Memories of a Neocon

Bill Steigerwald
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Posted: Dec 01, 2008 3:42 PM
Memories of a Neocon

The more you know about Ben Wattenberg, the more you understand why Ronald Reagan called him his favorite Democrat. Wattenberg, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is a tough 1960s Democrat -- a neoconservative on foreign and domestic matters who suspects Al Gore is on a religious crusade when it comes to global warming and who thinks his good friend Joe Lieberman is too far left on some domestic issues.

Wattenberg, 75, is the host of PBS' show "Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg." He has written a handful of works built on socioeconomic and demographic statistics -- "data journalism," he calls it -- like "The Real America" (1974) that have analyzed American society and its politics.

His 1987 book, "The Birth Dearth," debunked fears of the global population explosion everyone was worrying about and showed that the real long-term problem is falling fertility rates, especially in Western Europe.

His new book, "Fighting Words: A Tale of How Liberals Created Neo-Conservatism," is a mix of autobiography, stories about the famous men Wattenberg's worked with in Washington and a history of the neoconservative movement, which he played an important part in fostering. I talked to him Nov. 21 by phone from his home near Washington.

Q: What's your 60-second sound-bite description of your book?

A: It's the first book I've written that is a story, a narrative, rather than a thesis book. It's the story of a moderately Jewish boy who grows up in the Bronx -- where everybody was liberal to far left -- in a very intelligent household who through a series of events got to work for President Lyndon Johnson and who got to know the great and near-great in Washington and gradually saw that liberalism had gone, by my lights, far left. Ronald Reagan -- who was once a Democrat -- said, "I didn't change. My party did." I liked Reagan, and that's what I feel happened to the Democratic Party.

I wish Barack Obama well. I think he's done a lot of good for the country. Just having a black man on the covers of all the magazines and everything sends the world a message. But he has a very tough row to hoe, with the economy and everything. Since he's been elected, the markets have gone down 13 or 14 percent. In my judgment, he comes from really a radical background and he was in some very liberal organizations, but he pivoted into the center - at least verbally - with the speed of light. That's one of the theses of the book "Fighting Words." A lot of it is based on a book that Dick Scammon and I wrote in 1970 called "The Real Majority," which says that the center is the power position.

Q: What is your definition of "neoconservative"?

A: It's moderate government spending to protect the population; it's reasonable programs to help the poor and underprivileged; and it's an effort to help move the world to our democratic views and values. That's about as simply as I can put it.

Q: What is the biggest misconception about neoconservatism?

A: That neoconservatives want to impose American views and values on people who don't want them.

Q: I.e., the Iraq war?

A: Yeah, but the Iraq war was U.N.-sponsored. There were weapons of mass destruction -- poison gas is officially a weapon of mass destruction. There were lots of factors. People say they went to war for oil. . It's like getting married. You get married for a lot of different reasons. I don't know how the war in Iraq is going to turn out. It's looking a lot better now than it did. The Arab world is beginning to loosen up a little bit. But right now, it's the most dangerous movement in the world. A guy at one of the think tanks here has called it World War IV. The idea is that neocons are just about foreign policy and just about idealism, but the most commonsensical thing we can do is to try to establish democratic views. That's what makes for a stable world.

Q: Why did you think it was time to write this book?

A: Look, if you call "neoconservatism" "potato" and you called liberalism "cantaloupe," potato would win by about 70-30, or 2-1. But this word has -- to its enemies -- got a terrible connotation cast on it. They say it is a bunch of hawks who want to impose American views and values on the world. But in point of fact, it's saying some very elementary things.

First of all, neoconservatism started not as a foreign policy movement but as a domestic movement, mostly in reaction to the terrible crime wave of the 1960s. My mother was mugged, my father was mugged twice, my son was mugged twice and my sister-in-law was murdered in an unsolved crime in Philadelphia. Now maybe that's extreme for any family, but there was the fear that people couldn't go out in the street at night.

What neoconservatives said was, let's look at the evidence. They were people like Daniel Moynihan, James Q. Wilson and Seymour Martin Lipset. They said let's forget all the shibboleths and all the cliches and let's say what it's all about. Wilson worked for 15 years on doing research and came up with this theory of "Broken Windows," which said that you can't let a neighborhood deteriorate even a little bit before the whole thing goes under.

Q: That "broken windows" theory of policing was a neoconservative idea?

A: "Neoconservative" has become such a tarnished word, but it's such common sense. There was a small group of people in America, the radicals, who said "law and order" is a code word for racism. It's not a code war for racism; it's a code word for civilization. We've cut the crime rate because we've gotten tough.

Q: Who do you want to read "Fighting Words"?

A: Everybody. There was a very good review in the American Spectator magazine. It's a good read. It's not a book about neoconservatism, the way Norman Podhoretz or Jim Wilson or Jeane Kirkpatrick - people I admire -- might write one. It's a book about how I came to understand things; it's a story. There are a lot of interesting anecdotes in it.

On the foreign policy side, Geopolitics 101 says that democracies don't go to war against one another. Parents don't want to send their kids to war to be killed. All the great massacres came about from totalitarianists - Stalin and Hitler and the Imperial Japanese and Cuba. I think there was one little soccer war between two democracies in Central America. So when we went into Iraq to try to establish a democracy in the most dangerous region of the world - under a U.N. mandate, by the way, with 20 allies - it wasn't just saying we want everyone to be like America. We were trying to ensure some stability in the world.

Q: Of all the Washington stories you tell in the book, what's your favorite?

A: Well, when I came to work for President Johnson, Bill Moyers, who was then his chief of staff, and I had lunch in the White House mess. The vice president (Hubert Humphrey) came up and said, "I loved your book." I had written this book with Dick Scammon, "This USA," which was very optimistic. And then Moyers said, "Come on, there's someone I want you to meet." We go through this labyrinth of the White House and he takes me into LBJ's bedroom. LBJ is meeting there with Henry Ford II, having a late lunch. Johnson was in his pajamas. He used to take a nap in the afternoon; he'd work eight hours, then take a nap for three hours and work another eight hours. I was not used to talking to presidents, but I had told Bill Moyers what I was thinking about -- that everything was gloom and doom coming out of the White House and it shouldn't be because we were making great progress. Johnson went on and on and on, and then Bill said, "Why don't you tell the president what you were telling me?" I did. And Bill hired me on the spot and I stayed for just about the end of the Johnson presidency.

Q: Of all the smart and powerful people you met in Washington, who do you think is the most underrated or underappreciated today?

A: Well, I think Scoop Jackson (Sen. Henry Jackson, anti-Communist Democrat from Washington who died in 1983). He never got to be president. He ran twice. But even today if you talk to the people who run foreign policy, they break out into two groups -- they say they are pro-Scoop or anti-Scoop. Now he was one representative out of 535 in Congress. But he really left an imprint. What it was that (he thought) the United States can be both idealistic and realistic. Those are the two poles. He sort of blended the two. He said we have to have a strong defense but we have to do things like Radio Free Europe and the National Endowment for Democracy and Radio Free Asia and spread the word to the peoples of the world that democracy is OK.

Q: Scoop Jackson's ideas -- that blend of idealism and realism -- is that the definition of neoconservative foreign policy?

A: I think so. But you can't call it "neoconservative." You have to call it "cantaloupe" or "banana."