Ben Wattenberg, an author, a PBStelevision commentator and a professed neoconservative who vainly urged his fellow Democrats to court the nation’s centrist voters at a time when the party was moving to the left, died Sunday in Washington. He was 81.
The cause was complications of surgery, his son, Daniel, said.
After the Democrats imploded in the late 1960s and early ’70s in internecine warfare between liberal and moderate factions over the Vietnam War, Mr. Wattenberg sought to rescue the party, in his eyes, by promoting the candidacies of moderates like Senators Henry M. Jackson and Hubert H. Humphrey.
He emphasized cultural touchstones like crime, race and welfare that were worrying many Americans as much as traditional economic concerns in urging Democrats to appeal to the “middle-aged, middle-class, middle-minded, unyoung, unpoor, unblack,” who, he said, constituted the moderate majority.
It was a prescription embraced instead by a generation of law-and-order Republicans, including Richard M. Nixon in his appeals to a “silent majority.”
In 1970, long before computer-generated models singled out soccer moms and Nascar dads as pivotal groups that national parties needed to target, Mr. Wattenberg and a co-author,Richard M. Scammon, a former Census Bureau director, wrote in “The Real Majority” that the quintessential voter who needed to be won over was a 47-year-old homemaker from the outskirts of Dayton, Ohio, whose husband was a machinist. The book was a best-seller.
A data-driven amateur demographer, Mr. Wattenberg helped popularize the term psephology, the study of elections. William Safire, the New York Times columnist, credited him with introducing the term “social issues” to the political lexicon.
As a Democrat, Mr. Wattenberg proudly accepted the label of neoconservative, which Irving Kristol defined as “just a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” When Nixon resigned in 1974, Mr. Wattenberg said that the president had “left a great political party in shambles — the Democratic Party.”
In the journal National Affairs this year, the political scholar Jonathan Bronitsky wrote that Mr. Wattenberg’s “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 added, “he refused time and time again declinist forecasts about America.”
Joseph Ben Zion Wattenberg was born in the Bronx on Aug. 26, 1933, a son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. His father, Judah, was a real estate lawyer. His mother, the former Rachel Gutman, was a nutritionist.
He was raised in the Amalgamated Houses union cooperative and attended DeWitt Clinton High School. Even growing up as a Bronx boy, he was a contrarian: He dreamed of playing center field for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Instead, he graduated from Hobart College in Geneva, N.Y., in 1955, served in the Air Force and worked as a journalist, specializing in nautical stories.
He was propelled into prominence as an author when, with Mr. Scammon, he wrote “This U.S.A.,” an exuberant portrait of American progress and an optimistic prognosis for the country that seemed to some at odds with the social and political turbulence they were experiencing or witnessing in the mid-1960s.
Mr. Wattenberg also had stints as a political operative. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration hired him as a researcher and speechwriter. He went on to help Mr. Humphrey return to the Senate after his defeat in the 1968 presidential election and worked on Mr. Jackson’s unsuccessful efforts to win the presidential nomination in 1972 and ’76.
Senator George S. McGovern, an antiwar liberal, was the party’s choice in 1972, and after his landslide defeat at the hands of Nixon, Mr. Wattenberg helped found the Coalition for a Democratic Majority. Its aim was to shift the party back to the center by focusing on pocketbook issues and centrist themes that resonated with what he considered the moderate majority and which Bill Clinton would eventually corral for the Democratic side in 1992.
After “The Real Majority,” Mr. Wattenberg wrote “The Real America: A Surprising Examination of the State of the Union.” The New York Times Book Review said the book overstated the progress of black Americans, but it concluded, “For all the author’s bumptiousness, this is a book that sheds real light on the American condition.”
In 1978, Mr. Wattenberg introduced the magazine Public Opinion, sponsored by the conservative American Enterprise Institute. In 2001 as a senior fellow at the institute, he published “The First Measured Century: An Illustrated Guide to Trends in America, 1900 to 2000,” which he wrote with Theodore Caplow and Louis Hicks.
Mr. Wattenberg also produced and hosted the PBS television series“Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg,” “In Search of the Real America,”and “Ben Wattenberg at Large.”
In addition to embracing the neoconservative label (his 2008 memoir was titled “Fighting Words: A Tale of How Liberals Created Neo-Conservatism”), Mr. Wattenberg also defined himself as an American chauvinist and what he called a “neo-manifest destinarian,” believing in American exceptionalism. Citing the infusion of immigrants from around the globe that he had championed in his 1991 book, “The First Universal Nation,” he argued that the United States was poised for even greater success.
Worried about declining birthrates in the United States, he pronounced himself pro-natal, which he described as favoring tax breaks and other incentives for young adults who choose to have children. As a redistributionist capitalist, he said, wealth should flow from the childless to the child-rearing.
He proclaimed himself a foreign policy hawk. “Peace through strength,” he said. “That’s what I mean by a hawk.”
Besides his son, Daniel, he and the former Marna Hade, who died in 1997, had two other children who survive him, Ruth and Sarah. He is also survived by his second wife, Diane Abelman, and their daughter, Rachel, as well as a sister, the actress Rebecca Schull, and four grandchildren.
For all the political wisdom he may have imparted, Mr. Wattenberg learned early on that he was better at dispensing political advice than benefiting from it. Before 1970, when he lived in Stamford, Conn., he sought local public office twice. He lost both times.
Joseph Ben Zion Wattenberg (August 26, 1933 – June 28, 2015), known as Ben J. Wattenberg, was an American author, commentator and demographer. Associated with leading Democratic politicians in the 1960s and '70s, he leaned increasingly conservative in his latter years.
Wattenberg was born in The Bronx to Jewish parents, and went on to graduate from Hobart College in 1955, majoring in English. From 1955-57 he was in the U.S. Air Force, based in San Antonio. He was an aide and speechwriterto President Lyndon B. Johnson from 1966 to 1968, and served as an adviser to Hubert Humphrey's 1970 Senate race and Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson's contest for the 1972 Democratic presidential nomination, and Democratic Party presidential primaries of 1976, and served on the 1972 and 1976 Democratic National Convention platform committees.
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Wattenberg came to national attention as co-author with Richard M. Scammon of The Real Majority, the 1970 analysis believed to have provided the basis for the campaign strategies of the Nixon administration in the 1970 congressional elections and 1972 presidential election.
He was the host of a number of PBS television specials, including Values Matter Most, The Grandchild Gap, America's Number One, What Next?, The Stockholder Society, A Third Choice (about the role of third parties in American politics),Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism, The Democrats, and The First Measured Century. He hosted the weekly PBS television program, Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg, from 1994 to 2010, and previously hosted PBS series In Search of the Real America and Ben Wattenberg At Large.
Wattenberg was a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. He was appointed to various committees and commissions by Presidents Carter, Reagan, and George H. W. Bush, as well as by then-Speaker Tom Foley.
Wattenberg was the son of real-estate attorney Judah Wattenberg and Rachel Gutman Wattenberg, and the younger brother of actress Rebecca Schull. He had four children, Ruth, Daniel and Sarah with his first wife, the former Marna Hade who died in 1997, and Rachel with his second wife, Diane Abelman. Wattenberg died on June 28, 2015 from complications following surgery.
- This U.S.A., 1965
- The Real Majority: An Extraordinary Examination of the American Electorate, 1970
- The Real America, 1974
- Against All Enemies: A Novel, co-authored with Ervin S. Duggan 1977
- The Good News is, the Bad News is Wrong, 1984
- The Birth Dearth, 1987
- The First Universal Nation, 1991
- Values Matter Most, 1995
- The First Measured Century: An Illustrated Guide to Trends in America 1900–2000, co-authored with Theodore Caplow and Louis Hicks, 2000
- Fewer: How the New Demography of Depopulation Will Shape Our Future, 2004
- Fighting Words: A Tale of How Liberals Created Neo-Conservatism, 2008