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An Optimist to the Bone

12/31/2007 04:23 pm 16:23:26 | Updated May 25, 2011

New Year's is about optimism, just as July Fourth is about patriotism and Thanksgiving, gratitude. Optimism is sometimes hardest to muster up. It isn't based on experience; indeed, it's how we endure despite everything that happens to us.

Survival skills are learned. The will to survive comes from a deeper place and entails much disregarding of facts. Janus gazes on past and future but the real motto of the day is 'don't look back.'

It's why resolutions are more popular than year-end reviews, including news reviews. I've no stomach for leafing through 'the year in pictures.' I'd rather picture the year ahead. Forced to toast the old year, I'd go on about war, assassins and the venality of politics and wind up sounding like Brando's Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. It's why we toast the new year, not the old.

2007 is a case in point. Benazir Bhutto's murder cast a shadow over the world. It betrays America's narcissism that the questions we asked are what to tell Pakistan to do about it and how it will affect the Iowa caucuses. Five years into Iraq and Afghanistan we still don't get that meddling in other people's politics is both futile and undemocratic or that democracy and non-violence must be modeled, never imposed.

On the election front, John McCain finished the year on an upswing, less for his strengths than others' weaknesses. Former front-runner Rudy Giuliani is tanking like a guy thrown in the East River in cement shoes, to pick a random analogy. You wouldn't believe Mitt Romney if he told you his blood type while lying on an operating table. Fred Thompson has audiences wondering how he made a living as an actor. Ron Paul's a novelty act and even I don't know who Duncan Hunter is.

That leaves McCain and Huckabee. Their appeal is their willingness to say things that don't spring directly from a pollster's forehead. Huckabee lent a rare dollop of humanity to debates when he chided opponents for being unloving. Almost everything he's said since shows less character. McCain says lots of stuff he doesn't believe but with a pained look that says at least he's not lying to himself. It's what passes in these times for integrity.

On the Democratic side Clinton is for 'experience,' Obama is for 'change' and Edwards is for 'standing up to special interests.' More concretely, Dennis Kucinich is for single payer health care but it may not help him much; caucus voters aren't sticklers for specificity.

Pundits say Bhutto's assassination gives Clinton an edge due to her experience. I'm sure it will, unless someone notices that Clinton, Obama and Edwards have about five years of foreign policy experience among them, while Dodd, Biden and Richardson have nearly a century. It may not help them; caucus voters care about experience but only as a theme.

Discouraged? Surveying all this dismal scene I remain optimistic to my bones. I find myself lately thinking back 40 years to 1968 and the horrible assassinations, the horrible, endless war and the horrible wrong turn the nation took. No one guessed when Nixon won we'd fallen down a rabbit hole we'd be 40 years climbing out of. In 2008 I know we can.

America isn't meant to be a backwater. Health care, clean energy and a nation at peace are the unfinished business of a generation that with a little help can still be great. we may not have a Martin Luther King or Robert Kennedy, but then again such leaders don't always announce themselves.

In 1932, Walter Lippman belittled FDR as a shallow, gossipy underachiever without a vision. He had him just right, missing only the extraordinary core that made him perhaps the one man who could lead us out of a depression and through a war.

We pray that next year's winner is secretly Franklin Roosevelt but we resolve to do all we can do to create the conditions for change. And we remember the words of the Talmud: 'Look ahead. You are not required to complete the task; neither are you permitted to lay it down."