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happy warrior

A politician who is undaunted and cheerful, even in the face of adversity, is said to be a “happy warrior.” 

The phrase comes from an 1806 poem by William Wordsworth, titled “Character of the Happy Warrior.” Wordsworth described the “happy warrior” as a brave, generous, and moral man, who was able to remain virtuous even in the midst of distress. More than anything, though, Wordsworth’s happy warrior is able to stay optimistic and to thrive amidst conflict. As Wordsworth sees it, adversity makes the happy warrior even more joyful:

“if he be called upon to face

Some awful moment to which Heaven has joined

Great issues, good or bad for human kind,

Is happy as a Lover; and attired

With sudden brightness, like a Man inspired…”

Hubert Humphrey, who served as vice president under Lyndon Johnson and later as Senator from Minnesota, was often known as the “happy warrior.” Humphrey is remembered as a progressive and a champion of civil liberties. He is also remembered as a sunny and upbeat personality. After his death, Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar said in a statement, “You can go down the list of landmark federal legislation from the past 60 years, and Hubert Humphrey’s fingerprints are there: civil rights, Medicare, nuclear arms control, the Peace Corps, and countless others. But I think the most important thing about Hubert Humphrey is that he was an optimist, and he believed in America and believed in our democracy.”

A few decades later, Ronald Reagan was also called a “happy warrior.” Even his political opponents grudgingly noted his charm and likeability. After Reagan passed away, the Guardian noted, “Ronald Reagan was a happy warrior whose easy-going “Aw, shucks” style could make people smile who never voted for him. “Wake me up in an emergency,” he used to say, “even if I’m in a cabinet meeting.” Reagan himself liked the phrase “happy warrior;” in 1985 he told CPAC attendees, “We’ve made much progress already. So, let us go forth with good cheer and stout hearts — happy warriors out to seize back a country and a world to freedom.”

The happy warrior phrase gets used on both sides of the political divide. In 2012, Barack Obama won re-election and referred to Joe Biden as a “happy warrior.” In 2018, Rick Perry said the same of Donald Trump: “The onslaught that goes at him, the forces of evil that are arrayed against him, it’s stunning,” Perry said. “And let me tell you, he is a happy warrior. We talk about Ronald Reagan being a happy warrior. Ronald Reagan ain’t got nothing on Donald Trump. This guy is fascinating. His stamina. Watch him on TV. He is amazing.”