The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion It’s good to run into an optimist these days. A roomful is even better.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower receives a silver and walnut plaque from an Optimist International delegation in D.C. on March 2, 1959. From left: Theodore McKeldin, former governor of Maryland; Eisenhower; C. Lease Bussard of Frederick, Md., former Optimist president; J. Harold Wilkins of Memphis, Tenn., then-Optimist president, and Wilkins' wife Ambrette. (AP Photo/Harvey Georges)

It had been quite a while. For a decade such stops were a regular calendar item, but a recent speech at a small-town service club was the first such appearance I’d made in a similar number of years. I’d forgotten what I was missing, and, although they were tasty, it wasn’t the eggs or the biscuits and gravy.

I agreed to speak to the Warsaw Breakfast Optimist Club in Warsaw, Ind., as a favor to an old friend. My view now is that he did me the favor. First, in providing me a reassurance that essential virtues, values and voluntarism still thrive, at least in some places. Second, by fortifying my resolve to keep looking and hoping for the best in a nation beset with division and self-inflicted problems.

The Optimist Club national organization was founded in 1911 before going international a few years later. It now has more than 2,500 local clubs — there’s more than one in Warsaw — and can teach us a little about maintaining a bright outlook through dark times.

The meeting’s preliminaries included lightning-round reports on recent youth service activities, the charity golf tournament and, in a tone of regret, the first dues increase in many years. Such was the civility and community of this crowd that even the last report received a round of (tepid) applause.

To me, the highlight of the meeting came immediately after the invocation and Pledge of Allegiance when, without prompting, the 150 men and women present stood and recited from memory the 158-word Optimist Creed. A couple of passages can be read as inner-directed. (“Forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future.” “Be so strong that nothing can disturb your peace of mind.”)

But most point the person taking the pledge toward others: “Make all your friends feel that there is something in them.” “Be just as enthusiastic about the success of others as you are about your own.” “Give so much time to the improvement of yourself that you have no time to criticize others.” And, of special salience in this age of self-pity and freely spewed malice, “Be too large for worry, too noble for anger.” Peaceful people, with good will toward all. How countercultural.

Values like those produce practical results. Warsaw, population less than 16,000, through the ingenuity and work ethic of its people, became the orthopedic capital of the world. Globally renowned companies such as Zimmer, Biomet and DePuy grew up in Warsaw, and some 50 percent of all the world’s artificial joints come from there. If you or a loved one has benefited from the miracles of hip, knee or other joint replacement, odds are heavy that your new body part came from this modest-sized town.

Entrepreneurs such as Dane Miller, in the grand tradition of American tinkerers, invented and steadily improved these products. Miller, co-founder of Biomet, was an engineer who began his operations in a barn. To convince skeptical surgeons of his insight that titanium would be a safe and superior material for orthopedic products, he had a rod implanted in his own arm and proved his theory correct. Forty years later, the company he founded employs about 20,000 people and, now merged with Zimmer, continues to improve lives all over the world.

Current unemployment in Warsaw is 2.5 percent. The mayor dropped by the meeting and told me his biggest problem is attracting sufficient housing for the workers the town needs. An independent contractor named Charlie said his challenge is finding enough workers to keep up with the work.

An hour with the Optimists served as a partial antidote to the grim mood I’ve been warding off while reading Victor Davis Hanson’s “The Dying Citizen: How Progressive Elites, Tribalism, and Globalization Are Destroying the Idea of America.” Hanson’s diagnosis of our current social condition hits like a visit to an oncologist with a bad bedside manner. But, as always with his work, the scholarship is formidable and the documentation inarguable. One can reject his views of the previous presidency, but his alarming longer-run conclusions are hard to dismiss.

The falsification of U.S. history, the poisonous divisiveness of identity politics, the conflation of residence with citizenship and the usurpation of democracy by unelected bureaucrats, have plainly altered the conception of Americans’ responsibilities to the nation and to each other.

There are those who find these changes acceptable or even preferable. Hanson argues powerfully that they are destructive and potentially fatal to our country’s prosperity, but more important to our precious, historically unique experiment in self-government. Even an obstinate optimist comes away from the work in need of cheering up.

A trip to the Optimist Club helped. Warsaw is exactly the kind of place, filled with exactly the kind of citizens, whose disappearance Hanson foresees and laments. Here’s hoping that, despite his sharp insight and erudition, he’s wrong this time.

It happens that I have a major vocational change coming up, and no plans yet for what’s next. I’m thinking maybe I should start by looking for a nearby Optimist Club.

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