Bill Steigerwald

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"?


Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald, born and raised in Pittsburgh, is a former L.A. Times copy editor and free-lancer who also worked as a docudrama researcher for CBS-TV in Hollywood before becoming a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a columnist Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Bill Steigerwald recently retired from daily newspaper journalism..