The best way to remember that is to keep a sentence in mind in which I use the word gravitas. For instance, I might say,
The gravitas he demonstrated in his public speaking was infectious, bringing the audience to greater understanding and wisdom.
The word gravitas is explored by Bryan Garner, author of Garner’s Modern American Usage, as a word which “arose in English in the 1920’s, then lay dormant until the early 1990’s, then became a VOGUE word.” Strangely, he describes the word as having found new meaning in the articles which were written about the candidate for the U.S. presidency, George W. Bush! He quotes George Will, the conservative commentator as saying about the newly-elected president:
“…Carlson’s profile suggests an atmosphere of adolescence, a lack of gravitas–a carelessness, even a recklessness, perhaps born of things having gone a bit too easily so far.”
Gravitas, as Garner describes it, begins to replace the term “presidential timbre” which had been used widely in political circles prior to 1990 to describe a mature personality type which was assumed to be a necessary requirement for a person to attain the high calling of President of the United States. In the 1990’s it was clear to many that George W. Bush lacked that timbre.
I find it interesting to consider this application of the word gravitas at this moment in presidential politics. In the opinion of some people, Barack Obama has an over-abundance of gravitas and a deficit in the area of warmth and compassion. At least that is what some pundits are saying. As one who admires Obama, I have to wonder how much of that is legitimate criticism, or whether it is convenient rhetoric to be used in a concerted effort to “bring down” Obama’s presidency for political reasons, not intellectual. Previously seen as an outstanding orator and intellect, he is roundly criticized for being professorial and distant.
I keep remembering how those words were seen as qualities in 2008 when used in comparison to the stumbling speeches and language mis-cues of President Bush. But things have changed politically in this country, and one sign of that change is a spirit of anti-intellectualism fostered by critics who claim to represent the core of the American population. It makes me wonder how one would describe presidential timbre these days. I would suspect that the word gravitas might never come into play, for instance, when describing Sarah Palin. Her style, speech patterns, caustic personal references and sometimes shallow commentary is capable of making one long for the speeches of George W. Bush. Yet, her popularity cannot be disputed among one segment of the American voting public, challenging the concept of gravitas as it applies to presidential candidates.
One might speculate that, given the economic woes of this country, the need for gravitas in a presidential candidate slips to a lower priority, being supplanted by knee-jerk reactions, harsh personal criticism, readiness to slash and burn, and a firm embrace of anti-incumbent fever. I don’t mean that as flippantly as it might sound. The recent mid-term elections showed voters to be enthralled with tough-speaking candidates whose credential for “seriousness, sobriety, conduct and speech” might be low on the pecking order, or even absent. Some would say that the qualities of gravitas stand in the way of a president being able to undertake the tasks required in order to bring stability to America.
I would rebut that understanding, believing that it is absolutely necessary to embrace a long-term picture of presidency and stability rather than immediacy. But, then again, I haven’t lost my job, seen my house foreclosed upon, or watched my life savings disappear as a result of current economic conditions. Those factors go a long way toward revising one’s perspective on the role of the President.