The Truth, Mainly - 08/07/2000

What this race really needs: More gravitas
by Leon Satterfield

Why, I've been wondering, is this presidential race so hard to take seriously?

Then I read a story in USA Weekend and I have an epiphany: The presidential race is hard to take seriously because the two presidential candidates are loonies.

They lack gravitas.

(Among political experts on TV, there's been a virulent outbreak of the word "gravitas" in the last few weeks. It's a nifty word and it makes me wonder how I've managed to get along my whole life without using it.)

Of course USA Weekend didn't say the two candidates are loonies lacking gravitas, but it did say this:

Al runs as many as 36 nine-minute miles a week; Dubya runs as many as 24 seven-minute miles a week. (To grasp how loony this is, try running one seven-minute mile, then imagine doing it 24 times every seven days.)

Both candidates have run marathons (26.2 miles)ónot when they were young and foolish but in the last decade when they were old enough to know better. Al ran his when he was 49; Dubya ran his when he was 47.

No wonder everyone is talking about gravitas.

"Gravitas," I needn't tell you, is the Latin word from which the English words "gravy" and "gravity" derive. You eat lots of gravy and eventually the pull of gravity kicks in and you possess gravitas.

William Howard Taft possessed great gravitas. An apocryphal story I just made up has him telling his cronies, "Boys, I've got gravitas out the wazoo."

But it's hard to have gravitas if you're still running marathons in your middle age. It doesn't matter how much gravy you eat. The pull of gravity remains minimal and gravitas eludes you.

That's why, upon observing adults running 26.2 miles, you hear alarmed onlookers saying, "Those people lack gravitas. I might be tempted when the moon is full to run 26.2 miles, but I have sufficient gravitas to ward off the temptation."

Dubya acknowledged his gravitas problem when he chose Dick Cheney as his running mate. Well, not literally his running mate. Dick Cheney is not a running kind of guy. With that slightly constipated look of his, Dick Cheney has so much gravitas that it sort of squishes him down in his chair, ponderous as an anvil, the pull of his gravity working quite well, thank you.

He has so much gravitas that he can explain—with great gravity—why it was prudent for him to vote against the ERA, Headstart, school lunches, Nelson Mandela, and a ban on armor-piercing "cop-killer" bullets.

Dubya needs Dick as his partner because Dubya still comes across as the fun-loving fraternity president he was back in his Yale days when the student newspaper charged that his DKE brothers branded pledges by burning fraternity insignia into the bare skin of their backsides.

In a Nov. 8, 1968 story headlined "Branding Rite Laid to Yale Fraternity," the NY Times quoted Dubya as saying the branding was "only a cigarette burn."

In November, 1968, you'll remember, other students were in a state of shock over the King-Kennedy assassinations. Other students were engaged in passionate debate over whether the Vietnam War was just or unjust, and other students wondered loudly if it was a blessing or a calamity that Richard Nixon had just defeated Hubert Humphrey in the presidential election.

Dubya was defending his fraternity’s right to brand pledges.

That’s a gravitas issue.

And that's where Dick Cheney comes in. His job, Donald Kaul writes, is to provide ballast, "to hold the string that keeps Young George from floating away."

Al's problem is that in order to counteract the unbearable lightness of being a long-distance runner at age 49, he comes across as a Saturday Night Live parody of gravitas, a nerd earnestly explaining everything to us whether it needs explaining or not.

Kent Hance, the guy who defeated Dubya in a 1978 Texas congressional race, gets at the difference between the two: "I served with Gore and I know him, and I like him. But I'd hate to ride from Lubbock to L.A. with him. If you rode from Lubbock to L.A. with Bush, it'd be loads of fun. And Gore'd be saying things like 'I see some mountains.'"

As of this writing, we don't know who Al will choose as his vice president but he’ll likely try to find someone who can out-gravitas even Dick Cheney.

Apocryphal Washington insiders are betting that he'll walk along the Tidal Basin to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial and tap the massive statue of FDR .


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is:

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