BEN WATTENBERG is an optimist. About the way Greg Louganis is a diver. His optimism knows no bounds. It spins and twirls; does back-flips and half-gainers. He ought to rent himself out for parties.
In The Good News Is the Bad News Is Wrong Wattenberg poses a national question: "How're we doing?" His answer: "Great!" We're healthier, happier, richer, better educated, better housed and more religious than is generally believed. Our political process is even more democratic than we probably thought. And most of us are going to have long lives in which to enjoy all this good fortune.
The real good news is that Wattenberg is right. This is an important book that needed to be written. It is serious but enjoyable; an effective polemic but honest; a heartening view by a seasoned observer.
Wattenberg makes two major points. First, Americans are doing just fine. He provides mounds of evidence -- from the statistical to the impressionistic -- on our quality of life, standard of living, values and political process to buttress his point. He is quite convincing. Second, the media have been keeping most of this good news from us because they are commercial, liberal, adversary, and self-righteous. Take that.
The media are Wattenberg's principal but not his only target. Feminists, environmentalists, consumer advocates, some conservatives, and even the Moral Majority will not be amused by this book. If he doesn't already have an unlisted phone number Wattenberg should get one.
The Good News is loaded with interesting and iconoclastic observations as well as demographic tidbits. Wattenberg reminds us that all of those little, fuel-efficient cars that we bought to fight the energy crisis are probably killing thousands on the highways. He wonders if we really want an industrial policy that emulates the Japanese -- including company anthems every morning. He points out that those "right-wing" evangelicals may be no more right- wing than the rest of us (they favor the death penalty and federal programs to deal with social problems by the same ratios as the general population). And did you know that there has been a 556 percent increase in the number of women lawyers and judges since 1970? Or that we've gotten the "population explosion" so under control in America that, without immigration, we could run out of people in a couple hundred years? Even those who hate this book for its message will get some secret enjoyment from the wealth of information about us that it contains. It's a Book of Lists with a point of view. THE BAD news about The Good News lies in some of the conclusions that Wattenberg draws. The unindicted co-conspirators of his thesis are the Chicken Littles of the world -- the panic-mongering activists (mostly liberal) and the media who aid and abet them. Though he occasionally grants them passing and grudging credit for some of the good news he reports, Wattenberg for the most part ignores the contributions the "extremists" have made to America. Would Detroit have built safer cars without Nader? (They still won't install airbags.) Would government or business have begun paying attention to the environment without Rachel Carson? Would we have all those women lawyers and judges without Betty Friedan? You don't have to admire their style to recognize that these activists have often been the indispensable catalysts for progress. Unfortunately, the shortest distance between two political points is usually not a straight line -- it's more often a tug-of-war between extremists on one side and another.
The second problem is the role Wattenberg would assign the media. He wants them to report equally -- or more than equally -- the good news with the bad. That proposition doesn't seem realistic or even desirable. We don't expect a doctor reporting to us on our health to run down a list of all the organs that are functioning properly or even those that have shown some improvement since our last visit -- but we sure want to know of the first signs of trouble. As Wattenberg documents voluminously, progress is the norm in America, as well it should be -- if we're not moving forward we're slipping back. It's not news. But when things go wrong, that's news. That is not to say that journalists will not benefit from reading Wattenberg's book. They will. And some of the more striking progress that he chronicles is indeed newsworthy.
A political footnote. The Good News is a very timely book -- and not just because it's out in time to help you with your Thanksgiving list. Wattenberg stays clear of partisan politics, giving credit and blame to Democrats and Republicans alike. Yet the work contains profound implications for the Democratic Party as it faces a tough (some think unwinnable) contest against a popular Republican incumbent. How did the party of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the party of "Happy Days Are Here Again" and "the only thing we have to fear" ever come to be perceived as the party of Chicken Little? Those who think that it's preposterous for Ronald Reagan to link himself with Roosevelt are being too literal. Reagan, with his bouyant, unstoppable (often unjustified) optimism has cast himself as the emotional heir to FDR. And it's working. Listen to his acceptance speech: "The choices this year . . . are between two different visions of the future, two different ways of governing -- their government of pessimism, fear and limits or ours of hope, confidence and growth." Wattenberg's silent message to the Democrats may be that if they don't stop telling the American people that the party's over, it may be -- sooner than they think.