I shall say where I stand, although it is probably not necessary. I am a pessimist. I believe, as I have mentioned, that I was wired that way from birth.
The Pessimists are my team. That’s who I root for. Not enthusiastically. Because I’m a pessimist. We are not cheerleaders, incapable of asserting that “We shall prevail”, because how could we possibly know that? What if we don’t prevail? There goes our credibility, right out the window.
When I chronicle “Optimists Throughout History”, I shall not be unbiased. You can count on it. I will instead be “cherry picking”, selecting subjectively, my intent not to disparage the optimists, but to more accurately balance the books. Optimists have great P.R. You rarely hear about the ones who messed up.
Have optimists done good things? Of course, they have. It was certainly some optimist who said, “Heck yeah, we can blast a hole through the Rocky Mountains so that the trains can run through.” I can also hear some pessimist at that time saying, “The Rockies? Those are really thick mountains. Maybe we should reroute around them.”
The optimist won the debate and “Presto-Change-o!” – there were tunnels blasted through the Rockies. Honoring such an achievement, any fair-minded pessimist must respectfully tip their (railroad) caps to the optimists. Their insistent naysaying fortunately ignored, pessimists are riding on those trains today. Except for some intellectual purists who would consider such behavior hypocritical.
“Travel through tunnels we insisted could never be built? That just feels wrong.”
So yeah, optimists have accomplished great feats that pessimists would have argued the world out of. But the pessimist perspective has nothing to be ashamed of. For example, in 2002, a pessimist president of the United States would likely have said, “Should we really invade a country we believe have Weapons of Mass Destruction unless we are dead certain they actually have Weapons of Mass Destruction?” It is difficult to believe that a pessimist president would have behaved like an optimist president behaved. Of course, no such president would ever be elected.
“Pomerantz for President: He’s not Sure about Anything.”
Speaking of presidents, my first example of “Optimists Throughout History” –
William Henry Harrison.
William Henry Harrison was the ninth President of the United States. When Harrison took office, he was sixty-eight years old, and he wanted to demonstrate to the electorate that, despite his advancing years, he was incontrovertibly up to the challenge, so he refused wear an overcoat or hat or ride in a closed coach during Inauguration Day.
A month later he was dead, the direct result, many believe, of a cold he had contracted as a result of that behavior. (Pessimists believe that. Optimists believe it was a coincidence.)
I know fifteen pages’ worth of Wikipedia material about William Henry Harrison and that’s it. But I’m guessing, since he accepted the nomination and was successfully elected, that he was an optimist. (I was once nominated for Class President in Tenth Grade, and I declined.)
Harrison’s congenital optimism explains why the following imagined conversation might very well have taken place.
INAUGUATION DAY: MRS. HARRISON CATCHES HUSBAND WILLIAM HENRY SNEAKING OUT THE DOOR.
MRS. HARRISON: William Henry Harrison, you come right back here!
WILLIAM HENRY HARRISON STEPS BACK INSIDE.
WILLIAM HENRY HARRISON: What!
MRS. H: Just where do you think you are going?
WHH: I am going to be sworn in and make my speech!
MRS. H: Like that?
WHH: What do you mean, “Like that”? You act like I’ve forgotten my britches.
MRS. H: Do you want to catch your death of cold, going outside without an overcoat and a hat?
WHH: Oh, pshaw!
MRS. H: Don’t you dare “pshaw” me, Mr. “Big Shot” President-Elect!
WWH: Now, Mother…
MRS. H: And don’t call me Mother. My name is Anna.
WHH: … Now, Anna. In my time, I have prevailed against the British and the Indians. It is a sure bet Mr. Tecumseh will not be attending today’s ceremonies. (WINKS)
MRS. H: Because he died in the battle you fought against him – I get it. Be reasoanble, William. The weather is atrocious, and you are no longer a young man.
WHH: Which is precisely why I must appear coatless and hatless – to show the electorate that they did not put a doddering sexagenarian in the White House.
MRS. H: Why, William! We’ve had ten children!
WHH: It means a man in his sixties.
MRS. H: Oh, well if they’d allowed women to be educated, I’d have known that. All right then. I believe this is damn fool behavior. But at least you’ll be riding in a closed coach.
WHH: I cancelled it.
MRS. H: You what?!?
WHH: I shall be arriving on horseback. As befits a former general, and an indomitable leader of men.
MRS. H: Be reasonable, William. You are sixty-eight years old. And the life expectancy is thirty-seven.
WHH: That includes women who died in childbirth. My heart grieves for them, but they brought down the number. I am sorry, Anna, but my mind is made up.
MRS. H: Is there nothing I can do to persuade you to change your mind?
WHH: Nope. They are expecting a robust president, and a robust president they shall see!
MRS H: Well, thank heavens your Inaugural Address is not too long.
WHH: (PROUDLY) Two hours plus.
(The longest inaugural address of all time.)
(The longest inaugural address of all time.)
MRS. H: Oh, William! Why!
WHH: I want the people to know that I am not the backwoods hayseed I led them to believe I was when I was campaigning. I want them to see me as the cultivated thinker that I actually am.
MRS. H: But I thought Daniel Webster edited your speech down!
WHH: I put everything back in, including the fifteen allusions to the Roman Empire. Come on, Anna.
You tell me to be reasonable? I just defeated a sitting president. If I were reasonable, we'd be living back in Ohio. Instead, we are moving into the White House. Yippee!
MRS. H: Let me get this straight. William Henry Harrison, a man on the verge of his seventieth year, is setting out on a cold and blustery day – no overcoat, no hat, no closed carriage – to deliver, in the rain, an extended two-hour and then some oration?
MRS H: (PULLING OUT A HANDKERCHIEF) You’re a fool, William Henry Harrison.
WHH: Oh, now, Anna…
MRS. H: You just don’t think!
WHH: Thinkin’s for pessimists. I act! Farewell now, Dearest Anna. I shall see you in the Lincoln Bedroom.
MRS H: The what?
WHH: You are living till 1864. You will understand later.
WILLIAM HENRY HARRISON KISSES HIS WIFE GOODBYE, THROWS OPEN THE DOOR AND STRIDES OUT TO CONFRONT HIS DESTINY.
WHH: Ah, yes. It is a good day to make history!
Which he did, going down in history as the president whose tenure in office was the shortest of anyone else’s. At his funeral, his grieving widow was heard to momentarily turn Jewish and lament,
MRS. WILLIAM HENRY HARRISON: The man couldn’t wear a hat?
Stay tuned for more specially selected optimists to come. Including Thomas Jefferson:
“Trust me. The South will abandon slavery of its own accord.”
And Mitt Romney:
“In my America, everyone will have the chance to have an eighteen-hole golf course in their backyard.”
Trust me. You’re gonna love ‘em!