'Opti the Mystic' Would Be Pleased
I come from a long line of rational optimists.
Against all evidence to the contrary, for instance, my old man could always find reasons to find the silver lining in any situation and believed things would invariably get better if given proper time and perspective.
My nickname for him — bestowed when I was a 13-year-old wiseguy — was “Opti the Mystic.” He used humor to make his point.
A pessimist, he once told me, is a fellow who thinks all women are bad. An optimist is one who hopes it’s true.
Opti passed on 15 years ago this month. But I thought of him and his wry one-liners for two reasons this week.
To begin with, as I write this on a rainy Thursday night at a crowded Starbucks in a college town where my wife is attending one of her weekly master’s seminars, today is the 30th anniversary of John Hinckley’s attempt to assassinate President Reagan as he was leaving the Hilton Hotel following a speech on March 30, 1981.
Four lives were irrevocably changed that afternoon — five if you count the assassin himself — but a presidency may have found its footing to a safer world.
It was raining that day in Manhattan, pouring in fact, when I grabbed a cab to LaGuardia Airport outside the University Club following a lovely two-hour lunch conversation with Morris Abrams, the first president of Brandeis University. I was hoping to make a 3 p.m. Eastern shuttle to Washington to meet a certain young woman for a supper date in Georgetown.
But traffic came to a dead stop on the Queensboro Bridge. My driver was playing a Spanish radio station when a news bulletin came on. I knew just enough words of Spanish to make out that something had happened to the president.
“Excuse me,” I said to the cabbie, tapping on his little window, “did he just say something about the president being shot?”
His head bobbed. Gum snapped. “Oh yeah, man. Some dude shot him.”
“Is he OK?”
The head swiveled. “No way, man. He’s dead. The dude shot him dead.”
I sat perfectly still for the next hour so so, tuning out the lively salsa music and watching the cold March rain, my runaway mind playing out all kinds of wild scenarios, none of them good. When I finally got out at LaGuardia, everything was eerily frozen in place.
The check-in counters were jammed with travelers going nowhere because a total ground stop had no planes moving. I wandered through the crowd into a jammed airport bar, where 300 faces were staring up at a small TV set. Secretary of State Al Haig was just addressing the press.
The crawl read: “President Reagan Assassinated.”
I tuned in just as Haig declared, “I just want to make it clear. I am in change."
“What’s happened?” I asked a guy with his necktie pulled askew. He was pale at the gills.
“I think it’s a military coup,” he said, swallowing his whiskey.
I went and found a pay phone and called my dad at his office in Greensboro.
“Dad,” I said, “in case I don’t get to see you and Mom for a while, I just want to thank you both for being such great parents.”
Unexpectedly, my old man laughed. “Relax,” he said. “Where are you, son?”
I told him I was trapped at LaGuardia Airport in New York, awaiting the end of the world.
“The world and America are both fine,” he said. “And President Reagan will be too. Go buy yourself a beer on me and call your gal in Georgetown. These trials always make us better people.”
Indeed, by the next night when I was having supper with my friend in Georgetown, Reagan was recovering nicely and even making jokes about his ordeal. “Honey,” he told his wife, “I guess I forgot to duck.”
At the time, Reagan’s popularity ratings were at a low point of his presidency. Yet within days, those ratings began a steady upward trek.
The public, it turned out, loved a guy who could find humor and critical perspective in a tragic situation.
Reagan’s cheerful optimism was a tonic to a nation that had just emerged from being held captive to Iranian revolutionaries and runaway inflation. Most historian say it probably saved his presidency and set the stage for the dramatic end of the Cold War just a few years later.
Civility Not Dead
Thirty years after that day, if you draw your conclusions and opinions strictly from television coverage of breaking events and the echo chambers of well-paid political commentators of all persuasion, you might well conclude civility is dead and Western civilization itself is teetering on the brink of extinction — that there’s no such thing as good news these days and the world has indeed gone to hell in a hand basket, or soon will, just as I foolishly concluded as a young reporter back in March 1981.
But you would be dead wrong, and there is plenty of proof that Opti was right about time and perspective. Our trials have clearly made us better people.
Did you know, for instance, that since that time, at least 20 new democracies have opened for business in countries formerly run by dictators and autocrats? Or that that the number of people living in poverty around the world has been roughly cut in half since 1990?
It’s true. Moreover, at least half a dozen diseases — scourges that plagued man since the dawn of time — have either all but disappeared or been significantly beaten back by new therapies and improved public education, including several rates of cancer.
AIDs, which reared its terrible head about 30 years ago, has actually leveled off and begun to decline owing to innovative new treatments unimagined three decades ago.
Infant mortality is down almost across the board, while declining fertility and mortality rates in general have resulted in much more stable home lives for kids in developing countries.
Despite the media-inflamed debate over undocumented workers in this country, the problem is working toward some kind of consensus. Ethnic and cultural diversity remain among our signature strengths as a nation.
Three decades ago, the unnamed Internet was little more than a theoretical spark in the minds of a handful of bright thinkers in our government and the National Science Foundation, hoping to find a better way to use evolving computer technologies to enhance commerce and trade.
In 1984, the year before the Internet was more or less born, there were 24 different wars raging on this planet. As of the moment, there are four or five major hot spots — if you care to count the despots who’ve been chased from their palaces by the youth-driven winds of an Arab spring, a spontaneous (and largely unforeseen) uprising of freedom and new ideas unleashed by that selfsame Internet. Surely there will be more to come. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad might want to grab hold of his hat.
Changing the World
Time Magazine published a wonderful article this week called “The Ten Ideas That Will Change the World — for the better,” citing how the youth movement worldwide will speed economic growth and improve the quality of life in all corners of the planet. Amid all the reports of a Taliban resurgence and Afghanistan’s fabled political corruption, for instance, a clearer picture emerging reveals a formerly backward county where one in three Afghans now own cell phones, and 6 million children regularly attend school — many of them girls. The murder rate per 1,000 in Washington, D.C., turns out to be roughly twice the death rate in current Afghanistan, and a recent poll revealed that six out of 10 Afghans hold a favorable view of the United States. The battle to win hearts and minds is clearly working.
The Time piece, which ought to be required reading in classrooms, goes on to explain how our staggering national debt is entirely fixable — if we only have the will to adopt the blueprint set down by the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and hold the spineless boobs we elect to office accountable — and how America’s global integration with the booming economies of China and India is not the threat popularly conveyed by some merchants of doom — but may actually mean a harvest of new jobs and opportunities in the near future.
Americans, meanwhile, are starting news businesses at a record clip and finding novel ways to share resources that ultimately preserve our planet’s threatened environment by applying tested business practices to everything from growing vegetables to fundraising for charitable causes.
Finally, Time’s cover story offers a powerful meditation on the seemingly incomprehensible trials of modern Japan and how the inspiring resilience and calm civility of its people in the aftermath of a triple-dose disaster involving a record earthquake, tsunami and nuclear emergency — there has been no looting or rioting and countless reports of people going to extraordinary lengths to help their neighbors — will not only reawaken the country and make it an even better place, but perhaps serve as a working model for others facing national crisis on an Apocalyptic scale.
Will the world end anytime soon? Probably not, though the earth will violently shake in some form or another someplace today or tomorrow.
As I sat in Starbucks the other night waiting for my wife to finish her class, watching college kids text messages to friends or loved ones, and an old couple sit touching knees and laughing about something one of them had just found on a laptop, connecting with a wide world and each other that people could only dream about 30 years ago, I couldn’t help but think how pleased — and rationally optimistic — Opti the Mystic would be.
Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist for The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
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