Ben Wattenberg — the gloriously unclassifiable public intellectual, journalist, television host, amateur demographer, and loving student of America — passed away yesterday at the age of 81.
Among Wattenberg’s many gifts to his country, his unwavering refusal to abide any simple narrative of American decline always struck me as the greatest. Just a few months ago, in the spring issue of National Affairs, the great young intellectual historian Jonathan Bronitsky penned a thorough appraisal and appreciation of Wattenberg, which highlighted this stubborn belief in America’s promise. He wrote:
His most concrete triumph has been that every decade over a stretch of 60 years, he published at least one critically acclaimed title that challenged and reshaped conventional wisdom. Above all, he refuted time and time again declinist forecasts about America. By layering narrative with statistics — an innovative practice that he later termed “data journalism” — Wattenberg revealed in stimulating fashion that the country had consistently made astounding social, economic, and attitudinal strides. But beyond this happy revisionism, which was controversial enough, he further daringly — and accurately — predicted that America would continue to repeatedly surpass its own achievements.
Let’s hope the country Wattenberg loved can keep proving him right. RIP.