BEN J. WATTENBERG is definitely a commentator for the computer-driven 1990s: He is part politician, sociologist, statistician. A Democrat turned neo-conservative, he has worked for President Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and Henry M. (Scoop) Jackson; as a senior editor of the American Enterprise magazine, published by the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, he enjoys nothing more than tracking trends, or opposing such nefarious schemes from the left - as he sees it - as racial quotas in jobs and education.
But what most gives Wattenberg his special affinity with the late 20th century is his relish for statistics. Wattenberg is no ivory-tower Walter Lippmann or James Reston, writing his views from Olympian detachment. Rather, in the style of the late Theodore H. White, whom Wattenberg deeply admires, he is apt to turn to a book of statistical abstracts to get a demographic picture of what's actually happening out in the neighborhoods of America before sitting down to write his often-feisty columns.
``The First Universal Nation'' is a collection of fresh writings, along with a reprinting of many of his works from past years. The writings, in turn, are interspersed with pages of statistics - he calls them ``indicators'' - that seek to identify current global and national trends. The book is cogent and lively, often stirring in its evocation of the United States, and certainly provocative.
Traditional liberals, who believe America has yet to fulfill its best ideals, will be dismayed at Wattenberg's optimism. Conservatives will be driven up the walls by his defense of Lyndon Johnson or his view that Ronald Reagan was the ``savior'' of the Great Society. Advocates of zero-population growth will be horrified by Wattenberg's enthusiasm for a higher US birthrate, which, incidentally, is once again inching upward. Wattenberg, in other words, is an equal-opportunity iconoclast.