Remembering Ben Wattenberg
Ben Wattenberg died this past Sunday at the age of 81, and he will be remembered for many things. He engaged in public debate over issues ranging from how and whether to promote democracy overseas to the global consequences of falling birth rates. He was tireless in his attempt to bring the Democratic Party back to what he considered the political center. He wrote influential books and signed the occasional manifesto. He advised presidents and met with world leaders.
For all of his intellectual accomplishments, he also understood the power and importance of television and he was a near constant presence in the green rooms and studios of Washington DC. In a one-industry town where almost everyone thinks they should have their own TV show, Ben was one of the few who actually deserved one.
For fifteen years, until he retired from television in 2010, I was Ben’s producer. He called himself the “immoderator” of our little show – a PBS series called “Think Tank.” Ben came up with the idea of hosting a program that featured scholars and authors exclusively, with each half-hour focused on a single important topic. “No journalists, no politicians, no kidding,” became the watchword for the series.
Ben believed that data, social science and statistics revealed essential truths about society. And – most importantly for television- he was able to tease the data into stories that people could understand.
What made Ben interesting – and always “good TV” – was that his fascination and facility with data was paired with a passionate advocacy for those issues in which he believed. He was pro-immigrant, pro-private enterprise, and pro-democracy. He was unwaveringly pro-American.
He was also a born promoter. He understood that all TV – even something as seemingly dry as a PBS public affairs series- requires a little bit of showbiz. He had his signature props: in the early days the handlebar moustache and the rumpled trenchcoat, later the reading glasses that - when they weren’t perched precariously on his forehead - he waved like a conductor’s baton at his circle of guests.
In 2000, we produced “The First Measured Century,” a three-hour documentary series for PBS on a century of social science measurement. Part of the program dealt with how applied demographic research had contributed to the decline in child mortality (In 1900, one in six American babies died before their first birthday and women were 100 times more likely to die in childbirth than they are today. You can look it up in Ben’s books.)
My wife had recently given birth to twins, and few experiences will make a man more grateful for modern medical practices. My three month-old girls were enlisted as props for Ben’s stand-ups. Ben cradled a baby in each arm and delivered his lines to camera. It was a great day – and we all knew that the shot of Ben and the babies would be the winning publicity still for the series.
That was the kind of thing Ben loved – the bit of showmanship, the wink to the audience, the over-the-top reaction shot that told the audience exactly what he was thinking. And to stick around, because more was in store.
My mother is an artist who works in oil. She once told me that to be a good painter, you have to like to “work the paint” – that is, you have to enjoy the tactile, physical process, not just the end product. Ben loved ideas and public policy the way my mother loves to paint – he took joy in the process, in the art of argument, in the sheer excitement of it all. He knew that the freedom to disagree with one another and to debate openly was both precious and a cause for celebration. It was downright unpatriotic not to join in the cacophony and miss out on this essential privilege – and who could resist the fun of putting on a show? For Ben, it was one joyful extension of the American experience, and I am grateful that I shared in part of it.