The Hobart and William Smith Colleges community mourns the death of Ben J. Wattenberg ’55, LL.D. ’75, author and television commentator who played a key role in shaping the Democratic Party since he broke into the political landscape in the late 1960s. Wattenberg passed away on Sunday, June 28 at the age of 81 in Washington, D.C.
Known for promoting a centrist approach to politics and for his optimism in the Democratic Party, Wattenberg brought his neoconservative ideology into the increasingly polarized political climate of the late 1960s and early 1970s, he said, “seeking to rescue the party” by advocating moderate candidates.
His career boasts a long list of political and presidential appointments; numerous books; and a near constant presence in the discussion of American politics, governance and society. He was an aide and speechwriter to President Lyndon B. Johnson, served as an adviser to both Sen. Hubert Humphrey’s race for Senate in 1970 and Sen. Henry Jackson’s contest for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972 and 1976. He was also appointed by President Jimmy Carter to serve on the Presidential Advisory Board for Ambassadorial Appointments, and as a public member of the American delegation to the Madrid Conference on Human Rights. President Ronald Reagan appointed him to the Board of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty; and, in 1991, by President George H.W. Bush to the Task Force on U.S. Government International Broadcasting. Additionally, he was appointed by Speaker Thomas Foley to the Commission on Broadcasting to the People’s Republic of China in 1992.
The majority of Wattenberg’s research focused on demographics, politics, U.S. culture and public opinion. It was his first book, “This U.S.A.,” which he co-authored with Richard Scammon that attracted the attention of President Johnson and initially set Wattenberg down the path to becoming one of the most influential political figures of his time. After co-authoring his book in 1965, Wattenberg went on to write seven more, including “The Real Majority,” “The Bad News is Wrong,” “The Real America,” “The First Universal Nation,” and most recently he was working on a book, tentatively titled “The New Demography: How Depopulation Will Shape the Future.”
An editor and founder of Public Opinion magazine — sponsored by the conservative Washington, D.C.-based think tank, American Enterprise Institute — Wattenberg became senior fellow at the institute, during which time he published “The First Measured Century: An Illustrated Guide to Trends in America, 1900 to 2000,” which he wrote with Theodore Caplow and Louis Hicks. Wattenberg was the producer and host of the weekly PBS television programs “Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg,” “In Search of the Real America,” and “Ben Wattenberg at Large.”
His work as a syndicated columnist appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and U.S. News and World Report, and he appeared regularly on television to discuss his work.
Wattenberg, who attributed his success in part to the liberal arts education he received at HWS, was inducted into the Druid Society in April 2013, during the annual Charter Day ceremonies and dinner on the HWS campus. In 1975, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from HWS. A member of Phi Beta Kappa, he earned his bachelor’s degree in English in 1955.
He is survived by his wife, Diane Abelman, and four children, Daniel, Ruth, Sarah and Rachel; his sister, the actress Rebecca Schull; and four grandchildren.
Read Wattenberg’s obituary in the New York Times.