The national psyche won't let today's worries rule out better days ahead.
By MARCUS FRANKLIN
Published October 29, 2004
[Times photo: Bob Croslin]
Joe Gallant has lived in the former home of author Horatio Alger in Revere, Mass., for more than 40 years. He is convinced the future is bright for his 16 grandchildren.
Horatio Alger, shown in 1852, used his books to teach that character determines a person's success or failure.
Is fear tearing us apart? Are we a less optimistic nation than we were three years ago? Has information overload crippled our democracy? Can youthful idealism survive this age of cynicism? In a series of four essays, we explore how our nation has changed between the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and this year’s presidential election. Part one Fear: One thing uniting the country is unease, but even that has a dividing line: Should we fear terror or the means to quell it?
Part two Information: There are a lot of truths out there. Just choose one that suits you.
Part three Optimism: Are we a less optimistic nation than we were three years ago?
Part four Idealism: Can youthful idealism survive this age of cynicism?
REVERE, Mass. - Eighty-eight Beach St. is haunted.
The hardwood floors wail, and the couple who have made it their home for more than 40 years joke that the creaks are really the footsteps of Horatio Alger, who lived there more than 150 years ago.
What lately could be prompting such restlessness from the ghost of the prolific author who helped define and glorify American optimism?
Could it be an America in the homestretch of a bare-knuckles presidential campaign? An America still grappling with the reverberations of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks?
In the days after Sept. 11, President Bush said the terrorists hoped to destroy America's way of life, a way of life epitomized by Algerian optimism. An optimism former Labor Secretary Robert Reich describes as "deeply entrenched, almost genetic."
Both Bush and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic challenger in Tuesday's contest for the White House, have cast themselves as optimists. Bush: Stick with me and you'll remain safe. Kerry: Pick me and I'll look out for you, Mr. and Mrs. Middle Class.
The Bush campaign has boasted of the president's "optimistic vision," which "stands in stark contrast to Sen. Kerry, who has offered pessimism and uncertainty and defeatism during a time of war."
On several occasions, Kerry has invoked former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Franklin D. Roosevelt, two political icons defined by their outsized optimism.
Bush and Kerry "both reflect this optimistic sense of the long-term future belonging to America," University of Florida history and foreign relations professor Robert McMahon said. "It doesn't belong to the terrorists. It's like Ronald Reagan used to say, "Our best days are ahead of us, they're not behind us."'
The candidates say it, but three years after the worst terrorist attacks in American history, do the people believe it?
* * *
Revere is a blue-collar bedroom city of 47,000, 15 minutes from downtown Boston. Broadway, its main thoroughfare, is lined with nail shops, ethnic restaurants and convenience stores.
It is famous for being home to America's first public beach, for the legendary, two-fisted sandwiches at Kelly's Roast Beef, and for its favorite son, Horatio Alger.
Alger, an abnormally small, sickly child, was the son of a strict Unitarian minister. Educated at Harvard University, he later became a Unitarian minister himself.
In the mid 1860s, Alger left Massachusetts for New York after church officials where he worked as a minister accused him of "a most heinous crime ... unnatural familiarity with boys."
In New York, Alger encountered thousands of neglected children - many of them immigrant children and underage Civil War veterans - on the streets, sleeping in boxes, beneath stairways and atop steam gratings.
He turned those experiences into books, eventually more than 100 of them, becoming the most socially influential American writer of his generation.
More than 100 years after Alger's death, Joe and Constance Gallant live in the burnt-red saltbox colonial at 88 Beach St.
In their living room, more than 40 titles by Alger line the shelves above a wooden desk. Among them: Helping Himself, Facing the World, From Farm Boy to Senator, Brave and Bold and Struggling Upward.
They bear the same basic premise: poor, orphaned protagonists who, through hard work, honesty, integrity and grit, transcend dire circumstances. A person's character, the stories instruct its readers, determines whether one succeeds or fails.
* * *
The Gallants tried to raise their five children with those values. Some of those children, who have given them 16 grandchildren, work two jobs to make ends meet. All left Revere but remain in the Boston area. One son, for instance, chases deadbeat parents full time for Massachusetts and also works three nights a week at Sears. Daughters-in-law work part time. The Gallants help one grandson with the cost of playing hockey.
"The American dream is not that mothers and fathers should be working so much that they can't always be there," Constance Gallant, a homemaker, said. "It wasn't that way with my kids." Constance Gallant worries for the safety of two of her sons, one a Boston police detective and the other an engineer at a nearby nuclear plant. She worries about funding for Social Security for her children and grandchildren. She worries about how she and her husband would ever pay for a stay in a nursing home.
Still, she and some of her neighbors maintain their optimism. How? "Maybe because I believe in God. I ask him to keep my kids safe. I ask that their families will be safe. I'm only one person, what can I do?"
Her husband, Joe Gallant, complained of skyrocketing gas prices. The retired state social services official voted for Bush in 2000 but thinks the president "screwed up" in Iraq. The billions being spent there could be put to better use in this country, on health care for example, he said.
"You contribute all your life to the system, you could at least not have to worry about your health care," said Joe Gallant, 69, as he sipped a glass of red wine on the patio. "Iraq is just a drain on human life and the American taxpayer's dollar. The more we spend out there, the less we spend here."
Nonetheless, he is sure that life will be better for his grandchildren.
"There's nothing out there - the war on terror or whatever - to prevent them from doing as well as their parents or I did."
It's not difficult to find other optimists in Revere, despite education and income levels that lag behind the rest of the country. Nearly 77 percent of residents at least 25 years old receive a high school diploma, compared with 80.4 percent for the country, according to the 2000 Census. Slightly more than 13 percent of the same group earns a bachelor's degree, compared with 24.5 percent for the nation.
More than 14 percent of Revere's residents live in poverty, compared with 12.4 percent nationwide. Revere's median family income is $45,865, compared with $50,046.
A fiscal crisis last year shut fire stations, shortened library hours, fired employees and left the police department and library in disrepair. Residents say they are optimistic despite the "worst economic ... times this commonwealth has seen in generations," as Mayor Thomas G. Ambrosino put it in last year's state of the city address.
"This brilliant gem of a city may be tarnished temporarily by the fiscal problems that envelope the entire commonwealth, but I am very confident that it will shine again, brighter and more brilliant than ever before," Ambrosino concluded in his address.
"This is America," Constance Gallant said. "I think we'll be fine."
* * *
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that the test of first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and retain the ability to function.
"One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise," he wrote in The Crack-Up.
By that definition, first-rate intelligence abounds in America.
What is responsible for this current combination of short-term pessimism and long-term optimism, this fear of the here-and-now coupled with confidence in the future?
Thomas Mann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says simply, "We are culturally disposed to be optimistic."
Reich explains the dual outlook this way: "It seems to me that Americans are deeply worried about the direction the country is going in. Whether it's jobs, the economy, terrorism or Iraq, all I hear is "We're way off track,' or "I don't know what's happening to this country.' Polls bear me out.
"But when you talk with Americans about their personal lives, they're more optimistic," continued Reich, now a social and economic policy professor at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., near Revere. "Even though they're deeply indebted - credit card, mortgage, auto - and even though their wages are stagnant and expenses are rising - especially health insurance, gas for their cars and food staples - most individuals still have a sunny outlook. Americans, after all, are Americans."
T.J. Jackson Lears, a Rutgers University history professor, worries that the self-described optimist who believes in an inevitable attack may be mirroring conventional wisdom. Also, polls don't gauge how deep the optimism runs, he said.
"People tell pollsters they're optimistic even if they're worried because of the cultural resonance of optimism," Lears said. "It's almost like a patriotic duty to at least declare oneself an optimist. As well as a psychic necessity probably."
* * *
Arthur Minichiello, a World War II veteran, sat on a bench in Revere with his hands folded in his lap, watching the steady flow of two-way traffic on Broadway. Military insignia - stars and patches - decorate his cap and thin, blue nylon jacket.
Minichiello, 79, has been a widower since last December, when his wife of 52 years died. He retired from the local post office after 24 years of carrying mail for residents and biscuits for dogs along his routes.
Now he spends his days tidying his home, going for short walks along Broadway and sitting on the bench near City Hall.
Minichiello has two sons. Arthur Jr. recently had a heart attack and lives in the apartment above his home a block away from the bench. His other son, Mark, is a businessman in Los Angeles.
Minichiello has three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
"My sons did better than me, Mark did anyhow," said Minichiello, who recalled stuffing his shoes with cardboard and trekking to the firehouse to get butter, milk and flour during the Great Depression.
But Minichiello, a Democrat, isn't so sure what's happened to the world since Sept. 11 and the launch of the war on terror. The country is "in turmoil." Look at the deficit, he said.
"Here we are spending billions and billions in Iraq, and people are starving in this country."
You don't know who's who in this country anymore: "They've got these (sleeper terrorist) cells all over the country." It all makes him "a little nervous."
Still, he's not ready to declare the American dream dead: "If you want to get ahead, you have to try."
* * *
Alfred S. Regnery, publisher of the conservative American Spectator magazine, said although Sept. 11 temporarily dampened American optimism, today "generally speaking we are as optimistic as we've ever been. It's coming back pretty well."
As evidence, he argues that Americans remain as ambitious and as unselfish as they did before Sept. 11. They're building small businesses at the same pace they did in previous eras, even as they continue to give time to nonprofits, particularly charities.
"I think it takes a lot of optimism to do that," he said.
McMahon, from the University of Florida, said Americans held greater optimism during other eras, such as the 1960s. In that decade of turbulence and history-altering events, the federal government declared war on poverty, among other things, McMahon said.
"We used to think government could fix problems, and now we don't. The soaring rhetoric for the presidential candidates tends to be focused more on what we're going to do in the world than the problems we're going to solve at home.
"Nobody is saying we're going to solve the problem of poverty, drug addiction, decaying cities. A generation ago, they said those things."
But McMahon and others say history demonstrates that American optimism usually is tempered by experience. Americans believed we could conquer poverty, eradicate racism, and, today, democratize Iraq.
"But the reality is that many Americans no longer believe any of those things," McMahon said. "Does it mean we're no longer optimistic or pragmatic and realists?"
* * *
Lears, the history professor at Rutgers, said the attacks led to the revival of a different but familiar kind of American optimism.
"The official response," he said, "has been to reassert that optimism in a fairly crude, straightforwardly Christian form," which resonates with a lot of Americans.
Lears sees this brand of optimism as part of - or maybe caused by - a providential view of the universe, with the United States at its center. Americans are God's chosen people, the United States a new Israel. Freedom is God's gift to the world and the United States is the conduit of that freedom.
This brand of optimism, Lears said, extends as far back as Manifest Destiny, the country's violent expansion westward toward the Pacific Ocean.
"We will prevail' has become the official line," he said. "In my opinion, that's a prescription for excessive optimism and there's always a reckoning that takes place. It would be good if it's (American optimism) ratcheted back a little."
Lears argues that former President Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are historic examples of other, less "self-righteous" forms of optimism.
Lincoln believed the Civil War was a providential event, punishment for the sin of slavery, Lears said. But he believed judgment had fallen on both the South and the North.
"Lincoln didn't suggest the northern army was the army of God," Lears said.
King saw "reaching out to segregationists and establishing common ground and humanity" as part of the civil rights struggle: "He believed he was an instrument of God, but he didn't believe he was an instrument of God's will to punish the evil segregationists. It was to find common ground."
* * *
Next door to the Gallants, Norma Miller, a lifelong Revere resident, sat on the screened front porch of her Victorian home.
Miller, a 68-year-old retired nurse, worries most about health care. She believes every American should have health care, including prescription drug benefits.
"Why can't we?" asked Miller, who with her husband of 46 years, has three adult children and six grandchildren. "I think we appease the insurance companies. That's the reason we don't have it. I just find it unforgivable.
"I'm very unhappy with health care, I'm very unhappy with Iraq. I'm just very unhappy. I'm unhappy with the environment."
Moments later, though, Miller oozed optimism: "I'm very optimistic. American ingenuity. We're just able to think and invent and push ourselves forward."
She takes heart from her Spanish-speaking neighbors.
Revere, once a magnet for 19th and early 20th century Irish and Italian immigrants, now attracts immigrants from South and Central America. These are the people who keep the heart of the American dream pumping, Miller said.
Today, all but three of her immediate neighbors are immigrants. Immaculate Conception, the Catholic church across from the Millers' home, began offering Mass in Spanish about a year ago, she said.
"If you just look at the houses here, all bought by young families whose first language is Spanish - what more of an example can there be? The same thing is happening now that happened (500) years ago when people came to this country," said Miller, whose grandparents immigrated to Revere from Ireland.