The glory of America is that there are many Americas, red and blue, North and South, conservative and liberal, secular and religious, and the strength of our great experiment is that we've found a pot big enough to melt it all down. Ronald Reagan spoke for all those Americas.
The death of the 40th president follows, almost as if by design of a larger hand, two new public-opinion polls finding that the confidence we have always held in our public institutions is intact, and that even when we're unhappy with our institutions, we're "satisfied with life." We're still the world's optimists.
Optimism is ultimately what the Gipper was all about, and he wouldn't have been surprised that, against the endemic cynicism and scorn of much of the media and academe, the plain Americans he trusted most, and which he always urged us to trust most, are still "the old reliables."
Americans trust the military the most, according to a Gallup Poll ? 75 percent say we have a "great deal" of confidence in the men and women in uniform, Abu Ghraib or not. Substantial majorities express confidence in cops. Confidence levels fall below 50 percent only in rating the usual suspects: doctors and hospitals, public schools and the courts. "Big business," unions, the media and Congress lie at the bottom of public regard.
Nevertheless, 56 percent of us, says the Harris Poll, are satisfied with our lives. We think life has improved over the past five years. Other polls show a majority of Americans are happy in their jobs and nearly 7 in 10 of us would take the same job again. The breakdown of who holds these sunny attitudes is particularly fascinating: 62 percent of whites expect their lives to improve over the next five years, and 86 percent of both blacks and Hispanics, who are supposed to be the unhappiest of all, think so.
Such attitudes fluctuate with the run of the news, naturally, but studies by the National Institutes of Health reveal the immigrant spirit, the source of strength over the decades of our history, to be bubbling and buoyant as usual. This has something to teach the native-born. Death and health records from the years 1986 to 1994 reveal the most dramatic differences of life expectancy are between immigrant black men and black men born here. The American-born black man can expect to live to the age of 64, but the immigrant from Africa, the continent most identified with disease and violent death, can expect to live to 73 and beyond.
These immigrants, the researchers find, are less likely to smoke, drink or become obese. This flies in the face of the arguments that only more federal nannies can improve health and guarantee happiness, arguments the Gipper never tired of rebutting. Immigrants escaping from the kind of grinding poverty that native Americans can barely imagine figure they've arrived in the "city on the hill," in the Gipper's favorite metaphor. Maybe it's the enthusiasm of gratitude that accounts for those extra nine years. The pessimism that native-born black men absorb from the media culture, the new whine distilled from the memory of old battles, inevitably takes its toll.
The pundit Michael Barone calls the different nations "soft America" and "hard America." Soft America is responsible for bad public schools where self-esteem and grade inflation are the result of classrooms ruled by fuzzy feelings rather than rigid discipline. Hard America makes tough choices that nurture the competitive spirit. Soft America promotes anyone who shows up and sends him out as "educated," no matter how ill-informed, ill-prepared or incompetent he may be. Hard America drives the engines of the marketplace and the military, where profit determines employment and soldiers are often the difference between life and death: "Soft America lives off the productivity, creativity, and competence of Hard America." In his new book, "Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation's Future," he argues that our heads, if not always our hearts, demand that Hard America dominates.
How we cultivate the optimism that has always defined America will inevitably determine the future of the nation. Nobody understood this better than our 40th president. "When the Lord calls me home," he said in his poignant farewell to the nation in 1994, announcing that he suffered from Alzheimer's disease and well understood what that meant, " ... I will leave with the greatest love for this country of ours, and with eternal optimism for its future."
Ronald Reagan left us on the very eve of the last reunion of the boys of Omaha Beach. He always spoke to us with the courage and confidence of that generation, which was his own. He urged us never to abandon the sunny optimism that is the crucial element of "the American spirit." This is surely his enduring legacy.