Don't look back in anger

Most Americans will reflect on 2001 with a wide range of emotions, many of them unpleasant.

If you took a poll, sadness and anger would probably top the list. I've experienced plenty of both. On a personal level, one of my close relatives committed suicide last spring. I also have a good friend who was seriously hurt when his car was struck by another vehicle that was being chased by police. And the events of Sept. 11 rocked the entire country.

The sadness tends to come on slowly and linger. Anger is much more spontaneous and disconcerting. Sometimes it's hard to control the impulsive reactions generated by intense hostility. A person with vivid firsthand experience in this regard was Paul Hume, longtime music critic for The Washington Post, who passed away in November. I think of him often when I feel myself getting mad about events that have caused tumult in my life.

Mr. Hume provoked one of the most famous outbursts of presidential anger in the 20th century. It happened in December of 1950, a time when most of the country was feeling gloomy and uncertain about the future, not unlike right now. Allied forces in Korea had been sent reeling by the intervention of the communist Chinese Army. A wider war seemed inevitable. On Tuesday, Dec. 5, President Truman got an added shock when his longtime friend and press secretary, Charlie Ross, died at his desk.

That night, Truman attended a singing performance by his daughter, Margaret. Hume's review appeared the next morning, and it was stinging. Basically, he said Margaret wasn't very good and, "cannot sing with anything approaching professional finish." When the president saw the review, he dashed off 150 words of vitriol in response. A detailed account of the episode is available in David McCullough's wonderful biography of Truman, and the details are truly unfortunate.

Truman's letter said, among other insults, "Someday I hope to meet you. When that happens, you'll need a new nose [and] a lot of beefsteak for black eyes .... " I know exactly how Truman felt.

I have been that angry myself at times during the past year. But anger almost never produces any positive outcome. A copy of the letter was printed by The Washington News, and it caused a PR disaster. Truman's political enemies said it was clear evidence that he was unfit to lead the country, and might be emotionally unbalanced.

I'm not saying we should keep anger suppressed. It's part of being human. I've written letters very similar to Truman's, including some that were even more inflammatory. But over the years I have learned that the best thing to do is put them away in my desk, throw them away later, and move on.

If you let anger hang around, it eventually smothers all traces of optimism. And I do try to remain optimistic.

So I will do my best to sound enthusiastic when the clock rings in Jan. 1, 2002, and the cheers go up for a happy new year. We all need one.

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