Magazine article The Spectator

Victory for Optimism

Magazine article The Spectator

Victory for Optimism

Article excerpt

On the day that Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as the 40th President of the United States in 1981, superstitious observers believed his fate was determined. Since 1840, they pointed out, every president who had been first elected in a year ending with a zero had died while in office, from William Harrison, who caught a fatal chill on his own inauguration day in 1841, to John F. Kennedy. Ronald Reagan, in spite of rumours that he ran the country according to Nancy's reading of the horoscopes, was unfazed by the jinx. He was to shrug off a near-successful assassination attempt and intestinal cancer not only to survive his eight years in office, but to live to an age which few of his critics will see.

Optimism is an underrated and an increasingly rare quality among our leaders. Tony Blair's grin conceals a brooding man who has sought support for anti-terrorism legislation by instilling fear of imminent Armageddon. Even admirers of Lady Thatcher, among whom we count ourselves, would hardly claim that she brightened the skies wherever she ventured. But Ronald Reagan brought his native optimism to the job of president and fine-tuned it into a formidable political tool. Occasionally, it did him harm. His quip about soaring government debt, 'I am not worried about the deficit; it is big enough to look after itself, was worthy of Marie Antoinette; the recession which followed the Reagan years helped to scupper the re-election chances of his successor, the first George Bush.

Yet Ronald Reagan's focus on favourable rather than negative outcomes played an important role in the West's peaceful victory in the Cold War. He calculated that the Soviet Union would have no strategy to counter the development of an American anti-missile defence system and that economic failure in the Soviet Union would lead to its own implosion, and he was right. His presidency began with the Left solemnly condemning his 'dangerous' foreign policy. Even Mrs Thatcher's young government seemed to fall for the prevailing mood of pessimism, distributing to households the infamously useless leaflet 'Protect and Survive', which advised citizens to dive under the kitchen table as soon as they heard the five-minute warning. Eight years of handshakes and arms talks later, Mr Reagan left office to a mood of unparalleled optimism so bright that the world's doomsters were obliged to forget briefly about nuclear war and begin to warn us of meteorological Armageddon instead.

It is not just our politicians who are guilty of spreading gloom. Great media careers are founded on it. The scientific establishment seems unable to tolerate anything else: when Michael Holick, professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine, dared to suggest last week that eight minutes of exposure to the sun every day might actually do us good, he was condemned by his colleagues for challenging the official line that we are all going to die of skin cancer provoked by man's erosion of the ozone layer. …

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