December 7th, 2021

Light of A Life

Remembering Ben J. Wattenberg, 1933-2015

Binyamin L. Jolkovsky

By Binyamin L. Jolkovsky

Published June 30, 2015

Remembering Ben J. Wattenberg, 1933-2015

I never had the privilege of actually meeting Ben Wattenberg. And that's unfortunate.

The author, columnist and public intellectual would often call and we'd chat for several minutes. Before we'd hang up, he'd always try to convince me to come on his PBS show and I'd always politely decline.

"You'd be a natural," he'd say --- and mean it. "Appearing on my show should give JWR's readership a boost. I'd compliment the site on-air. Think of all those who still don't know it exists who would suddenly become aware."

I was honored by the invite but knew my limitations.

Each time I would remind him of them.

It wasn't just the time it would take to travel from Brooklyn to D.C. Without a staff -- still -- my free time was, and is, always at a premium. But, I tried to explain to Mr. Wattenberg, I'd never be able to match wits -- let alone beat -- the wonky pundits who would be my opponents.

I'm not in the habit of, after all, embarassing myself. "Any publicity is good publicity" is not something I believe.

And what Ben Wattenberg didn't believe was me.

Or, rather, he believed in me.

He never gave up nudging.

Ben Wattenberg was grateful to JWR. After his column ended in 2001 he told journalist Lou Marano, then with UPI, that despite being syndicated in about 200 newspapers, "about half the mail I got was generated from Jewish World Review. There's a lot of people reading it. It's a damn good site."

And it was Mr. Wattenberg, one of our earliest columnists, who helped make it one.

His work wasn't loud and angry, as is too often the case with columnists these days. Ben Watteberg wrote with facts, figures, and sound extrapolations --- which often came true.

He burst onto the punditry scene in 1975 after writing an article for the New Republic. In it, he dared question -- with facts, figures, and sound extrapolations, mind you -- the conventional wisdom pushed by population explosion scaremongers.

Mr. Wattenberg argued that in actuality the problem facing many societies in the near-future would be a birth dearth.

That amounted to secular blasphemy!

As Karlyn Bowman, an American Enterprise Institute scholar and former colleague, tells it, "at the time, the New Republic received more letters than the magazine had ever received about a single article, and most of them were hostile. But Wattenberg's analysis was correct, and declining fertility is one of the most important demographic stories of our time."

In his last syndicated column -- dated Sept. 24, 2001 -- Mr. Wattenberg describes his life, worldview and how he came to believe what he did. And he does it far better than I ever could:

"During the Cold War I was a hawk, and felt very much at home in a hawkish Democratic Party shaped in recent times by Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. They knew that the Soviet Union was precisely an "Evil Empire," although that was Ronald Reagan's later coinage. The USSR was evil and it was an empire. Truman, for one, knew that the fate of the planet hung on the outcome of the Cold War.

"In the beginning, the Republicans were more hawkish than the Democrats, sometimes foolishly so. Later, I felt that some Democrats didn't get the message powerfully enough. I became a devotee of Sen. Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson (D.Wash.), my kind of hawk and my hero.

"I never felt that America told its remarkable democratic story to the world well enough. I believed, along with Harry Golden, "America ain't what's wrong with the world." We should have done more, and could have done more, to stand up for the captive nations of the Soviet Union, just as we should now be standing up for the threatened freedom guys, in South Korea, Israel, Taiwan, and many other places. The sacking of the United States Information Agency (USIA) by our own U.S. State Department has been an untold scandal.

"On the political front I believe that the Democrats have become a party that is perceived as far too liberal, principally on social issues. That is what my late collaborator Richard Scammon and I wrote in our 1970 book 'The Real Majority,' and it's what I wrote in my 1995 book 'Values Matter Most.' With all the change since then, there hasn't been so much change. This too-liberal perception has lost the Democrats votes by the many millions. I believe it was the root reason the Democrats lost the 2000 election.

"President Clinton understood all this. He got elected in 1992 by understanding it better than any other Democrat. On some occasions he followed through effectively, but often it was too little and too late.

"Demography has been my other passion. I confess, I am more interested in it today than in politics. I am worn out by the budget argument. It never goes away, does it? It will be here a century from now.

"Something is happening on the demographic front that has still not achieved anywhere near the attention it deserves. Birth rates and fertility rates are sinking like stones, in both the modern world and among the Less Developed Countries. I think we'll be losing global population faster than you'd imagine.

"Much of the intellectual ferment of recent years has centered around the idea that the human species is out of control, on the upside. Paul Ehrlich's book 'The Population Explosion' was probably the first highly public debate for this case. The current argument regarding the drastic potential effects of 'global warming' is only the latest in a long series of putatively human-induced mega-problems which rape the planet one way or the other, including running out of resources, air and water pollution, water shortages, and disappearing arable land.

"But something very big is changing. It does not look to me that humanity is running out of control, at least not on the upside. The downside, in many places, and soon perhaps most places, is another story. According to the U.N. Europe is slated to lose 117 million people in the next 50 years."

Mr. Wattenberg's columns -- including some that didn't appear elsewhere -- are archived on JWR. Some are dated, of course. But they are all full of wisdom and deserve to be read and re-read.

May his memory be for a blessing.

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Binyamin L. Jolkovsky is JWR's Editor in Chief.