Benjamin Wattenberg, who in his books, journalism and television appearances is our most relentless purveyor of belligerent optimism, looked at Herman Wouk in his syndicated column last week and, not surprisingly, found him good. No, more than that: found him wonderful. Digging into Wouk's oeuvre, he discovered: "Traditional values, strong defense, an America on the right side of history, and yet, with all that, a liberal, nonright, pluralist outlook on life, the very stuff of the neoconservative creed."
In this somewhat uncertain venture into literary criticism (coining a phrase or two, he describes Wouk as "a great yarn-spinner with a rich comic flair"), Wattenberg read his way right through the Woukian canon and found comfort on every page. "In the world of the arts," he discovered, Wouk "was probably the first proponent of a view that in politics these days is called 'neoconservatism.' " Thus, for example, "the point of 'The Caine Mutiny' was that liberal scorn of the military is wrongheaded, even when the military was personified in the worst light," and "it is the military that defends our liberty in a harsh world."
"Marjorie Morningstar," which I had quite foolishly imagined to be about a young woman's longing for romance and theatrical glamor, emerges under the Wattenberg microscope as a depiction of "the shallowness of Bohemian values against the solidity of traditional middle-class values." Wouk's two massive World War II novels, "The Winds of War" and "War and Remembrance," turn out to be "deeply patriotic books" by an author who "knows that America is the good guy in history." As for Wouk's new novel, "Inside, Outside," which Wattenberg pronounces "masterful," it is an antidote to certain novelists -- Philip Roth, Joseph Heller, those guys -- who "have chosen to accentuate what they see as the vulgarity and vapidity of the Jewish experience in America, often, it seems, as a metaphor for what's wrong with America itself."
All of this may or may not come as news to Herman Wouk, but it certainly comes as news to me. The emergence of a "neoconservative" literature is as much of a surprise as the "rightward drift of the press," a subject discussed last week in The New Republic by the estimable Fred Barnes. "A sizable segment of the press," Barnes wrote, "now celebrates capitalism and is unabashedly nationalistic, questions liberalism and is unapologetically complacent." The New York Times Magazine is exceeded only by Commentary as "the most reliably neoconservative publication in the country."
As for USA Today: " . . . from the start it was proclaiming the coming of the recovery with front page stories on signals of a burgeoning economy. It did this well before the rest of the national press got wind of the turnaround. It remains relentlessly upbeat about the economy. One day it spotlights a boost in auto sales, the next an increase in industrial output. USA Today can clearly be accused of cheerleading, which is something the 'prestige papers' and the networks can't . . . USA Today is also fervently nationalistic. It openly rooted for American gold medals on its front page during the Olympics last summer."
There are several things to be said about all of this, the first of which is that the normally perspicacious Barnes has inexplicably misread what USA Today is up to. Its "relentlessly upbeat" news coverage has nothing to do with conservatism and everything to do with a canny understanding of what the USA Today audience wants. Where that newspaper was ahead of everyone else in the press was not in drifting to the right, but in realizing that Americans had gotten sick of self-inflicted criticism and were ready to hear the good news about themselves, even if the good news wasn't necessarily true. USA Today's stock in trade isn't conservatism; it's optimism. On its editorial pages, in fact, where a newspaper's political views are normally most nakedly evident, USA Today is squarely in the middle of the road, even from time to time a smidgen to the left of it.
But the political leanings of USA Today are of considerably less concern than the assumption, apparently shared by Wattenberg and Barnes, that conservatism, or "neoconservatism," is automatically -- exclusively? -- associated with such positive values as patriotism, capitalism, a strong defense and, as Wattenberg smugly puts it, the conviction that "America is the good guy in history." That the claim is self-serving goes without saying, but more than that it betrays a constricted view of history and, in Wattenberg's case, literature.
It's not especially surprising to get this from Wattenberg, who has been aggressively thumping the neoconservative drum for years, but it's rather more so to hear it from Barnes, who is one of the country's most astute and informed political writers. Though his analysis of the purported rightward drift of the press is skeptical -- "Media realignment," he writes, "confirms the press' continued susceptibility to political fashion" -- it nonetheless operates on the assumption that if the press (or, presumably, anyone else) expresses a love of country, endorses a healthy economy or speaks out against interest-group politics, it is ipso facto "conservative."
Though the behavior of certain loonies on the left may from time to time lend credence to this view, it simply is untrue. Not merely are liberals and centrists every bit as prone as conservatives to nationalism, patriotism and capitalism, but they are every bit as capable of overdoing it. The Vietnam war, for example, may ultimately have been embraced as a right-wing cause, but the macho liberals of the New Frontier and the Great Society are the ones who got us there -- just as, in a far better cause, the "pragmatic" liberals of the New Deal oversaw the national armament for World War II. No ideology has cornered the market on patriotism or any other traditional American value, and the mere suggestion that one has is offensive.
As for Wattenberg's claims for Wouk's "neoconservatism," they may well be true but they certainly are set forth in an oversimplifed manner. You can find just about anything you want in a book if you try hard enough -- people have been doing just that to the Bible for centuries -- and Wattenberg seems to have gone hunting for right-wing bear in Wouk's forests. Thus he was able to find just what he wanted in "The Caine Mutiny," a book that the last time I read it struck me not as about politics -- the thought never crossed my mind -- but as about human nature and the strange directions it can take when men are too isolated and too much at risk.
Wouk is an accomplished writer and his books, as the literary historian James D. Hart has noted, are "morally serious." But there is no evidence that they were written in order to provide a platform for the neoconservative movement. It is understandable that Wattenberg might desire that they were, viewing the world as he does through that movement's lens, but his interpretation looks a lot more like wishful thinking than careful analysis.