You only have to dip briefly into Ronald Reagan's diaries, which are to be published next month, to see what an optimist he was. Goodwill and high hopes dance from every page. There aren't many mean-spirited asides in the five volumes of jottings and reflections. The man was a little old ant who thought he could move a rubber-tree plant. (More on the electoral role of Frank Sinatra, who sang about the ant and the rubber-tree plant, in a minute.)
It may have been Reagan's sunny disposition, as much as his tough talk about communism and his intolerance of high unemployment and interest rates, that brought him to the White House in the first place. It certainly was his optimism that sustained him through an assassination attempt, a brutal tax and budget fight, summit meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev and crises in the Middle East.
Optimism is an important American trait. It's what brought settlers here in the first place, and this month's celebrations of Jamestown's 400th birthday reminded us that it sure took an optimist to think anyone could prevail in a hostile environment like early 17th-century Virginia.
Lyndon Johnson used to talk of the belief in possibility that drew Americans west - a sense of hope and optimism that led Willa Cather to write the most evocative final line of any novel written in American English: "Fortunate country, that is one day to receive hearts like Alexandra's into its bosom, to give them out again in the yellow wheat, in the rustling corn, in the shining eyes of youth!"
It was optimism that prompted Thomas Jefferson to ignore his own feelings about a continental nation (and, he feared, to ignore the Constitution itself) and embrace the limitless possibility of the Louisiana Purchase.
Abraham Lincoln proved that it is possible to suffer from depression and yet be an optimist; how else would he have summoned the genius to think, amid the horrible political fever that gripped his frightful first inaugural, that someday Americans could be "touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature." The rhetorical poetry of that sentence is in the phrase "better angels of our nature," but the moral poetry is in the phrase "as surely they will be."
Pessimists vs. optimists
The contrast between the use of optimism and pessimism in politics was on full display in the last century. The pessimists included Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter. The optimists included Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Reagan and Bill Clinton. The optimists won, hands down, even though TR once warned, in his 1907 annual message to Congress, that if optimism is "carried to an excess, it becomes foolishness."
But it was Franklin Roosevelt's optimism that allowed him to beat the Depression and the Axis powers. A pessimist would have shrunk from either challenge. So might a realist; one out of every four Americans who wanted to work was without a job when FDR became president in 1933, and Germany and Japan were in the ascendant when the United States entered World War II in 1941.
"It was that ebullience, that infectious optimism that made one young sportscaster think that maybe he should be more active as a citizen," said one speaker, referring to himself, at the 50th anniversary of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library. The man who made the comment was Ronald Reagan.
Kennedy, too, was an optimist, which is why he liked to have Frank Sinatra's "High Hopes" played as he entered campaign rallies to deliver his stump speech. The song, which at this distance seems even more inane than it did then, spoke of a silly old ram who thought he'd punch a hole in a dam ("No one could make that ram scram, he kept buttin' that dam"). Fortunately for the campaign, Sinatra recorded a special version of "High Hopes" that was sent out as a promotional 45 rpm record. It included this important insight: "Jack is on the right track/'Cause he's got high hopes." You get the idea.
But the biggest optimist of recent years surely was Reagan. For him it was always morning in America, for him there was nothing (not the fall of the Berlin Wall, not the destruction of communism, not the prospect of a world without nuclear weapons) that was too audacious to dare to imagine. His optimism won the day, and two elections, and it was a lesson that was not lost on Bill Clinton, who was naturally optimistic anyway and had a good head start by being born in Hope. Do a Google search and you'll even see the words "Clinton," "optimism" and "Cyprus" in the same sentence, which is enough to prove my point.
Why this meditation on optimism in the middle of a pessimistic time? Because we're approaching an election, and the other day Newsweek came out with a poll that said all the usual forgettable nonsense but which asked one intriguing question that caught my eye: "(T)hinking about the six major candidates in the 2008 presidential race ... would you describe any of them as optimistic?"
The winner in the optimism sweepstakes (the field was 1,001 respondents) was Sen. Barack Obama, with 51 percent. John Edwards (47 percent), Hillary Clinton (46 percent) and Rudolph Giuliani (45 percent) were bunched right behind him. This strikes me as a small nugget in the barnyard hay of campaign coverage.
A few weeks ago I argued in this space that courage was an important characteristic that Americans sought in a president (Newsweek asked the courage question, too, with Hillary Clinton winning 34 percent and Mr. Obama winning 33 percent). I still think courage is an important element of a successful candidate and, even more important, of a successful president. But optimism is important, too. Melding the two is difficult - but, given the difficulty of the job, probably essential. Watch for courage, to be sure, but watch for optimism, too. We need them both in the next president, and in ourselves.