Sunday, May 20, 2007

"The Last Temptation of Al Gore"


Let's say you were dreaming up the perfect stealth candidate for 2008, a Democrat who could step into the presidential race when the party confronts its inevitable doubts about the front-runners. You would want a candidate with the grassroots appeal of Barack Obama—someone with a message that transcends politics, someone who spoke out loud and clear and early against the war in Iraq. But you would also want a candidate with the operational toughness of Hillary Clinton—someone with experience and credibility on the world stage.
In other words, you would want someone like Al Gore—the improbably charismatic, Academy Award–winning, Nobel Prize–nominated environmental prophet with an army of followers and huge reserves of political and cultural capital at his command. There's only one problem. The former Vice President just doesn't seem interested. He says he has "fallen out of love with politics," which is shorthand for both his general disgust with the process and the pain he still feels over the hard blow of the 2000 election, when he became only the fourth man in U.S. history to win the popular vote but lose a presidential election. In the face of wrenching disappointment, he showed enormous discipline—waking up every day knowing he came so close, believing the Supreme Court was dead wrong to shut down the Florida recount but never talking about it publicly because he didn't want Americans to lose faith in their system. That changes a man forever.

It changed Gore for the better. He dedicated himself to a larger cause, doing everything in his power to sound the alarm about the climate crisis, and that decision helped transform the way Americans think about global warming and carried Gore to a new state of grace. So now the question becomes, How will he choose to spend all the capital he has accumulated? No wonder friends, party elders, moneymen and green leaders are still trying to talk him into running. "We have dug ourselves into a 20-ft. hole, and we need somebody who knows how to build a ladder. Al's the guy," says Steve Jobs of Apple. "Like many others, I have tried my best to convince him. So far, no luck."

"It happens all the time," says Tipper Gore. "Everybody wants to take him for a walk in the woods. He won't go. He's not doing it!" But even Tipper—so happy and relieved to see her husband freed up after 30 years in politics—knows better than to say never: "If the feeling came over him and he had to do it, of course I'd be with him." Perhaps that feeling never comes over him. Maybe Obama or Clinton or John Edwards achieves bulletproof inevitability and Gore never sees his opening. But if it does come, if at some point in the next five months or so the leader stumbles and the party has one of its periodic crises of faith, then he will have to decide once and for all whether to take a final shot at reaching his life's dream. It's the Last Temptation of Gore, and it's one reason he has been so careful not to rule out a presidential bid. Is it far-fetched to think that his grassroots climate campaign could yet turn into a presidential one? As the recovering politician himself says, "You always have to worry about a relapse."

For now, at least, Gore is firmly in the program. He's working mightily to build a popular movement to confront what he calls "the most serious crisis we've ever faced." He has logged countless miles in the past four years, crisscrossing the planet to present his remarkably powerful slide show and the Oscar-winning documentary that's based on it, An Inconvenient Truth, to groups of every size and description. He flies commercial most of the time to use less CO2 and buys offsets to maintain a carbon-neutral life. In tandem with Hurricane Katrina and a rising chorus of warning from climate scientists, Gore's film helped trigger one of the most dramatic opinion shifts in history as Americans suddenly realized they must change the way they live. In a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, an overwhelming majority of those surveyed—90% of Democrats, 80% of independents, 60% of Republicans—said they favor "immediate action" to confront the crisis.

The day that poll was published, in April, I spent some time with Gore, 59, in his hotel room in Buffalo, N.Y., during a break between two slide-show events at the state university. Draped across an easy chair, he looked exhausted—not as heavy as he has been (he is dieting and working out hard these days) but flushed and a little bleary. He was in the throes of an eight-show week—4,000 people in Regina, Sask.; 1,200 in Indianapolis; 2,000 near Utica, N.Y.; a flight to New York City the night before for a meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon; then back to Buffalo this morning for a matinee for 4,000 and, soon, an evening show for 6,000. I congratulated him on the poll and mentioned the dozen or so states that—in the absence of federal action—have moved to restrict CO2 emissions. Gore wasn't declaring victory. "I feel like the country singer who spends 30 years on the road to become an overnight sensation," he said with a smile. "And I've seen public interest wax and wane before—but this time does feel different."

So Gore is turning up the pressure. He has testified before both houses of Congress, recommending policies and warning the lawmakers that the Alliance for Climate Protection, his nonprofit advocacy group, will be running ads in their districts next year. He has been meeting privately with the presidential candidates (but won't talk about the meetings or handicap the race). He has trained a small army of volunteers to give his slide show all over the world. And on July 7, he will preside over Live Earth, producer Kevin Wall's televised global rock festival (nine concerts on seven continents in a single day), designed to get 2 billion people engaged in the crisis all at once. Since Gore is sometimes accused of profiting from the climate crisis, it's worth noting that he donates all his profits from the Inconvenient Truth movie and book to the alliance. He can afford to: he's a senior adviser at Google and sits on the board of directors at Apple. He's also a co-founder of Current TV, the cable network that was an early champion of user-generated content, and chairman of Generation Investment Management, a sustainable investment fund with assets approaching $1 billion. "I'm working harder than I ever have in my life," he says. "The other day a friend said, 'Why don't you just take a break, Al, and run for President?'"

That night, at the University of Buffalo's Alumni Arena, there was a moment when Gore seemed to be doing just that. After the people—students, middle-aged men and women, retirees—took their seats, images of the earth appeared on three giant screens, and a natural-born teacher took them on a two-hour planetary tour. He was playful, eloquent, fully restored from his afternoon lull. He has given this presentation some 2,000 times yet still imbues it with a sense of discovery. He laid out the overwhelming evidence that human activity has given the earth a raging fever, then urged the people to respond—"If the crib's on fire, you don't speculate the baby's flame retardant! If the crib's on fire, you save the baby!" Yet he was optimistic. There's still time to act—two decades at most, according to the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—and by rising to meet the challenge, this generation will achieve "the enhanced moral authority" it needs to solve so many other problems. Then, suddenly, Gore was laying American democracy itself on the couch, asking why the U.S. has been unable to take action on global warming, why it has made so many other disastrous choices—rushing into war in Iraq, spying on Americans without search warrants, holding prisoners at Guantánamo Bay without due process.

"I'm trying to say to you, be a part of the change," he told the crowd. "No one else is going to do it. The politicians are paralyzed. The people have to do it for themselves!" He was getting charged up now. "Our democracy hasn't been working very well—that's my opinion. We've made a bunch of serious policy mistakes. But it's way too simple and way too partisan to blame the Bush-Cheney Administration. We've got checks and balances, an independent judiciary, a free press, a Congress—have they all failed us? Have we failed ourselves?"

As it happens, these are the themes that animate The Assault on Reason, Gore's new book (an excerpt follows). The crowd seemed to like them—people were hollering and stomping on the aluminum risers—and right on cue, a bright-eyed Buffalo student named Jessica Usborne stood up and asked the Question. "Given the urgency of global warming, shouldn't you not only educate people but also help implement the changes that will be necessary—by running for President?" The place erupted, and Usborne dipped down onto one knee and bowed her head. Her dark hair fell across her eyes and her voice rose. "Please! I'll vote for you!" she cried above the crowd's roar, which sounded like a rocket launcher and lasted almost 30 seconds, all but drowning out Gore's simple, muted, five-word response: "I'm not planning to run."

Sorry, Jessica, there is no stealth campaign. Despite what you may have read, there are no shadowy meetings in which Gore and his operatives plot his path to power. There is no secret plan. There's only a vigorous draft-Gore movement that he has nothing to do with (two independent websites— and—have gathered almost 150,000 signatures so far) and, from time to time, social events at which old Gore hands get together and play a few friendly rounds of what-if.

Some people who know Gore assume he's biding his time, waiting to pounce; since he's at 12% in the polls—tied with John Edwards, without even being in the race—he would easily get on the primary ballots if he declared before the deadlines. He may not be rich enough to self-finance, but with his Apple and Google stock, Web following and Silicon Valley connections, money wouldn't be a huge problem either. "He just has to say the word," says a wealthy friend. But those who know him well would be very surprised if it happened. He hasn't built a shadow organization. His travel isn't calibrated to the primaries. And he's just not thinking much about politics anymore. "He used to be intensely interested in political gossip—who's up in the latest poll, and did you hear about so-and-so," says Carter Eskew, an old friend and former media adviser. "I haven't had a conversation like that with him since 2002 or 2003 [around the time he decided not to seek a rematch against Bush]. He's moved on, at least for the time being." In recent months, as Gore moneymen were recruited by other campaigns, they checked in with Gore. "I said, 'If I'm raising money for the wrong person, please tell me,'" says one. "Everyone asked that question, and his answer was always the same: 'Don't keep your money in your pocket waiting for me.'"

People looking for signs that Gore has a secret plan often point to the fact that he has lost a few pounds and hopes to lose many more. They mention that he hasn't asked the draft organizers to stop, the way he did before the 2004 election. They point out that in May, a group of former Gore fund-raisers met at the Washington home of his onetime chief of staff, Peter Knight. (Someone handed out buttons that said Al Gore Reunion 2007, but it was just a social event; Gore didn't attend.) They cite October as a good time for him to get in, since that's when the Nobel Committee announces its Peace Prize. Finally, they point to The Assault on Reason, the sort of book that could be a talisman of intent, since it takes aim at George W. Bush from multiple directions, diagnoses what's wrong with our democracy and offers ideas for curing it. Why else would you write a book like that, they say, if you weren't laying down a marker for 2008?

Al and Tipper Gore's home, a 1915 antebellum-style mansion in the wealthy Belle Meade section of Nashville, is laid out a bit like Gore himself: a gracious and formal Southern façade; slightly stuffy rooms when you walk in the door; and startlingly modern, relaxed, informal living spaces to the rear. The Gores bought the old place five years ago and are still retrofitting it, making it energy efficient with new windows, new heating and cooling units, solar panels on the roof. (The anti-Gore crowd zinged him recently because his electricity bill last August was 10 times the local average. The Gores pay extra to get 100% of their power from renewable sources, and their zealous retrofitting will no doubt bring their costs down. But it stung.) A new addition has a slate-floor family room (with a pool table and a flat-panel TV; Tipper's drum set and some nice acoustic guitars are nearby) and a gym and an office suite upstairs; there's a set of his-and-hers hybrid Mercury SUVs in the garage. Al Gore and I settle down on the patio, near the swimming pool and the barbecue. "Did some grilling last night with my friend Jon Bon Jovi," he says. "His new record is great." He props his black cowboy boots on a brightly painted folk-art coffee table, scratches his mutt Bojangles behind the ears and talks about The Assault on Reason.

"The real reason I wrote the book," he begins, "is that I've tried for years to tell the story of the climate crisis, and it has taken far too long to get through. When the best evidence is compiled and there's no longer room for dragging out a pointless argument, we're raised as Americans to believe our democracy is going to respond. But it hasn't responded. We're still not doing anything. So I started thinking, What's going on here?" While Gore was mulling that, another test of American democracy presented itself—the walk-up to war in Iraq—and American democracy flunked again. "In both cases, our democracy was pushed around by false impressions and wasn't able to hold its focus," he says. "That's the common denominator. Once I'd thought through all of that, I couldn't not write this book."

The Assault on Reason will be hailed and condemned as Gore's return to political combat. But at heart, it is a patient, meticulous examination of how the participatory democracy envisioned by our founders has gone awry—how the American marketplace of ideas has gradually devolved into a home-shopping network of 30-second ads and mall-tested phrases, a huckster's paradise that sells simulated participation to a public that has all but lost the ability to engage. Gore builds his argument from deep drafts of political and social history and trenchant bits of information theory, media criticism, computer science and neurobiology, and reading him is by turns exhausting and exhilarating. One moment he is lecturing you about something you think you know pretty well, and the next moment he's making a connection you had never considered. The associative leaps are dazzling, but what will stoke the Democratic faithful are his successive chapters on the Iraq war, each one strafing the Administration for a different set of misdeeds: exploiting the politics of fear, misusing the politics of faith, misleading the American people, throwing out the checks and balances at the heart of our democracy, undermining the national security and degrading the nation's image in the world. For anyone who stepped into the Oval Office now and tried to end the war, he says, "it would be like grabbing the wheel of a car that's in mid-skid. You're just trying to work the wheel to see what pulls you out of it." But the mess we're in can't be blamed solely on the President or the Vice President or the post-9/11 distortion field that muzzled the media, immobilized Congress and magnified Executive power. "I think this started before 9/11, and I think it's continued long after the penumbra of 9/11 became less dominant," he says. "I think it is part of a larger shift driven by powerful forces"—print giving way to television as our dominant medium for examining ideas, television acting on our brains in ways that scientists are just beginning to unlock. As such, it's not the sort of problem that legislation is going to fix. Gore hopes that the Internet, which is so good at inviting people back into the conversation, will be the key to restoring American democracy. "It's going to take time," he says. "After all, we've been veering off course for a while."

If that sounds like a reference to 2000, so be it. But some will be disappointed to learn that Gore's book does not contain his long-suppressed account of that contentious year. He has never opened up publicly about the Florida debacle, and even in private he avoids the topic. Friends say he thinks the Supreme Court basically stole the election, but he won't say it. He has never indulged in postmortems—not even in the immediate aftermath. His psychological survival depended on looking ahead. "It was all about what's next," says his friend Reed Hundt, who was FCC chairman during the Clinton years. "He was not willing to be a victim—didn't want to call himself that, didn't want people to think of him that way. He didn't want Americans to doubt America."

Gore often compares the climate crisis to the gathering storm of fascism in the 1930s, and he quotes Winston Churchill's warning that "the era of procrastination" is giving way to "a period of consequences." To his followers, Gore is Churchill—the leader who sounds the alarm. And if no declared candidate steps up to lead on this issue, many of them believe he will have a "moral obligation"—you hear the phrase over and over—to jump in. "I understand that position and I respect it, but I'm not convinced things will evolve that way," says Gore. "If I do my job right, all the candidates will be talking about the climate crisis. And I'm not convinced the presidency is the highest and best role I could play. The path I see is a path that builds a consensus—to the point where it doesn't matter as much who's running. It would take a lot to disabuse me of the notion that my highest and best use is to keep building that consensus."

What it would take, specifically?

"I can't say because I'm not looking for it. But I guess I would know it if I saw it. I haven't ruled it out. But I don't think it's likely to happen."

His wife is more blunt. "He's got access to every leader in every country, the business community, people of every political stripe," says Tipper. "He can do this his way, all over the world, for as long as he wants. That's freedom. Why would anyone give that up?"

Gore knows it's in his interest to keep the door ajar. It builds curiosity. Before he could get serious about running, however, he would have to come to terms with the scars of 2000 and accept the possibility that he could lose again in 2008. That prospect may be too much to bear. "If he ran, there's no question in my mind that he would be elected," says Steve Jobs. "But I think there's a question in his mind, perhaps because the pain of the last election runs a lot deeper than he lets most of us see." There's an even deeper issue here, and with Gore, it's always the deepest issue that counts. What's at stake is not just Gore losing another election. It's Gore losing himself—returning to politics and, in the process, losing touch with the man he has become.

He was never quite the wooden Indian his detractors made him out to be in 2000 (nor did he claim to have invented the Internet), but he did carry himself with a slightly anachronistic Southern formality that was magnified beneath the klieg lights of the campaign. And his fascination with science and technology struck some voters (and other politicians) as weird. "In politics you want to be a half-step ahead," says Elaine Kamarck, his friend and former domestic-policy adviser. "You don't want to be three steps ahead." But now his scientific bent has been vindicated. The Internet is as big a deal as he said it would be. Global warming is as scary as he had warned. He wasn't being messianic, as people used to say, just prescient. And today he's still the same serious guy he always was, but the context has changed around him. He used to spend his time in Washington, but now his tech work takes him to Silicon Valley, to the campuses of Apple and Google, where his kind of intellectual firepower is celebrated. At Apple, where Jobs invited him to join the board in 2003, Gore patiently nudged the CEO to adopt a new Greener Apple program that will eliminate toxic chemicals from the company's products by next year. Last summer, Gore led the committee that investigated an Apple scandal—the backdating of stock options in the years before Gore joined the board—and cleared Jobs of wrongdoing. Political people were surprised Gore took that controversial assignment. "That's silly," he says.

Gore's role at Google is less formal. He started as a senior adviser when it was still a small company, before the IPO. "I assumed he'd give us geopolitical advice," says CEO Eric Schmidt, "and he did—but he was also superb at management and leadership. He likes to dive into teams that don't get a lot of attention—real engine-room stuff, like problems inside an advertising support group. He offers his strategies and solutions and then goes on his way. It's fun for him."

"It aggravates me when people say, 'He's the real Al Gore now' or 'He's changed,'" says Tipper. "Excuse me! He hasn't changed that much. This is somebody I have always known." The old Gore, she says, "was an unfair stereotype painted by cliques in the media and Republican opponents. Now, yes, there were constraints"—the vice presidency, the Monica mess, the campaign—"that weighed on him. And, yes, you grow and you change and you learn. So I see the same person, and I also see a new person who is free and liberated and doing exactly what he wants to do. And that is fabulous."

That's the person Gore would risk losing if he re-entered politics. "He learned something from his very difficult time after 2000," says Schmidt. "I think he got more comfortable with who he is. He had to go through a difficult personal transformation in order to achieve greatness. That sets him up for the next chapter. I have no idea what he'll do. My advice is to do whatever he's most passionate about. Because that is working."

"The slide show is a journey," says Gore, standing beside his trusty screen in a Nashville hotel ballroom. It's mid-March, and he's addressing 150 people—students, academics, lawyers, a former Miss Oklahoma contestant, a fashion designer, a linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles. They've come at their own expense to learn how to give the slide show. There's an undeniable buzz in the room, the feeling that takes over a group that knows it's part of something that's big and getting bigger.

It has been five years since Tipper first urged her husband to dust off his slide show. The couple was still climbing from the wreckage of 2000, and she was convinced that his survival depended on reconnecting with his core beliefs. He assembled the earliest slide show in 1989, while writing Earth in the Balance—carrying an easel to a dinner party at David Brinkley's house, standing on a chair to show CO2 emissions heading off the charts. She wanted him to find that passion again. They were living in Virginia, and the Kodak slides were gathering dust in the basement. So he pulled them out, arranged them in the carousel and gave his first show with the images mostly backward and upside down. Tipper said, "Hey, Mr. Information Superhighway, they have computers now. Maybe you should use one."

A year passed before they realized what a phenomenon this was becoming. "We were on tour, doing the slide show, and men and women would come up to Al after," Tipper says. "Silently weeping." The weather started getting unmistakably weird, and Gore kept working on the slides, making the show more powerful. Producer Laurie David and director Davis Guggenheim saw it and asked him to turn it into a film. Gore didn't think it would work as a movie. It has now grossed $50 million globally and sold more than 1.5 million DVD copies, and its viral effect continues. In Los Angeles, producer Kevin Wall saw it and decided to put on the global extravaganza called Live Earth. In Washington, a retired Republican businessman named Gary Dunham—in town from Sugarland, Texas, for his wife's Daughters of the American Revolution convention—saw it and started giving his own version of the show to anyone who would listen. Dunham became the first of more than 1,200 to be trained as presenters. "All the trainees will tell you the same thing," he says. "That movie changed our lives."

In the ballroom, Gore gives the trainees some advice about the limits of time and complexity. ("Trust me on this. If audiences had an unlimited attention span, I'd be in my second term as President.") Even more important is the hope budget. "You're telling some not only inconvenient truths but hard truths, and it can be scary as hell. You're not going to get people to go with you if you paralyze them with fear."

And then, for the next five hours, Gore walks them through it, slide by slide, deconstructing the art and science, making it clear both how painstakingly well crafted and how scrupulous it is. He relishes the process, taking his time, bathing these people in a sea of data in which he has been splashing happily for years. He punctuates his presentation with pithy attention grabbers—"O.K., here's the key fact ... Here's your pivot ..."—and brings to bear much of what he knows about politics. "Here's something you need to know about for defensive purposes," he says, explaining the science behind a terrifying series of slides illustrating how a 20-ft. rise in sea level would swamp Florida, San Francisco, the Netherlands, Calcutta and lower Manhattan. The trainees are scribbling hard, arming themselves. Gore smiles. He was always better at political combat than people give him credit for. Later, a woman stands up in the back of the big room and asks the Question. "Not to put any pressure on you," she says, "but, by golly, we deserve a leader like you." They've got one—whether or not he runs.

"I have enjoyed the luxury of being able to focus single-mindedly on this issue," says Gore, back on the patio at his Nashville home. "But I am under no illusions that any position has as much ability to influence change as the presidency does. If the President made climate change the organizing principle, the filter through which everything else had to flow, then that could really make a huge difference."

What would President Gore do? Well, on Capitol Hill in March, Citizen Gore offered his ideas. He advocates an immediate freeze on CO2 emissions and a campaign of sharp reductions—90% by 2050. To get there, he would eliminate the payroll tax and replace it with a carbon tax, so the cost of pollution is finally priced into the market. "I understand this is considered politically impossible," he told the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "But part of our task is to expand the limits of what's possible." He would adopt a cap-and-trade program that would allow U.S. industry to meet reduction targets in part by trading pollution credits. Critics often dismiss carbon offsets as the green equivalent of religious indulgences, but in fact they stimulate the market—moving entrepreneurs to find dirty plants, clean them up and sell the CO2 reductions. Gore also wants a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants that don't capture and store their carbon emissions and much higher fuel-economy standards for cars. After Gore presented these views on Capitol Hill, critics assailed them as costly, unworkable economy cripplers. His reply: in a few years, when the crisis worsens, these proposals "will seem so minor compared to the things people will be demanding then." And, of course, he's not running for anything these days. He's in the vision business now.

I ask Gore if he regrets not having made climate change the organizing principle of his cautious 2000 campaign. Doing so might not have won many votes by itself, but it might have helped free him from the consultants, unleashing a more authentic Gore—and that could have made all the difference. "There's a tree-falls-in-the-forest factor here," he says. "Because the many speeches that I made about this were not really reported. More than half the articles written about global warming that year said it might not even be real. But I take responsibility for not having the skills needed to break through the clutter. At least not then. Perhaps I still don't."

But what if he does? What if he could take who he is now, all that he's learned, and carry it back into the maelstrom? Could he stay as he is or would he revert? What if he launched a new kind of campaign: no handlers, just the liberated Gore talking about what really matters to him? Would he seem too squishy? These days he improvises, giving freer rein to matters of the heart and spirit than he ever could as a candidate. He draws from a number of faiths, from philosophy and self-help and poetry and from Gandhi's concept of truth force, the idea that people have an innate ability to recognize the most powerful truths. He often cites an African proverb that says, "If you wish to go quickly, go alone. If you wish to go far, go together." Then he builds on it. "We have to go far, quickly," he said in April at the Tribeca Film Festival, where he was introducing a series of environmental films that will be shown at Live Earth. "We have to make it through an uncharted region, to the outer boundaries of what's known, beyond the limits of what we imagine is doable." Then he recited a famous line from the poet Antonio Machado: "Pathwalker, there is no path. You must make the path as you walk." I once heard him get tangled in that line during the 2000 campaign, but this time, he wasn't trying too hard. "We must find a path that we create together, quickly," he said. "With truth force. To seize the opportunity that lies before us." His words were simple, direct and powerful. One clue to how he found that power lies at the end of the poem, in a line Gore doesn't recite, as the poet reveals his desire "to be what I have never been ... a man all alone, walking with no road, with no mirror."

Gore is not carrying a mirror. He's not selling himself; he's selling a cause, a journey. There are no consultants fussing at him, telling him how to be himself. "There's no question I'm freed up," he says. "I don't want to suggest that it's impossible to be free and authentic within the political process, but it's obviously harder. Another person might be better at it than I was. And it's also true that the process is changing and that it may become freer in time.
Obama is rising because he is talking about politics in a way that feels fresh to people ... But anyway, I came through all of that"—he waves a hand that seems to encompass everything, the advisers pecking at him, the attacks in the media, his own mistakes, the unspeakable Florida debacle—"and I guess I changed. And now it is easier for me to just let it fly. It's like they say: What doesn't kill me makes me stronger." What would this Gore be like as a candidate? This Gore is just not all that tempted to find out.

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