The 'gravitas' game

Thomas Sowell
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Posted: Aug 01, 2000 12:00 AM

RUSH LIMBAUGH has been having some fun lately, playing back recordings of politicians and media people, who have been repeating the word "gravitas" like parrots, day after day. Before Dick Cheney was announced as Governor George W. Bush's choice for vice presidential candidate, practically nobody used the word. Now everybody and his brother seems to be using it.

The political spin is that Governor Bush lacks "gravitas" -- weight -- and that Dick Cheney was picked in an effort to supply what the governor lacks.

In other words, the fact that Bush picked somebody solid for his running mate has been turned into something negative by the spinmeisters. The fact that media liberals echo the very same word, again and again, shows their partisan loyalties -- and their lack of originality.

While this whole thing is funny in one sense, especially since the polls indicate that neither the "gravitas" issue nor the all-out attacks on Cheney's record in Congress is working, Bush's lead over Gore has widened.

In another sense, it is a serious matter because it shows one of the differences between the two political parties. Democrats put far more emphasis and effort into articulation than the Republicans do. And the Democrats are all on the same page.

Democrats follow tried and true principles of propaganda, using the same phrases again and again, to drive the words into the public's heads. Remember "it does not rise to the level of impeachment"? Or "a risky scheme"? Or "tax cuts for the rich"?

It didn't work this time, but it has worked enough times in the past that the same strategy will undoubtedly be used again, as soon as the Democrats find another phrase that goes over well with focus groups.

Republicans, on the other hand, seem not to understand either the need to articulate their position or the need to put some serious effort into just how they are all going to express it. Instead, they seem to be just winging it individually when they get in front of a microphone or a TV camera.

Republicans are still paying the price for not explaining during the 1980s that presidents do not create budget deficits or surpluses, because all spending bills originate in the House of Representatives. Just as the Democrats got away with talking about the "Reagan deficits" then, they are now getting away with crediting Clinton with the surpluses that followed after the Republicans gained control of the House of Representatives.

Both Bush and Cheney seem more media savvy than most Republicans. They not only know how to get their points across, they know how to avoid falling into media traps.

The first big test for Governor Bush came last year, when the media were pressing him to "tell all" about any youthful peccadilloes. The supposedly smart Beltway types were saying that he had to "get all this behind him" by answering their personal questions, because "otherwise the issue will dog him throughout the campaign."

Bush didn't take the bait -- and the issue is now as dead as a dinosaur. Incidentally, why is what George Bush may or may not have done a quarter of a century ago so important today to the media, while what Hillary said to a Jewish staffer that long ago is supposed to be irrelevant?

It is still early days in this year's election campaign and anything can happen between now and November. However, the media assumption that Gore is so much smarter than Bush may turn out to be as wrong-headed as other things they have said.

Neither Bush nor Cheney matches the picture that the intelligentsia has of smartness. But that may just indicate what is wrong with the picture. Dick Cheney methodically destroyed the attempt by Matt Lauer on the "Today" show to trip him up by repeating the Democrats' spin about Cheney's votes on various issues in Congress. The issues were phony and Lauer tried to cut Cheney off before he could explain why they were phony, but that tactic did not work.

When the dust settled, it was Cheney who was left standing. That is the real test, not how clever or exciting you sound. This is not a Mr. Excitement election campaign on either side.

Both Bush and Cheney remind me of something that a sports writer said long ago about heavyweight champion Gene Tunney: "There was nothing special about Tunney. He just always won." That's pretty special in itself.