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Ben Wattenberg’s American Life

Up and down with liberalism and the Democratic Party.

By 11.20.08

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Fighting Words: A Tale of How Liberals Created Neo-Conservatism
By Ben J. Wattenberg
(Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's Press, 362 pages, $26.95)

The year was 1966. Lyndon Baines Johnson presided over a gloomy post-Camelot America. His whiz kid special assistant and Time cover boy, the Rev. Billy Don Moyers, brought the author of an optimistic demography book to the White House for an audition. Moyers liked what he heard from the freelance author and took him to meet the president, who happened to be dressed in his silk pajamas in preparation for a nap. Thus began the beltway career of a B.A. in English and drama from Hobart College. Ben Wattenberg, not an academic as so many have assumed, combined shrewd instincts and a devotion to statistics into a life in "data journalism."

Moyers, by the way, pops up at various points in the book. Wattenberg can't seem to be able to believe that the former aide to LBJ decades later became the same man who recently claimed the right would mount a coup if Kerry won in 2004. He is thankful to Moyers for bringing him to the White House and appalled at the same time.

The book is both an autobiography of Wattenberg and a light history of neoconservatism. The two go together. Wattenberg, who grew up in a community disproportionately sympathetic to socialism in New York, is one of many Jewish intellectuals who found themselves first trying to move the Democratic Party to the center and then, in many cases, settling among Republicans. Wattenberg never went all the way to the GOP. He worked for LBJ, Hubert Humphrey, and Scoop Jackson before becoming a fixture in the think tank world. Unlike his fellow neocon Daniel Patrick Moynihan (who became a reliable left vote in the Senate), though, he could not reliably support the Democrats, either. It turns out Wattenberg is a rarity in Washington. He is a swing voter.

Though the title is Fighting Words: A Tale of How Liberals Created Neo-Conservatism, it isn't quite apt. Wattenberg weaves neoconservatism into his life story, but in this volume, the political movement is really part of his story rather than the other way around. However, rehabilitating neoconservatism is part of the mission. The longtime AEI (American Enterprise Institute) fellow is eager to remind readers that there is more to the movement than aggressive foreign policy. While it's true that neocons began as liberals faced with growing disappointment in the Soviet experiment with Communism, they were also concerned about the degradation of American culture.

One of Irving Kristol's most memorable aphorisms is that a conservative is simply "a liberal mugged by reality." The reference to mugging was not merely metaphorical. Crime became a compelling issue in Vietnam-era America. Wattenberg reports that his own mother was mugged once. His father was mugged twice. His son was mugged twice. His sister-in-law was murdered. A key belief that distinguished neocons from liberals of the time was that "law and order" is not code for racism, but rather that it is the code for civilization.

The specter of Barack Obama lurks behind a number of the book's confident proclamations about the future of neoconservatism. Wattenberg is bullish on the concept and believes that soft liberals are poison to the Democratic Party while tougher liberals win the prize. Is Obama more like the tough cold warrior Kennedy or the softer McGovern? One suspects Wattenberg would say Obama is the exception that proves the rule.

Obama also comes to mind when Wattenberg writes about President Jimmy Carter. For example, Wattenberg explains:

"As an unknown, he [Carter] gained a dream situation for a candidate: the ability to describe himself as he wished to be known.…That is why money is so important. It buys the ability…to paint a portrait of a candidate as he or she wants to be known."

Those words could have been written precisely for the president-elect.

THE BEST TREASURES in the book center on Wattenberg's many experiences in Washington life. In one instance, Wattenberg found himself debating Milton Friedman, which he found profoundly disturbing because Friedman had the "unnerving" debate tactic of chuckling in a barely audible fashion while his opponent spoke. Wattenberg reports he felt a consistent urge to check whether his zipper was open.

He also recalls Scoop Jackson (a devout Christian) enthusiastically telling a Jewish audience how his mother instructed him to "love the Jews." Wattenberg had to explain to the senator how that kind of talk made Jews uncomfortable.

Some of his anecdotes are earnest and touching. Traveling with Hubert Humphrey, Wattenberg heard the candidate take an audience through an unscripted and heartfelt guided tour of the Pledge of Allegiance with his eyes shining. Humphrey had been instrumental in inserting the words "under God" in the pledge. He told audiences those two words "gave real meaning to human dignity."

Wattenberg's book goes in a number of different directions. It is sometimes an autobiography, sometimes a movement history, sometimes a compilation of anecdotal tales of time spent with famous men, and sometimes a lift of the curtain to expose the wizard behind political television and syndicated columns. Despite this stew of different ingredients maintaining their own flavor, Fighting Words is consistently smart and entertaining. It is somewhat ironic that a man who has long focused on examining the data to explain the issues, has written a personal history that explains so much about the last half-century of American politics.

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About the Author

Hunter Baker is associate dean of arts and sciences and associate professor of political science at Union University. He is the author of The End of Secularism and winner of the 2011 Michael Novak Award. His personal website is www.hunterbaker.wordpress.com.