Al Gore in 2000 was inconvenient, but it turns out he would have been the right man at the right time in November 2000. I seriously underestimated him at that time; or perhaps he is a dramatically new and different Al Gore today — finally punching above his weight.
A new film based on Al Gore’s globally delivered climate change messianism, An Inconvenient Truth. has opened in major cities around the nation — and it is a triple must-see. I finagled an invite to see the film in mid-May at a political celebrity-filled gathering that featured both Gore and the brilliant director, Davis Guggenheim, taking questions — one of which on China I asked (edging out my pal, David Corn).
It was a chattering political Hollywood at the beginning — lots of friends, journalists, bloggers, and spouses of big shots were there. But by the end of the film, the audience was dumbfounded by the film’s brilliantly delivered gravitas and message: we are all really, really screwed unless we squarely address the realities of climate change. The silliness that existed in the room pre-screening was overwhelmed by the knowledge that we had just seen one of the most consequential films of our time — delivered by a person who, if not derailed by his own poor decisions, poor advisors, and an easily distracted American public should have been President.
Others have done some excellent work deconstructing Gore’s objectives in the film and the substance of what was conveyed. See Paul Krugman or the Progress Report for all the detail and cross references you might want.
But I want to address features of the film and Gore’s message and person that others might not.
First of all, this film is a mass market version of Al Gore’s not-famous-enough slide show about greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. It’s a high-powered slide show, not about politics but about numbers — steadily increasing captured greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere paralleled with empirically measured temperature range increases — themselves corresponding to hit-the-audience-over-the-head photos of phenomenal changes in the world’s most famous and idyllic glaciers. It’s a movie about science, and Al Gore has leveraged his political celebrity, and his considerable brain power, into telling a story that those of us with resources in the world — meaning the rich powers and particularly the world’s leading superpower — need to address.
Gore vs. Bush was not an election I enjoyed. I had met Al Gore on numerous occasions — perhaps the most revealing was an early morning run of what I think was called the Capital Hill Challenge 10K in which various Congressional and administration offices sent teams to compete. I was on Senator Jeff Bingaman’s team. Gore may have had a team, or may have been alone — I couldn’t tell. And that was usually the problem I had conceptualizing Al Gore as President of the United States. I had no sense of his team-building abilities, no sense that he would be able to move a complex political system to higher ends.
There are many who no doubt will weigh in on TWN comments to tell me how wrong I was on Gore or to tell me what a great guy he is — but when I encountered Al Gore, I usually got the sense of someone overly bothered about everything, dismissive of his staff, and of course, stiff — but in ways that had little to do with the rarefied circumstances in which he was raised (even though the film goes into considerable lengths making it clear that Gore did make it out of the hotel at 20th and Massachusetts to the family farm a few months every year). Al Gore had a righteousness to him, a know-it-all-ism that undermined his ability, in my view, to build a following. Clinton connected with people as a protestant minister. Gore tried to guide and direct his flock like a Sumerian high priest.
James Fallows is the Chairman of the Board of the New America Foundation of which I was Executive Vice President for six years and of which I am now director of foreign policy programs. Jim wrote one of the first kiss-and-tell exposes in journalism of a President. That was, of course, Jimmy Carter. (I will link the piece in the near future but am now traveling and it’s hard to post.)
Criticisms that Fallows lodged of Carter — who looked past the critique and remained friends with Fallows — focused on Carter’s micromanagement style as well as his inability to build teams, delegate, and to move complex bureaucratic structures towards a goal. Carter was brilliant, perhaps one of the most ethical and intellectually talented Presidents of America’s modern era, but he could not move people.
The pre-chastened Al Gore bore significant resemblance to Carter. One manifestation of this is I know of few people who liked working for Al Gore — who would fight and die for him politically. The one exception being Leon Fuerth, Gore’s national security advisor, whom I like a great deal and find to be a visionary thinker about public policy traps that lie ahead. If you are a student at George Washington University, take Fuerth’s course.
But as many before me have said, the Al Gore at the Georgetown Loews Multiplex and who appears as narrator and star of An Inconvenient Truth is not the same guy. He says repeatedly that he is a recovering politician and has put political aspirations behind him — but seriously, if we could have that Al Gore — I want him. We all should.
But is that possible? A close friend of mine who worked in the inner circle of John McCain’s last election recently told me that he/she’s increasingly convinced that even if the human being elected President is a great person, and has enlightened thinking in some arenas, and is pragmatic and centrist deep down, what may matter more are the people around the President. Those with power in the “president’s court” often have more to say about the personality and priorities of an administration than the office-holder himself.
My friend was making simultaneously the case that John McCain is not a right-wing zealot and certainly not a fundamentalist but at the same time lamenting some of McCain’s recent statements and decision to speak at Falwell’s university.
In Gore’s case, the question is will the unadvised, more risk-taking Gore consider applying for White House residency again — or will he become a “pumpkin” the moment that he gains some momentum and advisors swarm in to give viscosity to a campaign.
I don’t know the answer. All I can say is that I like the Al Gore of most late.
This Al Gore was a student of Roger Revelle, someone I had the pleasure to know in Revelle’s last years in San Diego. Revelle is the person who did the painstaking empirical research that documented the steady increase in atmosphere-trapped greenhouse gases. Revelle was thoughtful, inspiring, a person who naturally cultivated followers.
See this film. And ask yourself if our current President could speak authoritatively about virtually anything other than clearing brush from his Crawford ranch. Perhaps I’m being unfair. But that’s what this film does. It makes one wonder how our world today would have looked if President Gore had won in the Supreme Court rather than George W. Bush.
America needs to get beyond the slick and easy. Gore is clunky, wonky, weirdly innocent in some ways given his background and acumen.
Gore may be the inconvenient truth Americans need to consider for larger things — as well as doing all that is possible to check and abate those factors driving rapid global climate change.
— Steve Clemons
Editor’s Note: This piece was written before I arrived in Vancouver, where Al Gore happened to be the last couple of days — opening his film here.
I had hoped to meet some TWN readers today at a coffee shop, but there was not enough time to organize. I appreciate the many emails and promise to get here again soon — probably in just a few weeks. My apologies, however, this time.
I will be seeing Al Gore again on the night of Monday, 12 June in New York for a book party for the companion book that accompanies this film. I’ll post on that Gore encounter post-vacation.
Thanks to all who have been posting great material — and particularly to former Senator Gary Hart for starting things off.
— Steve Clemons