June 8, 2004

Optimism overload.

The massive news coverage of Ronald Reagan's death is understandable and not inappropriate, but is it necessary to talk about optimism every ten seconds? Personally, I love optimism and am optimistic, but every time I turn on the television, someone's talking about Reagan's optimism. It's enough to make you want to start saying cynical things. I see Christopher Hitchens is doing his part. And Mickey Kaus relays comments of his readers about how Reagan didn't seem too sunny when he appeared on the political scene in the 1960s. I was a college student when Reagan was the governor of California, and I vividly remember how my peers saw Ronald Reagan in those days, when he would appear on TV denouncing the student demonstrators of the era. He seemed scarily nasty to us, then. Kaus offers three possible explanations for why Reagan's image changed so much:
1) The Sixties--you'd be feisty and defensive too if you were a conservative running in the Summer of Love, with the left visibly ascendant and hippies running amok, etc. 2) You almost have to maximize your likability* if you are running a national political campaign, as Reagan was from the mid-1970s on; 3) Everybody seems nastier and more Jack Webb-like in old TV and radio clips, including the reporters. Edward R. Murrow, what an a-----e! And that grumpy old Mr. Cronkite. People just presented themselves differently in public then. More Humphrey Bogartish and Gary Cooperesque. Today everyone you see on TV is coached to be "happy to be here" and nobody laughs at Washington Week's Jeff Birnbaum forcing himself to grin like a raver on Ecstasy. The median has shifted dramatically niceward--but Reagan was genial back then, by the standards of the day. ...

Well, Kaus is right that people spoke differently on TV back then. I've noticed that they spoke much faster and included many more specific facts along the way. Were they a lot less genial? Look at old clips of Hubert Humphrey. (I recommend this.) He was the source of many jokes for being overly happy and ebullient. And he doesn't seem abnormal by today's standards. And as late as 1976, smiling a lot seemed a bit weird: Jimmy Carter was the example of that. Bob Dole carried on the Bogartish attitude into the 90s--and, I guess, it's easy to see how people found Bill Clinton so much more appealing. But, in my opinion, Reagan really did redo his demeanor. I'd like to see some of the old clips of Reagan scolding the student demonstrators that disturbed us so much in the 1960s. Maybe it wouldn't seem so bad now. But it seemed really bad then.

That asterisk in explanation #1 relates to John Kerry, and the post above the "transit of meanness" one examines Kerry's attempts to seem optimistic (because free-flowing optimism appears to have become a requirement for the presidency). Kaus makes fun of Kerry's hopelessly dreary speaking voice and asks: "Isn't it better to lower expectations in the Cheering Optimism department and focus on a nuts-and-bolts, no-BS jockish competence?" I agree that the candidate (unless he has unusual vocal skills like Reagan's) shouldn't try very much to change his speech. It will sound fake. And I think Kerry is most likely to grow on us if he doesn't try very hard. Don't talk to me, just be there--a sane, competent, good person. As for optimism: it's not instilled by looking cheerful and making assertions of positivity. Remember that the most damaging images of Nixon were the ones with the awkward grin, and that Nixon won the presidency after his aides hit upon the idea: "let Nixon be Nixon." So, let Kerry be Kerry.

There has been way too much banal optimism this past week. It's mindless, and it causes a backlash of cynicism. In fact, one of the things that makes me feel optimistic is the way people react with cynicism when they are fed too much optimism by politicians.

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