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. Pessimism has infected the oil markets, sending oil prices surging in response to an imagined shortage of oil, when in fact there are more known reserves now than at any point in history.
Yet it is with Iraq that the world is now in most need of a Ronald Reagan. It has become received opinion in Britain, and to a lesser extent in America, that Iraq is a country in political, social and economic meltdown. Rarely do we hear the good news relayed by Amir Taheri in the Sunday Times after an extensive tour of Iraq: that 400 villages destroyed by Saddam have been rebuilt since the war, that one million Iraqi refugees have returned from Turkey and Iran, that attacks on the Iraqi police have declined by 50 per cent in the past month, that the Iraqi dinar has appreciated by 15 per cent since March. To cap it all, this week the UN Security Council voted in favour of Coalition plans for the handover of sovereignty back to Iraq, bringing an end to the rift between the world’s powers and greatly improving the chances of a peaceful period of reconstruction.
Inevitably, comparisons have been made over the past week between the Iraq war and the D-Day landings 60 years ago. This has largely been negative. Writing in the Guardian, Sidney Blumenthal, a former adviser to Bill Clinton, argues that the better parallel is between Iraq and Vietnam. On what evidence? That 800 American soldiers have been killed since the invasion. Has he not studied what actually happened on Omaha Beach, nor registered the war graves in Normandy? The loss of any soldier is a personal tragedy, but had the public been as sensitive to the deaths of soldiers as it now is, D-Day would never have been allowed to succeed. The bloody losses at Omaha Beach — far higher than expected — would have created such a mood of pessimism that there would soon have been clamours for the troops’ withdrawal.
We could do without Voltaire’s Dr Pangloss propounding his doctrine of ‘all for the best in the best of all possible worlds’ at international summits. Yet it would be no bad thing if, like the American electorate in 1980 and 1984, we could learn to recognise optimism as a valuable quality in our leaders.