Shribman: Hope rides on optimism in the new year

Theodore Roosevelt's official White House portrait, by John Singer Sargent

New year, new president, new prospects, new attitude.

At least that is the hope, a resource that Americans from Emily Dickinson (who wrote during the depths of the Civil War that hope was "the thing with feathers -- that perches in the soul") to Bill Clinton (who in his 1992 Democratic nomination acceptance speech spoke of his Arkansas hometown and said, "I still believe in a place called Hope") have summoned to approach a difficult and dangerous world.

Now, with vaccines heading to the drugstore, with a new Congress and president taking power, and with the darkest day of the winter 10 days in the past, there is reason to feel a fresh sense of optimism. And optimism is more than a feeling. It is a tool.

That tool has been harnessed by American presidents who faced grave crises, from Abraham Lincoln (speaking of the "better angels of our nature") to Franklin Roosevelt (who said the nation only feared "fear itself") to Ronald Reagan (who campaigned on the notion of "morning in America"). It is no coincidence that these presidents occupy three of the top nine positions in the latest poll of presidential historians.

Two of the others in that top rank provide case studies worthy of attention from Joseph. R. Biden Jr., who in less than three weeks becomes the nation's 46th president.

One of them is Theodore Roosevelt, whose passage to the White House provides us with a lesson in the virtue of optimism as a presidential attribute.

He took office after the assassination of William McKinley in Buffalo, a dark moment in the country's history. In his first State of the Union Address, he spoke of being in "the shadow of a great calamity" and added ominously: "When we turn from the man to the nation, the harm done is so great as to excite our gravest apprehensions and to demand our wisest and most resolute action."

And yet a year later, TR, fueled with optimism, acknowledged that there were "many problems for us to face at the outset of the 20th century -- grave problems abroad and still graver at home." Then he swiftly added: "But we know that we can solve them and solve them well, provided only that we bring to the solution the qualities of head and heart which were shown by the men who, in the days of Washington, rounded this Government, and, in the days of Lincoln, preserved it."

Now let's skip ahead to the case of Dwight D. Eisenhower, dismissed at the end of his administration as little more than a genial golfer but now ranked as a top-10 president, in part because of how he steered the country through chilly Cold War waters and in part because of how he used optimism as a leadership tool. Though he was, as the great presidential scholar James David Barber wrote nearly a half-century ago, "often irritable and depressed," he "often displayed optimism; he was certainly no Gloomy Gus in the White House."

Indeed, Robert F. Bruner, dean emeritus of the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia and a student of presidential leadership, argued that "Eisenhower's warmth and optimism were instruments of his political influence." He wrote a scholarly paper on the power of "Eisenhower's smile" in the White House.

Donald J. Trump, whose smile was seldom seen during his presidency, was not exactly an avatar of optimism in the White House. But not all presidents were.

John Adams was optimistic as a revolutionary, writing his wife, Abigail, the day after the promulgation of the Declaration of Independence, "[T]hrough all the Gloom, I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory." But that didn't last. The great historian Gordon S. Wood wrote that soon thereafter, "whatever optimism Adams had had for the refinement of the American character was gone."

Woodrow Wilson was an idealist but not really an optimist, which is why he set out Fourteen Points; he wasn't optimistic that nation-states would behave properly without guide rails -- which is one way to define liberalism. John F. Kennedy, too, was an idealist, but he found little in his presidency except Project Mercury to be optimistic about; the race question, which he addressed directly only late in his presidency, showed little reason for optimism, and he faced serious challenges in Cuba, Berlin, Laos and Vietnam.

Sometimes optimism can be a form of denial. It surely was for Herbert Hoover, who said in November 1929, as the Great Depression gathered force, that "any lack of confidence in the economic future or the basic strength of business in the United States is foolish." In May 1930, he reported: "While the crash only took place six months ago, I am convinced we have now passed the worst and with continued unity of effort we shall rapidly recover." He was wrong both times, like Mr. Trump when he sought at the outset of the COVID pandemic to argue that it would swiftly disappear.

Now the country looks to Mr. Biden, whose optimism seems encapsulated in his frequent assertion that "We're Americans." That is a shorthand politicians employ to refer to the can-do American spirit that tamed a continent, won two world wars and, through the tinkering of imaginative prairie pioneers and the insights of garage high-tech visionaries, built an economic powerhouse.

But the "We're Americans" talisman goes only so far, sufficient perhaps on the stump in the primaries. Real optimism requires substantially more: Gen. Eisenhower's smile, Mr. Reagan's upbeat countenance, perhaps the optimism in Romans 8:18: "For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us."

Theodore Roosevelt, described by University of Virginia political scientist Sidney Milkis as "the first modern president of the United States," today is criticized for primitive views on race, promiscuous use of executive orders and an assertive foreign policy that bordered on ethnic chauvinism. But he also was a master of optimism. In his second State of the Union Address, he said the following:

"Ours is not the creed of the weakling and the coward; ours is the gospel of hope and of triumphant endeavor. We do not shrink from the struggle before us."

Words to quote. Words to live by. Words Mr. Biden needs to add to, in his own voice, for our own time.

North Shore native and Pulitzer Prize winner David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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