The bad news of the day sometimes tempts us to despair. It is easy to
be cynical when you see Bill Clinton in the White House, when our
leaders in Congress disappoint us, when the nation’s security is
routinely compromised. The forces working against America sometimes
appear unstoppable. But despair is a sin and cynicism is a false point
My old Webster’s dictionary describes the cynical outlook as, “Given
to contemptuous disbelief in men’s sincerity of motives or rectitude of
Certainly there are bad individuals, and we should be careful of
them. But everybody isn’t corrupt and rotten. There are many wonderful
people in America, even though these people may not agree on the time of
day. The thing that is most surprising about Americans, which the great
sociologists never understood, is our spirit of independence, our
optimism and our faith.
This isn’t to deny the damage done by big government and big
business. Yes, there has been some erosion. But if you go to New York
the “can do” Yankee spirit continues to thrive. If you go to Texas,
hospitality and local patriotism are evident. In Minnesota you find the
people are friendly and
helpful. Common sense remains common in Chicago. We are still a nation
that works, a nation that builds and creates. And whatever our problems,
the world is still following our lead.
A friend of mine, whose father was a fighter pilot in the Second
World War, once asked his mother how she felt when the Japanese bombed
Pearl Harbor. He was amazed by her answer. “We all knew America was
going to win.”
With eight battleships crippled or sunk, and an army hopelessly cut
off in the Philippines, how could they have felt such confidence?
There are many countries where cynicism and despair have become
cultural forces, subtle and destructive. Because we are blessed with
past success and happiness, we have an optimism which emboldens us to
attempt things, to strike out on our own. We are not afraid to try.
President Kennedy said we would put a man on the moon within a certain
time frame — and we did.
More than 22 years ago I was a college freshman. At the time it was
fashionable to suggest that the world was running out of resources and
would eventually be depleted. The word being used, as I recall, was
“entropy.” Because of impending scarcity, the world allegedly faced a
future of poverty, war and death. Every day, after class, I worked in a
garage with a 58-year-old mechanic, a veteran of the Second Armored
Division in World War II. I wondered what he thought about the coming
scarcity. He didn’t believe in it. “Except for a few pieces of equipment
we left on the moon,” he said,
“everything is still right here on earth.”
He was a working man, born and raised in Chicago during the Great
Depression. To him the world was filled with possibilities. For him
every cloud had its silver lining. A world of scarcity? Humbug! And now,
22 years later, his words return to me.
America has a special resource which can be found among those in
their 70s and 80s. It is true that our culture has suffered a severe
setback in the last 50 years, but some things have been preserved
because of the time children spend with their parents and grandparents.
Sometimes older people imagine that the young don’t listen to them.
And that is partially true. Younger people don’t have the life
experience to fully appreciate words of wisdom from a parent or
grandparent. However, as we move through life the words of a father or
grandfather suddenly return. It is amazing how parental ideas — somehow
ignored at the time of their utterance — come back to us. And then they
However vulnerable and unprepared for life the young of today may
seem to those who lived through the Great Depression and World War II,
America’s children and young adults are yet fertile ground for words of
wisdom. Once a seed is planted, it takes on a life of its own. It takes
root and it grows. It may not come into play for years. But in an hour
of crisis, in a moment of pain, the words return. And they provide
comfort as well as guidance. The relationship of the old to the young is
one of the most vital and important for any country. Our nation is not
merely a community within a
shared space and time, but a community that stretches backwards and
forwards in time.
Through our grandfathers we absorb subtle influences which tell us
who we are and where we’re going.
Many today are worried about the assault on our Constitution, on our
liberties and on our traditional moral values. Whatever has been
destroyed, whatever has been lost, there is something deeper in us that
has been preserved. It has been passed on — despite the obstacles —
from one generation to another. It is being passed on right now, on this
very day. What is being transmitted is something more fundamental than
our written Constitution. It has more power than the federal government
in Washington. I am referring to the love of freedom that remains in
Colonel Stanislav Lunev told me that he once underrated Americans.
He did not think we were fighters. (In his profession — as a spy for
the GRU — it was easy to think that Americans are stupid.) Perhaps this
was because America retreated so often during the Cold War. At any rate,
Lunev had a
false impression of Americans. But when he was sent to Washington on
assignment he met many Americans up close and he quickly realized that
we have something special.
Sometimes a weakness is also a strength. There is a kind of arrogance
and sense of invincibility in Americans which is not altogether good. It
has been said that we are open-hearted, generous and naive. At the same
time, there is a certain strength in a self regard that attaches to
We are optimistic rather than pessimistic. And it has been said that
nothing is possible for a pessimist, while nothing is impossible for an
optimist. And isn’t it more noble to be naively trusting than to be
These good traits, which are said to belong to us as a nation, also
exist in the context of a freethinking population that criticizes its
leaders without causing the breakdown of the system. This in itself is
remarkable. It is part of our intellectual and political heritage.
Even our leftists and socialists — I dare say — cannot quite shake
their American contrariness. When I was in New York in the first half of
July I happened to read the Village Voice and other left-leaning media,
and their attacks on Hillary Clinton were as hard-hitting as anything
I’d read in
conservative magazines. They openly referred to the first lady as a
“carpetbagger,” and they didn’t mince words about her overnight success
in cattle futures.
Whatever crisis may come, the American people love their freedom. It
may frequently appear that Americans have come to prefer safety and
security, but that is an illusion of the moment. Take a good hard look
at the people you know. Would they sit idle if their cars and guns —
the very artifacts of freedom — were taken from them by Bill Clinton
and Al Gore?
I don’t think so.