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Tom West: In this campaign, look at the bright side

I took a few days off last week to visit family. The highlight of the visit came when my 90-year-old aunt brought out some scrapbooks she had been making over the years.

I took a few days off last week to visit family. The highlight of the visit came when my 90-year-old aunt brought out some scrapbooks she had been making over the years.

The scrapbooks consisted of newspaper clippings about family members beginning with my grandparents in the 1950s and continuing up to the present. My grandparents had five children, and the third generation consists of a dozen cousins, one of whom is deceased.

The articles ranged from wedding and engagement announcements, to honor roll listings, to letters to an editor, civic or athletic achievements and even a couple of photos of which the object was someone else, but a family member was in the background. (One such photo was of my uncle, acting as an M.P. in occupied Japan, standing behind the Japanese emperor, Hirohito.)

Also included, bless her soul, were several articles that I had written over the years, including some of which I had no recollection, and a few others that I wish I could forget. (The prism of time tends to warp those ideas that one once thought were unfiltered light.)

One of the former that caught my eye was a forgotten column written 25 years ago for the Mankato Free Press. Written, I suspect, not long after Jimmy Carter's famous "malaise" speech, the column discussed the push and pull of American politics. Basically, it said, the struggle of our self-government boils down to a battle between freedom and equality.

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Sometimes we opt for a little more freedom and sometimes we choose a little more equality.

The article also surmised that there was a third factor at play: optimism.

Sometimes the voters don't see much difference between candidates on the issues, or sometimes, even when there is a clear distinction, they still opt for the more optimistic candidate among the two.

Consider Franklin Roosevelt. Roosevelt was president during the Great Depression and World War II. The country could have come apart at the seams. And yet, he remained a calming influence to a nation facing much greater challenges than we do today. As FDR said, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

Photos usually depicted him with a Cheshire cat grin.

And the truth was, Roosevelt was an optimistic person. Struck down by polio in 1920, by rights his political career should have been over. His legs were all but useless. And yet, he refused to give in to the odds or the leading medical authorities. He kept exercising his body, building up his upper torso until he reached the point where he could drag himself around on crutches.

And although the media rarely showed FDR's disability through photos or newsreels, the public knew of his determination to overcome the disease. When 20 percent of the people were out of work or tens of thousands of young men were being shipped off to violent deaths, the country needed a leader who could keep hope alive, who could make most of us believe that things would soon be better.

As I said, the column was written during the Carter presidency. Still, Ronald Reagan comes to mind as another optimistic president. He became the first "Teflon president" because criticism seemed to roll off. It wasn't so much that he didn't care as that he refused to let it bother him. Democrats thought he was stupid, but he had a confidence about him that convinced everyone else to follow.

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Bill Clinton had mannerisms similar to John Kennedy, and, except for a few moral failings, most people thought he was exceptionally intelligent. It is said that when he walks in a room, the center of gravity shifts directly to him.

He had a confident swagger, but in a different, better time I wouldn't say he gave people hope that life would improve as much as he gave voters more optimism than the somewhat bumbling George H.W. Bush and the dour Bob Dole.

And that brings us to the question of re-electing George W. Bush. A couple of weeks ago, in a TV interview, Bush reminded voters that he was a war president. He said it in a way that he wished it were otherwise. Not to wish for war, but in these times we need a president who is steadfastly confident in his role on the world stage. Not surprisingly a round of catcalls rose from the Democrats in response. Folks can sense weakness, even when candidates fail to admit it directly.

In the same way, John Kerry said a couple of weeks ago that many world leaders supported him. It was not the smartest thing to say, but what came next was what really hurt him. Challenged at a town hall meeting, he turned on his questioner, attacked his motives and when the questioner persisted in knowing which world leaders supported Kerry, the best Kerry could say was, "It's none of your business."

Personally, I thought Sen. John Edwards was the best choice in the Democratic field because of his optimistic bent on things. It wasn't that his position on the issues was much different from the other candidates, but his phraseology put a brighter spin on the future.

On the Republican side, it seems as if Cheney, Rumsfeld and Colin Powell are more sure of themselves than Bush.

The greater burden always falls on those trying to oust an incumbent. The line is fine between creating differences and just being negative. Still, if Kerry can remake himself as the candidate who is the more optimistic of the two, he has a shot at defeating the president.

The sound and fury of the campaign will deafen much of both Kerry's and Bush's messages. As we move toward November, my suggestion would be to step back and literally look at the bright side of both.

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Put what you find in a scrapbook, and check back after the election. The greater optimist will win.

Tom West is the editor and publisher of the Budgeteer News. He may be reached by telephone at 723-1207 or by e-mail at tom.west@duluth.com .

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