BEN J. WATTENBERG is definitely a commentator for the computer-driven 1990s: He is part politician, sociologist, statistician. A Democrat turned neo-conservative, he has worked for President Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and Henry M. (Scoop) Jackson; as a senior editor of the American Enterprise magazine, published by the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, he enjoys nothing more than tracking trends, or opposing such nefarious schemes from the left - as he sees it - as racial quotas in jobs and education.
But what most gives Wattenberg his special affinity with the late 20th century is his relish for statistics. Wattenberg is no ivory-tower Walter Lippmann or James Reston, writing his views from Olympian detachment. Rather, in the style of the late Theodore H. White, whom Wattenberg deeply admires, he is apt to turn to a book of statistical abstracts to get a demographic picture of what's actually happening out in the neighborhoods of America before sitting down to write his often-feisty columns.
``The First Universal Nation'' is a collection of fresh writings, along with a reprinting of many of his works from past years. The writings, in turn, are interspersed with pages of statistics - he calls them ``indicators'' - that seek to identify current global and national trends. The book is cogent and lively, often stirring in its evocation of the United States, and certainly provocative.
Traditional liberals, who believe America has yet to fulfill its best ideals, will be dismayed at Wattenberg's optimism. Conservatives will be driven up the walls by his defense of Lyndon Johnson or his view that Ronald Reagan was the ``savior'' of the Great Society. Advocates of zero-population growth will be horrified by Wattenberg's enthusiasm for a higher US birthrate, which, incidentally, is once again inching upward. Wattenberg, in other words, is an equal-opportunity iconoclast.
Wattenberg's thesis is summed up in his title: America, he believes, is not in decline - the view of revisionist historians such as Yale's Paul Kennedy - but has become the first universal nation, a racial and ethnic microcosm of the globe.
American ideals, products, and culture - from calls for political democracy to jet planes to movies and television programs - are now sought out everywhere; America's global primacy, he argues, is underscored by the haste of overseas firms to buy US companies, as well as the drive toward reform in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America.
The US, he believes, ``won'' the cold war.
Moreover, through changes in immigration during the past quarter century, as well as intermarriage within the US, Americans are becoming a truly universal people.
Wattenberg's use of statistics can be helpful, but also questionable.
One doesn't have to fully buy Spike Lee's bickering view of America in ``Do the Right Thing'' to know that large parts of the melting pot continue to remain unmelted.
Blacks and Hispanics, for example, are squabbling over jobs and political power in southern Florida, Texas, and Los Angeles; Asians and blacks are elbowing each other in New York; and ethnic whites continue to jostle among themselves and with just about everyone else in many US cities.
Regarding blacks and Hispanics, Wattenberg concedes that there are enormous social/economic problems yet to be resolved. But his choice of statistics suggests broad progress.
For blacks, his ``indicators'' suggest that the dropout rate among black students has perhaps plateaued; that the ratio of black-to-white income has not changed much lately; that more blacks are going to college, etc. Again, fine. But just a quick car ride through many of the urban areas of America - such as the south Bronx - suggests that progress and prosperity still elude many people in this land of plenty.
But these are quibbles. Wattenberg's larger points are on target. America, he believes, has become a conservative welfare state - conservative, in social terms, but a welfare state in terms of its extensive economic safety net. Perhaps that will yet change, but the demographics - that is, the shift of people and thus political power to the West and South - suggests that the pattern will not be broken soon, no matter who is elected president in 1992.
Wattenberg is at his best on demographics: New immigration is not only changing the face of America, but also revitalizing the nation.
Whereas two decades ago American astronauts were virtually all white males, now they represent diverse groups, he notes. Of the seven astronauts on the ill-fated Challenger shuttle of 1986, only three were white males; in addition, one was black, one was a Jewish woman, one was a Japanese-American, one was a white, woman schoolteacher.
Wattenberg is enthusiastic about the recent massive flow of Asians. ``The Asian influx,'' he argues, ``represents the last step in the universalizing of America.'' And it's productive. He notes that 19 of the 40 1990 Westinghouse Scholars are Asian-Americans.
Still, as Wattenberg correctly notes, America is very well-positioned for the future, both in economic terms and demographically.
One question that needs to be asked in light of such crises as the Gulf War: To what extent will all the ethnic and minority groups coalesce into one body politic capable of conducting the affairs of state when the US is locked in combat with third world nations?
Ben Wattenberg's book will infuriate many readers. But it presents a clear vision of an America that is robust, growing, and dynamic. It is a hymn of praise for extensive legal immigration.