Pretty Boy Overshadowed by Mr. Gravitas

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My only personal encounter with Dick Cheney was years ago at a doorway as I was leaving the West Wing of the White House. A large group of men was entering the door I planned to exit. I stepped aside and one by one they proceeded through the door until Dick Cheney came up, saw me, stepped aside, bowed slightly and said, “After you.” The other men looked chagrined as they, following his example, also stepped aside for me to pass.

The Vice President evidenced that same courteous behavior and instinctive leadership during the debate between the vice presidential candidates. John Edwards would do well to observe and learn. Everybody knows a John Edwards type — the smooth-talking charmer who thinks he can get away with anything with a smile and his pretty-boy lines. Slick charmers don’t wear well and Edwards’ smooth talking in the debate got old very quickly. He recklessly threw around “facts” and “figures,” clearly establishing himself as a glib lightweight.

Through it all, Cheney stayed calm; then, with steely determination, he cut through the “gab” with the truth. Cheney very capably filled in the gaps of the first presidential debate and with courteous, solid arguments won the debate, though it was hard fought all the way.

Cheney never wavered. He kept up a barrage of facts and evidence supporting his claims: that Kerry was always on the wrong side of defense issues, that the senator had his facts wrong, that it is hard to have credibility when presidential candidates are dismissive of our allies, that the Kerry record does not back up his rhetoric, that the candidate does not display the quality of conviction and cannot stand up to political pressure, that the talk about Halliburton is a smoke screen to confuse the public — all calmly stated and accurate.

The differences between the two men are stark: Edwards took a cheap shot at Cheney by talking about the Vice President’s lesbian daughter (hoping, apparently, to discredit Cheney among evangelical and Catholic voters and, above all, hoping to push Cheney into saying something rash). Cheney expressed appreciation for the “fine words” about his family, about his daughter, and said nothing else — period. Earlier, he had spoken truth, carefully — that the President supports a Federal Marriage Amendment and that he supports the President.

Edwards took another cheap shot and, as we say in the South, “larded it on” in talking about one of the children he defended in his career as a trial lawyer, as well as about children killed in Israel. He showcased his skill at emotional appeal, but while this tactic may have worked well for him in front of a jury, it came across as demagoguery on television. But the worst “snake oil” arguments were those about Bin Laden (we had him cornered and this administration let him get away) and about needing a new president to give the United States credibility in the world. Those arguments should embarrass even the most loyal Democrat.

The whole evening reminded me of a yapping dog chewing on the pants leg of a gentleman — the puppy is a nuisance, the gentleman throws out his leg and the puppy scurries away. Then the dog scampers back only to be brushed aside again. The dog returns; the man pushes him away. The man ultimately picks up the dog and thrusts it outside, closing the door. That is what happened in the vice presidential debate.

Cheney kept resisting Edwards’ attacks and his attempts to be taken seriously; Edwards kept coming back with the same routine. Cheney firmly — but with increasing impatience — set Edwards back. Finally, Cheney “set him outside” when he talked about Kerry’s performance in the Senate and cited Edwards’ absence record and nickname, “Sen. Gone.” Then he “closed the door” with his remark that after serving as President of the Senate and attending most Tuesday meetings, he met Sen. Edwards for the first time when they walked onto the stage in Cleveland for the debate.

Sen. Edwards might have a bright future; he may be a promising politician. But many a “Mr. Popularity” never learns that if you want to be taken seriously, you must accomplish serious things. Only then will you earn that elusive quality — gravitas — that compels other leaders to take you seriously and enables you to lead during difficult times.

The debate moderator Gwen Ifill asked what personal characteristics each candidate thought were necessary qualifications for leading the country. Edwards said that the American people looked for someone who could keep them safe, someone with good judgment and someone who speaks the truth.

Despite Edwards’ persistent comebacks, Cheney succeeded in showing that the Kerry team fails its own criteria.

More importantly, Cheney made a strong case that President Bush exhibits all three qualities, and he argued convincingly that, for the next four years, President Bush is the best choice for continuing to keep America safe, making good judgments about foreign and domestic policy, and telling the American people — as well as their allies and enemies — the truth.

Janice Crouse is spokesperson for Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee.

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