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Accentuate the Positive: Views of an Optimistic Realist

BARBARA WALTERS looked quite taken aback. Her reaction may, of course, have been simulated for the 20/20 audience. I hope so. Have we come so far that we feel uncomfortable with people who keep their word?

Ms. Walters was talking with Terry Waite, the Archbishop of Canterbury's aide who spent five years as a hostage in Lebanon, a large part of it chained in solitary confinement. He told her he had early on established three principles to help him through his ordeal - no self-pity, no sentimentality, and no regrets. And he stuck to them.

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Once, Mr. Waite revealed he found a gun in a bathroom and was tempted to use it to escape. But he decided not to as someone would be harmed. Besides, before he was imprisoned, he told his captors that violence was not the answer, even in extreme situations.

Waite said that although he could identify his captors he would not do so, despite their having let him down. Why? Because in earlier negotiations to free hostages he had promised he wouldn't.

It was refreshing to hear him - particularly since so much television programming suggests that selflessness and virtue is exceptional or outmoded.

I was also glad to watch on "60 Minutes" the inspiring story of basketball superstar David Robinson who turned down a get-rich-quick opportunity to fulfill his obligations at the Naval Academy and earn his degree. Here was a young black man whose family sacrificed to allow him to get a good education and held him to high standards - he was once grounded for six weeks for bringing home a C. Here is a man whose commitment to faith includes an honest admission that his earlier life was not as it should have

been and who is is willing to risk endorsements and friendships for his stand. In a Nike ad he makes it clear, "If you're into drugs, don't come into Mr. Robinson's neighborhood."

I mention Waite and Robinson because I have just been at a meeting where TV's obsession with violence and the corrupt came under strong and universal condemnation. I encouraged someone to write to a TV station she thought was doing something wrong but also to congratulate it when it was doing something right. In these popular TV segments about Waite and Robinson we may be seeing the positive role the medium can have in turning this country around.

Is this, like the 1980s, a decade of greed? Everybody says so. It is commonly accepted. But is it true? Have you been greedy and grasping? I doubt it. Some people in high places have set a bad example. But figures for private and corporate giving are way up. And I don't see why we should accept a negative description of what has probably been the most important decade of the century. Indeed, I would say that calling it the decade of greed is the ultimate in passing the buck.

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Call it the decade of freedom or call it the decade of great men and women. That is probably more accurate. And encourage the media to give these great figures more coverage.

In the present mood in the country, we are constantly being fed by the media the idea that politics is corrupt and all politicians are on the make. If the truth be told, our representatives are on the whole no more crooked or more virtuous than each one of us. Perhaps some incumbents have been too long in office, but it flies in the face of reality to believe that their eager replacements are automatically less prone to the temptations of power and perks. As I am, so is my nation. It's all very simple, y ou see.

In that context, I was encouraged to read in a recent profile of British Prime Minister John Major the reason he did not call an election when he was entitled to - at the height of his popularity after the Gulf war. Apparently, the opposition had been supportive of the government during the war and he did not think it fair to them to call an election.

I sat next to a woman in a plane who, upon learning I was a journalist, said, "Oh, I haven't subscribed to a newspaper in months and I feel so much better: it's like when I gave up smoking." I hear from many people who have stopped watching the evening news. It's one more negative in the day they can do without.

If the newspapers and television reflected more of the encouraging stories of hope and initiative that abound in this country, people would be looking forward to their newspapers or the onset of evening news with eager anticipation.

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