What’s in a Neoconservative Label?

Posted February 9, 2009 at 3:25pm

The moral of a story generally seems to come at its close, so perhaps it makes sense that it is not until the end of Ben Wattenberg’s new book that a definition and mission of neoconservatism really takes shape.

“Fighting Words: A Tale of How Liberals Created Neo-Conservatism” is no policy-based study, or an academic read — and Wattenberg is the first to tell you that.

Previously published books on the subject came off as “political diktats,” or were policy-based and “boring,” according to Wattenberg. Others were were “plain damn foolish in my judgements,” he said.

Wattenberg was going for a more narrative tone, and noted in an interview, seemingly with pride, that he has been told his book would make a “good beach read.”

It very well may, which is a good thing. After speaking with Wattenberg, one realizes that he wrote the book as he speaks, giving it a conversational and personalized air. That said, it would probably make a good beach read for someone in tune with politics and the inner workings of Washington, rather than for an outsider just looking to get a sense of what neoconservatism is all about.

Although Wattenberg alludes throughout the book to things that seem to fit his definition of neocon positions, he does not directly come out and define exactly what is meant by neoconservatism, except to argue that it has been unfairly criticized.

“It’s principally the label that has been trashed,” he said, adding that the term has been distorted and separated from the tenets of neoconservatism.

The description of a neocon as “a freedom-fighting hawk willing to spend government monies on useful domestic programs” hints at what the position means, and other examples appear throughout the book. Wattenberg explained that the basic neocon philosophy is being strong on civil order, acknowledging that the market economy works — with regulation — and basing foreign policy on a balance of idealism and realism.

The book supports that reasoning, but it is not clearly defined early on.

Today, neoconservatism is often identified with foreign policy matters, but Wattenberg argues that “domestic issues, not matters of war and peace, were what initially energized neo-conservatism.”

To support this, Wattenberg refers to issues that created tension within the Democratic Party, including segregation and “law and order.”

The fact that many Democrats would not disassociate themselves from radicals who viewed law and order as racism and held other far-left views hurt the party and led to the development of the neocon movement, Wattenberg says.

Though he seems to stray from the issue at times, personal anecdotes make for an engaging read and fall together in the larger picture as his story goes on. First-person accounts of a visit to China during which Chairman Mao Zedong died and excerpts from an interview with Jewish Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky offer insight into how his own political views and actions have been shaped.

Wattenberg writes this “tale” in the form of a personal history, tracing the path of neoconservatism as he sees it from his days working as a speechwriter for former President Lyndon B. Johnson to his time with Hubert Humphrey’s Senatorial campaign as well as former Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson’s (D-Wash.) failed presidential bids.

There are many misconceptions about the neocon ideology, according to Wattenberg, and he sets to break them down by sharing his own experiences and offering examples of why many former Democrats, in particular, became uncomfortable with their party’s stance on numerous issues.

Much of “Fighting Words” is a memoir of Wattenberg’s early years on the political scene, but the issues he raises continue to be argued — for example, the criticism that some liberals “blame America first” for the evils in the world.

But Wattenberg makes it understood that he is a registered Democrat, and openly lists the candidates he has voted for through the last 40 years. By the standards he sets forth in “Fighting Words,” his is a moderate, neocon voting record with a seemingly pragmatic take on the presidential candidates of the past several decades.

Wattenberg is frank and straightforward throughout “Fighting Words,” which is a departure from his earlier, more scholarly works.

Because the book is largely based on his recollections, Wattenberg has no trouble writing honestly about his feelings toward former colleagues and bosses, maintaining the same frank tone with which he recalls political incidences.

In particular, he mentions Bill Moyers, with whom he worked in the LBJ White House.

“I should stress … that Moyers was nothing but kind, courteous, and helpful to me during my time in the White House,” he writes, but is critical of Moyers’ shift from a moderate liberal Democrat to mildly radical.

He is equally open about disclosing personal relationships and biases, including praising points made in an address given by former President Bill Clinton that was written by Wattenberg’s son-in-law, David Kusnet.

Before ending his story, Wattenberg points to liberal political victories in areas such as segregation, environmentalism and feminism and argues that neoconservatism had an important influence in each of the areas. As he rounds out his defense of neocons, he argues for a balanced, practical take that supports American ideals and takes an optimistic but rational approach to addressing the country’s problems.

Wattenberg harkens back to Scoop Jackson, someone he admired, to sum up his position.

“A country like America can’t be just realistic or just idealistic,” he said.

Whether it’s being read as a light beach read or for insight into the neocon way of thinking, “Fighting Words” is both entertaining and insightful, and it is scattered with the personal details of many historical politicians that only an insider can provide.