One of the shrewdest American politicians I both know and like, a man who has actually managed Republican presidential campaigns, was openly discouraged after the first debate between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump. "It's all about him. (Trump) has a belief that this campaign is about him," he lamented.
Like every savvy politician, my Republican friend knows that successful presidential campaigns, of the kind that will enable the winner to lead the nation, are about the voters — about their hopes, their lives and their country — not about the candidate.
Take the discussion at the Hofstra debate about the United States' invasion and occupation of Iraq. Candidate Trump used all his allotted time to push a discredited argument about how he, then a New York real estate mogul, in off-air 2002 conversations with Fox News' Sean Hannity, had personally opposed our going to war in Iraq. Did Trump, in his answer, ever mention the sacrifice, the suffering and the courage of the 2.8 million Americans who, many on multiple tours, have served in that war-torn zone? No. Nor did he choose to honor any of the 6,890 American service members whose lives have been lost over the past 15 years in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Iraq War, you see, was actually about Donald Trump.
Asked by Fox News' Megyn Kelly to name the most recent book he had read, Trump answered: "I read passages. I read areas, chapters. I don't have the time." If he does find the time, I suggest he look at Herbert Hoover's memoirs, in which the man whose own perceived pessimism in the White House may have further darkened the national mood during the Great Depression wrote, "Unless the President remains cheerful and optimistic he becomes a depressant."
Memorable American presidents — from the man who defeated Hoover, the irrepressible Franklin D. Roosevelt, with his "Happy Days Are Here Again" campaign song, to John F. Kennedy and his challenge to "ask not what your country can do for you (but) what you can do for your country" to Ronald Reagan and his enduring vision of a "shining city upon a hill" to Barack Obama and his call to "hope and change" — have connected with America's native optimism. FDR's buoyancy almost certainly helped the nation survive the ravages of the Depression.
History justifies American optimism. The nation confronted and prevailed over — after the spilling of blood and the spending of treasure — monarchy, fascism and communism. There are, at last count — thanks in considerable part to U.S. leadership — 123 democracies in the world. Thanks to the Clean Air Act, lead levels in the air our children breathe have been reduced by 99 percent and our cars are 90 percent cleaner than they were in 1970, which means a healthier country. Mercury emissions, which put at risk our children's development, have been cut by 75 percent. In the past quarter-century, 1 billion people in the developing world have been lifted out of extreme poverty. Life expectancy has increased by 23 years since 1950. Child mortality has been cut by one-half. Not surprisingly, a strong majority of Americans now tell the Gallup Poll they believe that today's young people will have better lives than their parents have.
So Donald Trump's portrait of a United States that "loses" all the time and is misled by "losers" is at odds not only with native American optimism but with reality, as well. We are a nation with real problems but with a proven record of overcoming problems — from slavery and discrimination to tyranny — and we know that optimism is the parent of confidence and confidence has made America.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.