Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Happy days will be here again

In the second act of Annie, after hearing Little Orphan Annie sing “Tomorrow” to his Cabinet, Franklin Roosevelt says that he has decided that “if my administration’s going to be anything, it’s going to be optimistic about the future of this country.”

That is the characteristic American tone. We don’t want to levy confiscatory taxes on the super-rich, because we know that we ourselves are on the brink of winning PowerBall or Mega Millions. Or we’re going to star in a hugely successful reality show or win on American Idol or play for the NBA.

Optimism is the winning tactic in American politics. FDR understood this, mainly. When he tried to punish his enemies, as in the court-packing effort, it backfired. When he conveyed buoyancy and optimism, he prevailed. The most successful Republican presidents of the past half-century, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, radiated genial optimism.

While it would be presumptuous of me to offer advice to Ms. Palin or Senator McConnell or the other worthies opposed to the incumbent administration, I would point out that anger and resentment go only so far in America. Lord knows there are ample reasons for the public to be angry. (Hey, I’ve been out of a job for the past ten months. You think I leap out of bed every morning with a smile on my lips and a song in my heart?) But harnessing that anger is not necessarily a winning proposition.

In recent years, Ross Perot tapped into populist sentiment, but got only so far. (OK, people, on where I put only this time? Sheesh.) Perhaps more resonantly, George Wallace campaigned on the politics of resentment against bureaucrats and plutocrats and people with expensive private educations. He rode a swell of anger, but it ebbed. And, of course, the godfather of the politics of resentment, Richard Nixon, may not be the best example to emulate.

Channeling Pollyanna won’t work — as Hubert Humphrey’s sad “politics of joy” campaign in 1968 showed — but if you want to reach the top in American politics, the best bet is to foster encouragement and hopefulness among the citizenry.

For an example of that native optimism, you can mark your calendars for the Memorial Players’ production of Annie at Memorial Episcopal Church, Bolton Street and Lafayette Avenue in Baltimore’s Bolton Hill neighborhood. Performances will be offered on Friday evenings, April 23 and April 30, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday evenings, April 24 and May 1, at 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday matinees, April 25 and May 2, at 3:00 p.m. (Lost among the more impressive members of the cast, you will find me in the role of FDR.)

There are no tickets. Admission is free, but you will almost surely be moved to make a generous contribution toward the costs of the production.


  1. Oh, I'd LOVE to go, I'd LOVE to look at and listen to that FDR, I'd LOVE to make a contribution... but Buenos Aires is too far from everything.

    I'm sad, indeed. And resentful at being unable to participate. Yes. And I'm not happy. No. So, John, please, don't tell me how to feel.

    [Thank you! You'll be the best actor, for sure! :)].

  2. It's said that pessimists are never disappointed, but that's malarkey. Pessimists are disappointed before the fact. They are disappointed today with tomorrow's weather, which may, in fact, turn out to be beautiful. It's hard to say which is a bigger pain in the ass, an optimist or a pessimist, but I'd rather be, and vote for, an optimist.

    Break a leg.

  3. The same day you run this column I see this similar argument by the Post-Gazette's Reg Henry: