987, Wattenberg promoted this dissenting school, which trusted “that people produce as well as consume, that culture causes poverty and wealth, that population growth is, in itself, neutral.” He also explored at length a question that had long bothered him (and provided his subtitle): “What happens when people in free countries don’t have enough babies?” The Birth Dearth did not have the effect on public discourse that he had wanted, but it did receive ample attention, positive and negative. “Here is a book that will join the ranks of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring,” publishing executive Steve Forbes opined in his magazine. Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, energetically criticized Wattenberg’s ideas, while other antagonists suggested that Wattenberg might be “a sexist,” “a cold warrior,” “a racist,” “a polluter,” and, most scandalously, “a straight-linist.”
By now, however, the evidence of population decline has become even more difficult to deny. Wattenberg’s 2004 book, Fewer, further dismantled the population-explosion theory. It outlined additional costs of population decline and exposed those who had vested interests in perpetuating the population-bomb myth because their livelihoods, earned via government grants and private endowments, depended upon preserving the distortion. The depopulation of the developed world needed to be the real concern, Wattenberg emphasized, because pluralistic ideals and practices could become endangered in an international system less heavily inhabited by citizens of democracies.
Wattenberg’s aim is a universal community awash with free societies and free markets. In pursuit of this state of affairs, he advocates — at least in terms of population — that America pave the way by eliminating disincentives to pregnancy and allowing legal immigration. He describes American immigration as “one of the wondrous stories of humankind.” He argues that a diversity of people invigorates the market of ideas and, therefore, yields a competitive advantage for the country in the global economy. Wattenberg appreciates that today’s arrivals are coming from different places than they have in the past. But he remains confident that they will acculturate and that American society is dynamic enough to acclimate. “We ought to encourage it, even if it itches a little,” he insisted of immigration in The First Universal Nation in 1991. “It’s one big reason America is, and will be, the omni-power.”
IDEALISM AS REALISM
Writing books has been only one of the ways by which Wattenberg has championed American principles and their spread around the world. While he has always believed in liberal democracy, he did not fully embrace his vocation as an activist for its expansion until being inspired by the leadership of Senator Scoop Jackson.
In the 1970s, while the New Left was busy vilifying “Amerika” for its involvement in the Cold War, Jackson was unapologetically endorsing American precepts and lobbying his fellow citizens and foreign allies to safeguard human liberty. He is best remembered for injecting the moral dimension into United States foreign policy with the Jackson-Vanik Amendment to the Trade Act of 1974, which granted the Soviet Union “most favored nation” trading status in exchange for permitting the unrestricted emigration of religious minorities. President Nixon and Henry Kissinger, dreading the amendment would undermine détente, opposed it. Wattenberg enthusiastically backed the amendment and the ideals behind it. Shortly after Jackson-Vanik’s enactment, he took up a freelance assignment from the Washington Post to interview Jews in Israel who had fled Soviet communism. For two weeks, he watched as streams of overjoyed “refuseniks” disembarked at Ben Gurion Airport. “It is a devilish question, of course: morality or strategy,” Wattenberg reflected in Harper’s in 1977. “What I am saying is that the essential strategy is morality.” “Most of Scoop’s Troops have maintained that for America,” he later added, “idealism is the best realism.”
To advance the concept of “peace through strength,” in 1972 Wattenberg launched the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, a proto-neoconservative organization for which he served as chairman for 12 years. He called it a “ginger group” because its members, many of whom were prominent politicians and defense intellectuals, were eager to make “mischief.” Indeed, the CDM did not shy away from criticizing the policies of either party. On the international front, it slammed the Democratic Party for its isolationist streak and its “thesis of decline,” while it blasted the Nixon administration for its callous doctrine of realpolitik. Wattenberg even criticized CDM compatriot Irving Kristol for having “backslid a couple of times.” (Truth be told, Kristol was an early admirer of Kissinger, supported détente, and defended arms control, making him far more “realist” than most have recognized.)
Wattenberg rejected the pervasive notion that, while an open society was great for the United States, it was not necessarily the right idea for other countries. He protested in Harper’s in 1977: “Was Stalinism a Russian solution for the Russians? Was Nazism a German solution for the Germans? Was Tojo a Japanese solution for the Japanese? Is General Pinochet a Chilean solution for the Chileans?”
With respect to the domestic front, the CDM scorned the left for inciting criminality through radical ideology and devaluing merit through affirmative action. The organization officially disbanded in the mid-1980s, but its messages still permeate the philosophies of both political parties today.
The obstacles that neoconservatives (as they were beginning to be called) faced during the Nixon administration paled in comparison to those they encountered in the latter half of the 1970s. President Carter ignored the CDM when making his appointments, even though its members, while serving on the Democratic drafting subcommittee, had developed language that appeared in his 1976 campaign. Wattenberg, initially frozen out of the halls of power (Carter later selected him to serve on the Presidential Advisory Board for Ambassadorial Appointments), turned to other channels and ultimately reached a wider audience.
In 1977, he rolled out a 13-part PBS series called In Search of the Real America: A Challenge to the Chorus of Failure and Guilt, which was based on his book The Real America. Its first episode, “There’s No Business Like Big Business,” won the Tuck Award for the Advancement of Economic Understanding. It presented oppositional commentary from economist John Kenneth Galbraith and a kitschy graveyard littered with tombstones of industry giants once thought to be invincible because of capitalism.
In 1978, Wattenberg joined the American Enterprise Institute, whose intellectual firepower, he once bragged, exceeds that of the National Institutes of Health, Census Bureau, National Academy of Sciences, Office of Management and Budget, and five to ten of the best universities in the world — combined. Within months, he had created and was heading up the bimonthly, in-house magazine Public Opinion. The magazine also published a report titled “Media and Business Ethics,” widely considered the first methodical social-science study of left-leaning bias within top media outlets. For many even-numbered years, Wattenberg also moderated and participated in AEI’s monthly “Election Watch” series. In 2006, he wrapped up 28 years as a senior fellow in residence, but he continues his affiliation off-site.
The neoconservatives were welcomed into government with the election of Ronald Reagan, who had run on “courage, ambition and the values of family, neighborhood, work, peace and freedom” — just the platform endorsed by the CDM. In 1981, Wattenberg was tapped to serve on the board of directors of Radio Liberty, Radio Free Europe, and the Board of International Broadcasting. He eventually rose to vice chairman of all three institutions and became affiliated with Radio Martí, a station geared toward destabilizing Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba. Wattenberg was further called upon by Senator William Brock to help coordinate what became the National Endowment for Democracy. He devised the idea of independent grants to private institutions, which has since become a mainstay of the organization.
From 1981 to 2001, Wattenberg produced a syndicated newspaper column with United Media Syndicate. In roughly 1,000 columns, he purveyed “a neo-con point of view” and highlighted some of his experiences abroad as an ambassador of democracy. Throughout the 1980s, at the request of the U.S. Information Agency, he met with high-level groups in several countries, including the Soviet Union, India, and the Philippines, to address a wide variety of topics.
In the Soviet Union, for instance, he lectured at the Institute of the USA and Canada Studies, liaised with generals about the intricacies of SALT, and connected with dissidents. In 1986, he served as a member of a team sent out by President Reagan and Senator Richard Lugar to monitor the election in the Philippines, which was held at the apex of the “People Power Revolution.” Later that year, alongside Jeane Kirkpatrick, Senator Bill Bradley, and Richard Perle, he took part in a U.S.-Soviet conference hosted by the Chautauqua Institution in Latvia.
Wattenberg confronted Soviet officials on East Berlin and atomic weapons, and demanded free emigration, cessation of military aid to surrogate states, and free and fair elections in Eastern Europe. “The conclusion is this,” he asserted in a speech at the conference: “The peoples of the modern world, insofar as it can be measured by survey research, believe that the government of the Soviet Union is the most hostile, aggressive, and subversive nation in the world.” He dared the Soviets: “Make us eat our own misperceptions.”
Wattenberg returned to television in 1994 with the inauguration of Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg on PBS. The award-winning, nationally broadcast program ran for 17 seasons and featured hundreds of distinguished panelists who debated while, vitally, “speaking in plain American English.” Most of its nearly four hundred episodes were concerned with politics. But in typical Wattenberg fashion, non-political topics were also covered, such as standardized testing, Alzheimer’s disease, baseball statistics, alternative medicine, John Philip Sousa, and George Gershwin. Since Think Tank went off the air in 2009, other programs have struggled to imitate it, because the key to the show’s success was Wattenberg himself.
A CONTINUING LEGACY
Wattenberg’s most important pursuits have been those involving the extraordinary spread of liberty around the world. Crucially, his scholarship and personal example have inspired succeeding generations to carry forth America’s benevolent “empire of ideals.” His work on demography has recently witnessed a revival with books like Jonathan Last’s 2013 title, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting. Additionally, his legacy continues to be carried on by a number of his former mentees and research assistants, who have become public intellectuals in their own right: Jonah Goldberg, editor-at-large of National Review Online; Karl Zinsmeister, former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council; Mark Mazzetti, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the New York Times; Tevi Troy, president of the American Health Policy Institute; and Karlyn Bowman, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Wattenberg’s effectiveness may well be attributed to a unique gift: the facility to converse in everyday language. Jeane Kirkpatrick, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations from 1981 to 1985, characterized Wattenberg’s style: “Ben writes in ‘American.'” Still, his insights must be ascribed, above all, to his unshakeable faith in America.
In an essay on Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of Great Britain and the British Commonwealth, explained how these three leaders were able to discern brightness through the fog of catastrophe. They possessed countless admirable qualities, yet they were not optimists. “Optimism” is simply the belief that circumstances will get better, Sacks explained, while “hope” is the belief that effort can make circumstances better. “It needs no courage to be an optimist, but it needs courage, wisdom, a deep understanding of history and possibility, and the ability to communicate, to be a prophet of hope.” Wattenberg may be often celebrated as an optimist, but the description profoundly underestimates the complexity and audacity of his character.