Reagan’s gift to America: Optimism

Reagan's gift to America: Optimism by the Plain Talk Remember what America was like before Ronald Reagan was elected president?

Remember the double digit inflation? The Iran hostage crisis? The long lines at gas pumps?

It wasn't exactly the best of times.

On June 30, 1979, a weary Jimmy Carter was looking forward to a few days' vacation in Hawaii, as Air Force One sped him away from a grueling economic summit in Tokyo.

Aboard the plane, the phone rang. It was Carter's pollster, Patrick Caddell. "I remember getting on the phone and saying, 'You people have got to come home now,'" Caddell recalls. "We were all saying the same thing: 'You have no idea how bad it is here.'"

That week, the OPEC oil producers' cartel had recently announced another in a series of oil price increases that sent gasoline prices skyrocketing and led to severe shortages. Long gas-pump lines and short tempers started in California and spread eastward, focusing Americans' outrage over a seemingly endless economic decline.

Much of that anger was directed at the White House: Carter's approval rating had dropped to 25 percent, lower than Richard Nixon's during the Watergate scandal.

Carter canceled his vacation and retreated to Camp David, where, for more than a week, dozens of prominent Americans � members of Congress, governors, labor leaders, academics and clergy � were summoned to confer with the beleaguered president.

At the heart of the internal debate over the administration's future was a memo by Caddell, Carter's pollster and resident "deep thinker."

"What was really disturbing to me," he remembered, "was for the first time, we actually got numbers where people no longer believed that the future of America was going to be as good as it was now. And that really shook me, because it was so at odds with the American character." Caddell argued that after 15 years filled with assassinations, Vietnam, Watergate, and a declining economy, Americans were suffering from a general "crisis of confidence." Address this fundamental problem, he told the president, inspire the country to overcome it, and you will turn your presidency around.

So President Carter spoke to the American people on July 15, 1979. It's probably one of the most memorable speeches he made during his presidency � not because of its oratory, or because it worked.

Carter, in fact, used what historians commonly call his "malaise" speech to admonish the American people. Too many of us, he said, worshiped "self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns."

The speech only made things worse for Carter.

A little more than a year later, Ronald Reagan defeated Carter by offering Americans a vision that was as optimistic as Carter's was pessimistic.

Reagan was an optimist. The important question is why.

Reagan was optimistic because he was confident. He was confident because he knew what he believed was true. Good and evil exist. The individual trumps the collective. Our rights are God-given, not government given. And an America committed to these truths would overcome any obstacle.

He was convinced that truth had a power beyond any individual and that it would ultimately prevail. More importantly he was deeply convinced that liberty could never make peace with tyranny.

We could never compromise with evil but we must call it what it is and fight against it until it is vanquished. Reagan's optimism was founded on truth, on character, and ultimately on a sense of wisdom we too easily believed he lacked.

Twenty years ago President Reagan's critics saw his optimism as the by-product of a naive, unsophisticated, 'aw-shucks' world view.

Many credited Reagan's sunny disposition to an irrational denial of reality, which was caused by his dogmatic and outdated beliefs.

History has taught us that the word malaise wasn't in Reagan's vocabulary. The result? Our defenses were strengthened. A conservative movement that thrives today swept the land. The Cold War ended.

When Reagan ran against Carter for the presidency, he asked us to ask ourselves, "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"

Today, we need to rephrase that question. Are we better off today because of Reagan's presidency?

No one needs to tell you the answer. You already know.

The Vermillion Plain Talk editorials reflect the opinion of Plain Talk editor David Lias. You may contact him at

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