Whenever election time comes along I feel as though a mammoth meat cleaver has split me in two. I'm fascinated by the process and can't get enough news fast enough, and yet I'm depressed by the way candidates talk and the public reacts. This time the appearance of Sarah Palin on the scene really sent me into some kind of fugue state that hardly seems real. First, how could such a person become a governor, and second, how could so many people take her seriously as a potential vice-president.

I've heard some commentators say that she lacks gravitas. Yes, I thought, a degree of intellectual and emotional weight is necessary in a leader, and leadership is what these elections are about. Sometimes you have to remind yourself of that fact. I see gravitas in Barack Obama, and I've watched George W. Bush struggle with it for eight years. He reaches for it, but it slips away in his folksiness and in the lightness of his thought.

But our leaders are mirrors of ourselves, and so I wonder about the gravitas of the American people. I often spend time in Ireland and find the people there quite different from Americans. Their heart is more tender and present in public life. They respond as a country in a felt way to people in need, and yet they also have gravitas. You only have to read the national newspapers there and see the intelligence and weight of ideas and respect for thought and language. Our newspapers are becoming lighter and lighter. Soon they will only be a collection of headlines and an assortment of opinionated, inflamed positions and attacks. Read some of the readers' comments at the end of articles on the Internet and behold the lack of gravitas in the thinking of the public.

But gravitas is only one side of a whole picture. The other side is lightness and humor. I haven't seen much humor among the candidates for election and I wonder if that is not due to the lack of gravitas. Good gravitas and good humor go together. You have to take life seriously and apply real intelligence to it in order to laugh at the whole thing from deep in your belly. Not snide, sardonic, cynical, and negative humor, but rich, penetrating, revealing fun with the serious things of life.

What I loved about John F. Kennedy was the quickness of his wit, accompanied by deep laughter, joined to a studied, thoughtful gravitas in the role of president. I keep looking for this rare combination in candidates for all offices. I think you could call it maturity and a readiness for leadership. Anything less is a bad sign.

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