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The Comeback Kid

As Democrats worry about their 2008 chances, out of the wilderness comes a stranger to save them. Wait a minute. That’s no stranger. that’s . . . Al Gore!?!

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Al Gore is back in Washington and back on the campaign trail, two realms with which he has always had a distinctly fraught relationship. For the past three weeks, Gore has been touring the country, appearing at screenings to gin up buzz about his global-warming documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth. The reception has been rapturous: adoring crowds everywhere. Now he’s here at the National Geographic Society for the East Coast premiere, enjoying his freshly minted status as a semi-hemi-demi-movie star (tomorrow he’s off to Cannes), hoping to impress an audience of politicos and pundits who once wrote him off for dead.

The houselights dim. The audience quiets. And Gore, up onscreen, begins to teach. An Inconvenient Truth, in case you haven’t heard, is a feature-length treatment of a slide show Gore has been honing for nearly two decades. For much of that time, he was virtually alone in the political class in fretting about global warming. But that was before what Gore describes as our recent “nature hike through the Book of Revelations.” Before the record-breaking heat waves, the melting glaciers, the drowning polar bears. Before the droughts, the typhoons, the tornadoes. And, oh, yes, before Katrina.

Gore professes no pride in having his warnings so vividly vindicated. “I wish that what I wrote in Earth in the Balance”—his best-selling 1992 jeremiad on the environment—“had been proven completely wrong,” he tells me during one of several lengthy conversations. “I don’t find satisfaction in being right about such a dangerous threat.”

Maybe so, but it would take either superhuman insouciance or acute amnesia for him not to relish the resurgence he’s currently experiencing. When Gore decamped from the capital to Nashville five years ago with his wife, Tipper, the move was seen as a kind of Nixonian exile. The Washington Establishment viewed him with a mix of scorn and pity. In the eyes of Democrats, he was the rightful heir to the White House who’d simultaneously let the prize slip through his fingers and be swiped from under his nose. The results for the country would prove calamitous—and Gore was to blame.

And yet tonight all of that seems a very long time ago. When the movie ends, the assembled panjandrums—from Democratic senators Harry Reid and Christopher Dodd to Joe Wilson, Valerie Plame, and Queen Noor—emit a warm ovation; at the cocktail party afterward, they slap his back, congratulate him on his recent cameo on Saturday Night Live, sing hosannas to the New Gore. Suddenly, the former vice-president no longer seems an entirely tragic figure but a faintly heroic one. Suddenly, many Democrats are wondering if he will run again in 2008—and reaching the improbable, nay astonishing, conclusion that it might be a good idea.

Al Gore has been in public life since 1976, when he was elected to Congress at the age of 28. Throughout his career, he has won praise for his intelligence and discipline, for his rectitude and engagement with ideas. He’s also been pilloried for his tone-deafness, lambasted for his lack of charisma, turned into a punch line for his (literal) rigidity. But what no one has ever said about Gore was that he inspired much passion, even among his adherents. He was always esteemed, never beloved—until now, that is.

The burst of enthusiasm for Gore owes much to his emergence, since 9/11, as one of the Bush administration’s most full-throated critics. On state-sanctioned torture, wiretapping, and, crucially, Iraq, his indictments have been searing and prescient, often far ahead of his party. He has sounded nothing like the Gore we remember—calculating, chameleonic, soporific—from the 2000 campaign. He has sounded like a man, in the words of a top Republican strategist, who “found his voice in the wilderness.”

But the Gore boomlet is also being driven by another force: the creeping sense of foreboding about the prospect of Hillary Clinton’s march to her party’s nomination. “Every conversation in Democratic politics right now has the same three sentences,” observes a senior party player. “One: ‘She is the presumptive front-runner.’ Two: ‘I don’t much like her, but I don’t want to cross her, for God’s sake!’ And three: ‘If she’s our nominee, we’re going to get killed.’ It’s like some Japanese epic film where everyone sees the disaster coming in the third reel but no one can figure out what to do about it.”

Gore’s loyalists take pains to avoid criticizing Hillary (on the record, at least). But many of them plainly see their guy as the solution to the Democrats’ dilemma. “If he runs, he’s certainly the front-runner or the co-front-runner with Mrs. Clinton,” contends Ron Klain, Gore’s former vice-presidential chief of staff. “And, in the end, he would probably win the nomination.”


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