In 1980, I made a momentous change in my life: I changed my registration from Democrat to Republican. This was more significant than you might imagine, since my mother described this decision as transgressive (she didn’t use that word) and didn’t talk to me for a week.
To make matters worse, I went public with my decision, indicating that the leftward drift of the Democrats left me before I left the party.
Soon after this account of my political transformation was published, I received a letter from a supporter. It read, “I too went through this difficult party shift. It was painful at first, but look what it has done for me.” It was signed by Ronald Reagan.
That story was recalled as I read Ben Wattenberg’s remarkable personal journey Fighting Words: A Tale of How Liberals Created Neo-Conservatism.
Ben was a kid from the Bronx who imbibed Democratic politics as a catechism. He fell under the sway of Democratic leaders Herbert Humphrey and Henry Scoop Jackson, serving as both advisor and acolyte.
The war in Vietnam was his Rubicon. Ben believed the military action was justified. He respected those who disagreed with his view, but he didn’t understand the deep-seated anti American sentiments that accompanied the criticism. Ben was and is a patriot who championed the cause of liberty in government, on television, and in the corridors of government.
Ben’s transition from liberal to neo-con came incrementally. He resisted the left wing orthodoxy that emerged in the Academy. He resisted the claim the war in Iraq was inspired by neo-cons, indicating that President Clinton said Saddam Hussein had to be removed and recalling that Congress approved a bombing of Iraq in 1998.
There is probably no one in the last four decades who has had a better grasp of how Washington works and who are the characters that make it work. Through his “Think Tank” program, Ben toured the field from Jesse Jackson to Newt Gingrich. And the more he toured, the more it became evident that he didn’t leave the party (he still describes himself as a Democrat), but the party left him. It is not coincidental that Ronald Reagan described Ben as his favorite Democrat.
He is also my favorite Democrat. If there were more Wattenbergs in the party, I might still be a Democrat. For me, Ben is the embodiment of an amalgamated idealist and realist, the prophet and the pragmatist. He is also an inveterate optimist which is a major theme in his new book.
Ben recognizes the importance of having a positive attitude. In part, it is what has accounted for American success. Believing that you can overcome difficulties is halfway to making that happen. And assuming the best is a way to make it occur. Ben is the contemporary William James, forever searching for the oasis in the desert.
Some might suggest Ben is pollyannish. After all, his book The Good News Is The Bad News Is Wrong might lead to that conclusion. But it would be wrong. He is deeply immersed in empirical evidence before he arrives at a conclusion. He is a green eyeshade analyst. Most of all, he is an inspiration.
One should read Ben’s new book because it is an insider’s look into the Byzantine ways of Washington. It should also be read because the stories are fascinating. But it should be read most of all because it is a dynamic history of an era that has shaped our present and foreshadows our future.