Ben Wattenberg, RIP

Ben copySad news today of the passing of Ben Wattenberg at the age of 81. Wattenberg, who had been an aide to Lyndon Johnson, was one of the “liberals mugged by reality” who created “neoconservatism.” I first read Wattenberg’s late 1960s book (co-authored with Richard Scammon) The Real Majority when I was an undergraduate. The Real Majority wasn’t exactly the inspiration for Nixon’s “silent majority” of putatively conservative voters. Rather, Wattenberg recognized early on the disaster coming to Democrats for indulging the New Left and its various progeny in the 1960s—a point he deepened in the second book of his I read, In Search of the Real America which came out around 1976 if I recall correctly. (I recall in particular that he was hard on the senator from Minnesota, Walter Mondale, for embracing certain anti-American themes popular on the left). Wattenberg anticipated the waves of voters who were soon to become “Reagan Democrats.”

Wattenberg interviewed me a couple of times for his PBS show “Think Tank” (where I also first met his fresh-faced young producer named Jonah Goldberg), and in turn I interviewed Wattenberg for my first Age of Reagan books. Among other things, Wattenberg had been among a handful of Democrats who visited Jimmy Carter in January of 1980, hoping they might still be able to remain loyal Democrats despite Carter’s cluelessness, only to have Carter dash their hopes in the meeting. Wattenberg remembered it well, and contributed key details to my account of it:

“Carter’s more vigorous response to the invasion of Afghanistan had raised the hopes,” Jeane Kirkpatrick recalled, “that he had a new realism in his assessment of the Soviet Union.” Senator Moynihan wrote that Carter’s new toughness “at the very least means bringing into his administration people who share the views he now propounds. . . New policies must to some extent mean new people.” Jeane Kirkpatrick and much of the same group of like-minded conservative Democrats who had met with Carter in 1977 were invited back to the White House on January 31, 1980, at the behest of Vice President Mondale. (In addition to Kirkpatrick, the group included Norman Podhoretz, Midge Decter, Ben Wattenberg, Elliott Abrams, Max Kampelman, retired admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Austin Ranney, and Penn Kemble.) Perhaps, it was hoped, Carter would now include some of this group in his administration, having spurned them before. Austin Ranney, speaking for the group, told Carter that they were encouraged by the change in Carter’s view of the Soviet Union, and hoped he would now appoint officials who were in harmony with a tougher policy.

Carter cut off Ranney: “Your analysis is not true. There has been no change in my policy. I have always held a consistent view of the Soviet Union. For the record, I did not say that I have learned more about the Soviet Union since the invasion of Afghanistan, as is alleged in the press. My policy is my policy. It has not changed, and will not change.” AdmiralZumwalt told Carter that existing U.S. navy forces were incapable of defending the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean oil routes. Carter responded with what was described as “a stare that in a less democratic society would’ve meant he was destined for a firing squad.” Maybe, Carter went on to suggest when the topic moved on to human rights, this group could help with human rights in Uruguay. The meeting was the last straw for these “neoconservative” Democrats, despite Vice President Mondale’s efforts to repair the damage. Mondale knew the meeting had been a disaster, and asked the group to stay after Carter left. It was to no avail. Carter, Jeane Kirkpatrick told Morton Kondracke after the meeting, “threw cold water on whatever hopes we had that Iran and Afghanistan would have a broad effect on the president’s foreign policy orientation.”

When I interviewed Ben in 2000, he was excited about Joe Lieberman being the first Jew to be on a presidential ticket, and he thought he might even cast his vote for Gore-Lieberman for that reason alone.

It was a great delight to become Ben’s colleague at AEI a little later on, where I finally got to the bottom of a question I had pondered from afar—whether his eyeglasses were permanently attached to his forehead, which was his trademark look. (They weren’t.) We enjoyed reinforcing each other’s anti-Malthusianism—much of which, I hasten to add, I learned from him in the first place. He was a great demographer, and an optimist. Another of my favorite titles of his was The Good News Is The Bad News Is Wrong.

Karlyn Bowman recalls today:

In 1975 he wrote an article for The New Republic, calling worries about a population explosion nonsense. He argued that the problem facing many societies going forward would be a birth dearth. At the time, the New Republic received more letters than the magazine had ever received about a single article, and most of them were hostile. But Wattenberg’s analysis was correct, and declining fertility is one of the most important demographic stories of our time.

They don’t make ‘em like Ben any more. And I never thought to ask him whether he indeed cast his vote in 2000 for Gore-Lieberman.