Ben Wattenberg's 'walkabout' look at American politics

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What's a Wattenberger? Well first you'd have to define a Wattenberg. Ben Wattenberg's politics is hard to define: There are some who would say that he's somewhere to the right of Bill Moyers and just a bit to the left of William Buckley. Try watching him one Sunday and you can make up your own mind. Chances are that a great deal of his common-sense political philosophy may be hard for you to categorize -- but it might concur in great part with your own.

"Ben Wattenberg's 1980" (PBS, Sundays, 10-10:30 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats) is moving into its third of 10 broadcasts this Sunday, although in some areas it is just starting, or soon to start -- or never to start at all (perhaps depending upon the politics of your PBS station executives , the market for Ben Wattenberg's kind of thinking in your area, or both). Skillfully produced for WETA/Washington by executive producer George Vica, what Mr. Wattenberg calls his "new moment in realism" utilizes the traditionally effective "walkabout" style of Kenneth Clarke and Jacob Bronowski, moving swiftly through fascinating locations as host Wattenberg interviews key figures and inspects key points of interest.

Ben Wattenberg came visiting my news bureau the other day, carrying with him a couple of cassettes of his most recent shows. He was very excited about a half-hour show he had just filmed with Tom Wolfe. But he is a man of many enthusiasms and was soon waxing just as enthusiastic over the current show, which airs this Sunday, which is about Sri Lanka, and the show that airs the next Sunday, June 7, about former Texas legislator Barbara Jordan.

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Says Mr. Wattenberg, still earnest and eager, coming across like the writer, editor, speech writer (for LBJ) that he is and was, but also like an enthusiastic professor of freshman economics, carried away by his subject and the potential of his pupils:

"The predicate of this program is this: that life in America moves in spurts. You don't have a steady progression of ideas; you have certain eras that get very feisty and fertile and fecund, ripe with ideas. The '30s was such an era; the '60s, too. People say there was nothing much going on in the 1970s. Now, suddenly, it seems to me that the 1980s is another ripe era but, unlike the previous two times where all the feistiness was on the left, we now have it somewhat right of center. Again, there is a whole new set of bubbling ideas.

"Call it conservative or neoconservative, a move to the right or a new realism [there are a lot of phrases going around]. . . ."

How about second-look liberalism?

That's a fair one, too . . . but there are no perfect ideologies, no perfect parties in this world of ours. American liberalism has really been in the saddle maybe 50 years now since FDR's New Deal. I'm proud of the accomplishments of American liberalism, but it is also true that, particularly in this last half decade or so, a lot of that stuff has not been working so well.

"The conservatives, in fairness to them, always said that all those big expenditures, improperly financed, would lead to inflation. And here is inflation. The liberals, wrongly in my judgment, began to say at the time of Vietnam, "We're not the world's policemen; we're spending too much money on the military-industrial complex, the Russians aren't coming, unless we do something pretty quick, will become the most powerful nation in the world.

"I used to consider myself a liberal -- I worked for Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey. I would call myself an old-fashioned liberal . . . when I grew up if you were a liberal you were for belching smokestacks as a sign of a growing economy . . . now you're caled a polluter. Limits -- that's the whole environmental buzzword. They say they're liberals, but I'm not prepared to surrender that word to them.

"I came into politics when the idea of America as the most powerful nation in the world was a sound idea, because it was a word where totalitarianism could begin to hold sway unless America was a powerful nation. It was called liberal anticommunism. I still believe in that. "A 'neoconservative' is what I've been called. Well I say a neoconservative is just a liberal who has been mugged by reality!"

Mr. Wattenberg laughs at his own turn of phrase. He laughs like a man who enjoys what he has discovered and is thrilled by the added discovery that he can put it into words that express his philosophy cleverly but not facilely.

"We must be willing to ask ourselves what worked and what didn't work. Some of the liberal doctrine . . . the basic idea of government helping the less fortunate people, there's no question about the validity of that. But some of the ways need to be re-examined."

Sunday's segment of Mr. Wattenberg's magazine show concerns the way Sri Lanka seems to have moved successfully from socialism to a sort of "let the robber barons come" freedom. He considers the new president of the country "a Margaret Thatcher South."

The week after that there is a show that reminisces with former Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, now a professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs in Austin, Texas. In future weeks there will be a reassessment of the press and the war in Vietnam, a study of as many other controversial subjects as gadfly Wattenberg can manage to bring before his cameras.

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, co-editor of Public Opinion magazine, chairman of the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, and the author of such books as "The Real America" (upon which his first series two years ago was based) and the forthcoming "The Wealth Weapon." What is his motivation for doing the series? Certainly there is no pot of gold in it for him.

"There are things I want a wider audience to see. i have written books and been active in politics. In this country, in this era, if you are seriousabout communicating ideas, you've got to go on television."

What does Ben Wattenberg hope this series will accomplish?

He smiles his Jason Robards happy smile: "I know there a lot of people who will say 'Oh, that terrible man is on again -- I don't agree with a single thing he says.'

Then there is the second group which says: 'Hey that's terrific; he's back on. I agree with everything he says.'

"Well, i'm not in business for either of those two groups. The third group is the one I care about, those people who say: 'I never thought about those things in that way before. It's very interesting. He made me think.'"

"I am talking about important ideas on this series. Look, I am saying, this is a changing moment in American life. There are a lot of new ideas -- some good, some bad. Democracies work well because they renew themselves. I'm a superoptimist. We have rampant inflation, rising unemployment, productivity is down, our standing in the world is lowered, we have a major energy crisis. But I feel this is a healthy time for people to go back to Square 1 and start thinking these things through freshly. That's what I am trying to do. If I could develop that third group -- the audience that is willing to go back to Square 1 with me and rethink things -- boy, would I feel super!"

OK, Wattenbergers, back to Square 1 with Ben Wattenberg this Sunday.

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