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Jewish World Review Nov. 2, 1999 /21 Mar-Cheshvan, 5760

Ben Wattenberg

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Is there a gravitas gap? -- N THE BEGINNING, there were two runaway favorites for the major party presidential nominations: Vice President Al Gore for the Democrats and Gov. George W. Bush for the Republicans. Now, thanks to rapid winnowing, it seems as if there will be a real contest in both parties. We deserve it.

Gore's campaign went through an implosion phase, rooted in a simple fact: Voters don't much like him. When only one Democrat, Sen. Bill Bradley, challenged the vice president, the anti-Gore voters latched on to Bradley.

Bush has not imploded. He is still the front-runner, sitting on a mountain of money. He is an appealing man and has run a solid campaign. Voters like what they know of his "compassionate conservatism." People I respect who have met with him regularly think he is smart and knowledgeable.

But the Republican field is rapidly winnowing. Lamar Alexander, Liddy Dole and Dan Quayle have withdrawn. Pat Buchanan headed for the Reform Party with a new slogan, "I Hate Hitler." Steve Forbes is in the race with ideas and money, but has apparently not built upon his 1996 showing.

So Bush, like Gore, has one major opponent: Sen. John S. McCain, R-Ariz., who could be the next president.

Bush seems to have only one weakness. It is said that he lacks "gravitas," which is an uptown word for seriousness. He has served effectively for six years as governor of Texas; he successfully ran a baseball team; he was in the oil business and helped his father, President George Bush. The take on him personally, much of it coming from himself, is that he doesn't read books and remained a frat boy/party animal for longer than most, before finding his calling.

These are not disqualifications for the presidency, but his challenger, McCain, has cornered the gravitas market. Like Bush, he is a moderate conservative, had a raucous and extended youth, and has a famous family including his grandfather (three-star admiral) and father (four-star admiral).

At 63, McCain is 10 years older than Bush, and has been very serious since 1967, when his fighter plane was shot down over Hanoi. He was imprisoned for five years in Hanoi, where he suffered from broken legs, broken arms, chronic dysentery, a broken shoulder, stabbings, torture and beatings to a point of unconsciousness.

How he survived these conditions, and was shaped by them, is spelled out in his stunning new book, a rowdy and riveting narrative entitled "Faith of My Fathers" (Random House Inc.). I am not cynical about McCain or his book, but in political terms, it could easily be sub-titled "Why I Have All the Gravitas and They Don't."

In the book McCain lays out the codes of behavior for the professional American military man, taught to him from childhood on by his admirable admiral ancestors. For example: "An officer must not lie, steal, or cheat --- ever. He keeps his word, whatever the cost. He must not shirk his duties no matter how difficult or dangerous they are. ... An officer accepts the consequences of his actions. He must not hide his mistakes, nor transfer blame to others that is rightfully his ..." (Think Clinton.) If you believe this yields goody-good boy scouts, think again after reading the chronicle of the roisterous adventures of the three naval McCains.

Item One of the Code of Conduct for American Prisoners of War reads: "I am an American, fighting in the forces which guard my country and our way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense." Item Five states, "... should I become a prisoner of war ... I will evade answering ... questions to the utmost of my ability ..." The attempt to adhere to these principles killed some American prisoners and almost killed McCain.

Trying live up to the codes has given McCain a one word lodestar by which to live his life: honor. He knows he has not always lived up to the code, but he knows in his broken bones how important it is to try.

Now, there are some issues that I disagree with McCain about. I'd like to see campaign finance reform, but I do not agree that the American political system is inherently corrupt.

I think that it would have been geo-politically unwise and too risky to send American troops to invade North Vietnam. I sense that even honor can get carried too far (sometimes presidents should lie), but as a political matter I could stay up all night and still not figure out how to make that a negative in campaignspeak.

I agreed with McCain on Kosovo and on his fight against the tobacco companies, which alienated him from some of his fellow Republicans, many of whom are said to dislike him. These days, that can be his best platform plank. He allegedly has a wicked temper. Better a president have one than not.

He is a good man, with sensible policies and gobs of gravitas. It would be nice, once again, to have a president with some.

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and is the moderator of PBS's "Think Tank." You may comment by clicking here.

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