Optimism for the new year

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(Host) Commentator Olin Robison draws lessons of optimism from U.S. history.

(Robison) I’m an almost incurable optimist. But even optimists sometimes have a hard time finding the silver lining and, from my perspective, we are in such a time. I invite you along on a short historical search for perspective all, of course, meant to enhance that search for a silver lining.

In January 1943, we were in the middle of World War II. The Normandy invasion was yet eighteen months away. It was the largest amphibious force in history and they went ashore on the northwestern shore of France against well-entrenched German positions. The casualty rates were mind-numbing.

Fifty years ago today, Dwight D. Eisenhower was about to be sworn in as president. The Cold War had become a reality and at home a grim chapter of U.S. history was beginning to unfold under the paranoid tyranny of one Joseph McCarthy.

Forty years ago this week, John F. Kennedy was about begin the third year of his presidency. The United States was already bogged down in an anti-communist war in Southeast Asia with the worst of Vietnam, assassinations, and general disorder at home yet ahead.

Thirty years ago this week, Richard Nixon was about to be sworn in for his second term as president. The Watergate drama was yet to come.

Twenty-five years ago this week Jimmy Carter was president and, despite the healing of the national psyche that had accompanied his election, there was great unease in the land. The relationship with the Soviet Union was as cold as a Russian winter, and domestically the U.S. was headed into a time of appallingly high interest rates and economic uncertainty.

But then twenty years ago right now, Ronald Reagan was president and he told us that it was morning in America. He told us that it was possible to have low taxes, expanded defense expenditures and a balance budget. He got two out of three and he simply blamed the Democratic Congress for the fact that the national debt trebled.

Ten years ago right now Bill Clinton had not yet been sworn in as president. The Berlin Wall had come down, the Soviet Union had collapsed, and domestically the country was about to embark on an amazing roller coaster ride during which the United States would become more politically polarized than at any time in living memory.

Five years ago this week, Bill Clinton was in his second term and the entire Monica Lewinsky business lay immediately ahead. The political polarization got even worse. But the stock markets were marching to a different drummer. In January 1998 the Dow was halfway to an eventual high of 11,000 and the NASDAQ was halfway to 5,000.

Two yeas ago today the country was in the aftermath of a bitterly disputed election that had produced George W. Bush as president elect.

One year ago, we were in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

And so here we are January of 2003. There are clouds on virtually every horizon. The message for besieged optimists, I believe, is that one’s faith is best placed in resilience, both globally and at home, but especially at home. Just look back and consider how resilient the country has been. The other options are either pessimism or indifference, neither of which is worthy of a proud and accomplished nation. And so Happy New Year, everyone with optimism of course.

This is Olin Robison.

Olin Robison is president of the Salzburg Seminar, located in Middlebury, Vermont and Salzburg, Austria.

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