Keanu, meet Mr. Kissinger

We crave gravitas in the gravity-defying "Matrix" heroes -- but not in our real leaders.

Published May 29, 2003 10:12PM (EDT)

The only thing more soporific than watching "The Matrix Reloaded" is listening to the filmmakers talk about it. On "Charlie Rose," the producer, Joel Silver, and the stars, Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne and Carrie-Anne Moss, disappeared up their own Oracles cogitating about the deeper meaning of it all. Even the ferociously engaged Mr. Rose seemed slightly distracted, as if wishing his guests had smaller limos and bigger frontal lobes. "Morpheus may be the role I am remembered for," a priestly Mr. Fishburne told Rose. "I am at peace with that."

Perhaps the reason fans and Web sites are obsessed with deconstructing the pseudo-gravitas of "The Matrix Reloaded" is that the real thing has almost entirely disappeared from public life. The other night at a Park Avenue dinner party there was a big debate about who these days does and does not have gravitas. Turned out it was slim pickings. Colin Powell, because his aura goes beyond the office he holds, but who else? Dick Cheney, the Morpheus of the Bush administration, simply proves that grouchiness and gravitas are not the same thing.

None of the Democratic candidates have it except, arguably (because of his Vietnam War record), John Kerry. Joseph Lieberman is too vain and sanctimonious to have gravitas. Sexy little Vermont ex-Gov. Howard Dean is too bad-tempered (and short).

Overexposure is the enemy of gravitas. Tact is its friend. The explosive Rummy will never really have gravitas. He has bravado and disdain instead, which only work when things go well.

The defining characteristics of gravitas seem to be the ability to keep your mouth shut and the willingness to jeopardize ambition for an idea. The cunning creators of "The Matrix" -- the Wachowski brothers, who send Keanu & Co. out to promote the product but never appear themselves -- understand the silence part. The fact that Larry Wachowski has left his wife of nine years to pursue a sadomasochistic relationship with a dominatrix who calls him Lana might also be a factor.

Gravitas is authority earned, most of all by experience and erudition. Roy Jenkins had gravitas. Nelson Mandela has enough of it for a whole Roman Senate. Gordon Brown has grudging gravitas (perhaps all economists do). Tony Blair settled for charisma for a long time but finally captured gravitas in the Iraq crisis. It helps to be a crossover professor, like Jenkins and Henry Kissinger. Even though Henry K. will go to the opening of an envelope, he has made it through to age 80 (as of this week) with gravitas intact.

Perhaps the baby boomers -- candidates, hacks and voters -- will never be comfortable again with real gravitas. The first-term Bill Clinton made a calculated, populist attack on it with his boxer shorts, his McDonald's snack breaks and the ill-fated pizza deliveries that also delivered Monica. Some dismissed Clinton's style accessories as white-trash bad taste, but this was a guy who'd been around -- to Oxford, even. He knew what he was doing, and he figured that a man of the people should forgo loftiness. He had second thoughts about this in his second term, but after the Starr Report it was too late. In his post-presidency he has launched a gravitas offensive, increasingly calling himself William Jefferson Clinton. But he's still Bill, and he still hasn't quite got the hang of it.

Hillary Clinton, by contrast, does get it. Her heroic silence during Monica-gate and her masterly low profile in the Senate have given her the right touch of granite. Even her head looks bigger these days as it nods empathetically. If she manages to reveal nothing in her forthcoming book and still earn back her $8 million advance, her gravitas might reach a tipping point.

The problem is, you can't acquire gravitas unless you can afford to pull back from exposure, like De Gaulle at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises or Eminem after "8 Mile." And you can't get credit for avoiding the spotlight if no one has heard of you in the first place. Politics exists in a dim, underlit world where exposure is crucial. The dilemma for today's political candidates is that gravitas and instantaneous fame don't go together. The media maw needs to be fed and if you are elusive, discriminating or complex, forget about it. It's why George W. Bush -- direct, one-dimensional, with an already familiar name -- was the perfect candidate in 2000. It's also why of all the Democratic candidates, Republican consultants keep the closest eye on the personable Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., who has zero gravitas but bags of blue-collar Southern charm.

Given that the American political process demands such a saturation of exposure, I'm not sure real gravitas can get elected now. The Democrats are desperately short of new ideas, but when a candidate tries to talk ideas no one is listening. Before 9/11 almost any Democrat would have filled the bill, because the early George W. was coming off as a know-nothing lackey of the rich. Now that Bush's image-makers, with a little help from Osama and Saddam, have successfully remodeled him as Mount Rushmore in a flight suit, it ought to make Sen. Kerry the obvious choice to run against him. It isn't working that way, unfortunately. Bush will never have gravitas, but his jut-jawed jet jockey Captain America alternative has started to make Kerry look way too, well, thoughtful. He has that long, ecclesiastical face and suspiciously high-minded grasp of foreign affairs. Already the rap on Kerry is that he looks French. Soon they will go after him the way they went after poor overeducated, overqualified, overintelligent Al Gore.

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By Tina Brown

Tina Brown's column appears every Thursday in Salon.

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