A TALE OF HOW LIBERALS CREATED NEO-CONSERVATISM
By Ben J. Wattenberg
Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin’s Press, $26.95, 363 pages
REVIEWED BY SHAWN MACOMBER
The first hint “Fighting Words: A Tale of How Liberals Created Neo-Conservatism” might not live up to its fierce title billing is the front cover snapshot of author Ben Wattenberg. The host of the thoughtfully somnambulant PBS show “Think Tank” is seated and smiling widely, pointing out in a pose more “You rascals!” than “En garde!”
Indeed, while the publisher promises a chronicle of Mr. Wattenberg’s “radical transformation” from liberal to neo-conservative, those looking for a reprise of Whittaker Chamber’s “Witness” or David Horowitz’ “Radical Son” should look elsewhere.
There are no ideological sabers rattled with convert fervor, no real transformation “radical” or otherwise. Instead, Mr. Wattenberg praises liberalism as an (albeit imperfect) engine of social progress, defends bureaucrats, pork-barrel spending and even, with minor quibbles, the Great Society’s vast expansion of state, which he writes, “in many ways set into motion the stance now called neoconservatism.” (A paleo-con chorus of Told you so! rises from the tar pits.) Detente with all but the fringe “radiclibs” (radical liberals) is apparently much more attractive than it was with the Soviet Union. Even after charging the left with unfairly wielding the term “neoconservative” as an all-purpose malapropism/ demagogic insult, Mr. Wattenberg rushes in a few Reassuring Words: “Alas, some neo-cons seem to have gone out of their way to further antagonize their enemies.”
Your honor, if they didn’t want that propaganda beating, those neo-conservatism shouldn’t’a been running them fancy ideas outta their mouths. Sure, being shellacked as part of a cabal bent on destroying all that is good and just in the world can occasionally put one in an antagonistic mood. Not Mr. Wattenberg, though. His tack is not to prosecute but plead like a defendant. Me? I’m not with those knuckle-draggers! I’m with Lyndon Johnson (“in some important ways … was a neo-con”), Robert F. Kennedy (“some neoconservative tendencies”) and Hubert Humphrey (whose 1970 Senate election Mr. Wattenberg calls, “a national win for the neoconservative notion that a candidate could be liberal, kind, tough on domestic issues, and a winner”)! Neo-conservatism, Mr. Wattenberg frets, may forever be “confused with conservatism, with the key differences never quite understood.”
Perhaps such confusion is the price paid for relying on a wee prefix for differentiation? Still, co-opting Democratic Party heroes for “neo-conservatism” is unlikely to refurbish neoconservatism in the eyes of the left. If they fit Joe Lieberman with horns and fangs in the Democratic caucus, Mr. Wattenberg won’t escape that fate from his perch at the American Enterprise Institute. Nor will describing George W. Bush’s “heroic actions in Iraq” likely come out in liberal’s wash by accusing Pat Buchanan of “seeing an evil Mexican wetback in every bathtub.” Or by rejecting Ronald Reagan’s formulation that government is the problem not the solution (“I have never been against government, big, small or medium size”). Or by Mr. Wattenberg proudly noting his refusal to use the “From the Right, I’m …” sign-off while filling in for Bob Novak on “Crossfire” in the early 1980s (” … a modest neo-conservative act. We neo-cons are not necessarily people of the Right”). Or even by his insistence that Democrats are little more than a foreign conquest and cultural awakening away from establishing themselves as “the natural governing party in America.”
“Little guys,” Mr. Wattenberg muses sagely, “still beat fat cats.”
Thus we are encouraged to exchange anti-“neo-conservatism” demagoguery for the old standby class war smear. That’s some bargain for traditional conservatives, who, according to Mr. Wattenberg, are only acknowledged at all because a media “toilet trained by the neo-cons” is now forced to “grudgingly accept the media-savvy, intellectually studious neo-cons in a way they would never have accepted criticism from rigid, old-fashioned conservatives.” Now, he writes, “to use an old union phrase, it is the conservatives who are the free riders.” As conservatives who have actually seen a cable news show recently might say, Please, stop helping!
Nevertheless, for those able to separate the heartfelt memoir wheat from the political chaff, “Fighting Words” has much to offer as a pastiche of firsthand recollections and biographical sketches detailing great men and consequential times. From Mr. Wattenberg’s unexpected first meeting with pajama-clad future boss Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey removing the “T-word” - tough - out of the speeches Mr. Wattenberg wrote for him to a reverential portrait of Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson and reminiscences of a young Bill Moyers on the make, Mr. Wattenberg has an eye for telling detail and a touching Me, a kid from the Bronx! wonder that is irresistibly charming and well worth the cover price.
Shawn Macomber is a contributing editor to the American Spectator.