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The Comeback Kid

The Clintons and the Gores on a bus during a 1992 campaign trip.  

Gore insists that An Inconvenient Truth isn’t meant to be a precursor to a presidential run. “This is a different kind of campaign,” he informs me flatly. “Politics is behind me.”

Yet Gore’s statements about 2008 are as precise and elusive as a Basho haiku: Saying that politics is behind him doesn’t foreclose the possibility that it might also be in front of him. What’s clear is that Gore would love to be president, but the thought of the whole awful business of getting there makes him nearly nauseous. Gore’s awareness of this conundrum is keen and wrenching. How he resolves it will determine not just the shape of the 2008 campaign but whether the New Gore is the real deal or the Old Gore in disguise.

Eleven years ago, I wrote a story about Gore in which I remarked that “what any sensible person does in anticipation of a sustained piece of oratory by Al Gore” is “order another cup of coffee—black.” So I can’t help but laugh when Gore arrives for the first of our conversations carrying a dainty white cup, walks silently over, waiterlike, and intones, “I understand, sir, you take it black.”

It’s a Tuesday afternoon in April, and Gore and I are in a conference room at DreamWorks (whose corporate parent, Paramount, is distributing An Inconvenient Truth) high above Madison Avenue. Gore, 58, is dressed in a dark-blue suit, a crisp white shirt, and cowboy boots. His hair is grayer, but not much thinner, than it was a few years ago. Since 2000, Gore has taken constant ribbing about his weight, to the point that he’s apparently become self-conscious about it. A friend of mine describes attending a party at an apartment in the city and finding Gore in the hallway, facing the wall, furtively wolfing down an ice-cream sundae.

Gore explains that his “life post-politics” consists of five major strands. There’s teaching: He lectures at Middle Tennessee State University and Fisk University. There’s technology: He sits on the board of Apple and serves as a “senior adviser” to Google (a hopelessly vague connection that is rumored to have netted him millions of dollars by way of Google stock). There’s Current TV, his youth-tilted, user-driven cable network. There’s Generation Investment Management, an equity fund run by London moneyman David Blood (the former CEO of Goldman Sachs Asset Management) and former Gore aide Peter Knight, who describes its philosophy as “trying to push the capital markets towards long-term thinking and sustainability.” And then there’s the crusade against global warming, which is clearly first among equals.

In An Inconvenient Truth, Gore traces his interest in climate change to his days as an undergraduate at Harvard, where he took a course taught by Roger Revelle, the first scientist to monitor carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere. In 1981, Gore held the first congressional hearing on the subject. But it wasn’t until the end of the decade, after his precocious but failed presidential-primary run and his son’s near-death in a car accident, that Gore immersed himself in global warming. “I took stock personally of what I was doing in all aspects of my life,” he tells me. “I decided this was the issue that I was going to focus on far more than any other.”

Gore started putting his slide show together. He sat down and wrote Earth in the Balance. And, according to his old friend Reed Hundt, the former FCC commissioner, he set his sights on making a documentary, “something along the lines of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos”—plans that were scuttled by a call from Bill Clinton in 1992.

After the smoke from 2000 cleared, Gore updated his slides—“Tipper said, ‘You should put those in computer-graphics form, Mr. Information Superhighway,’ ” Gore recalls—and started giving his talk in any forum that would invite him. One audience member who saw the presentation was Laurie David, the influential Hollywood activist and wife of comedian Larry David. David tells me she was floored: “It was just so clear that it had to be a movie,” she says.

After rounding up some producing partners and a director, Davis Guggenheim (Deadwood, 24), David flew to San Francisco to pitch Gore on the idea. “I was dubious,” Gore recalls, “that anyone would be willing to make a movie with so much science in it.”

An Inconvenient Truth does, in fact, contain a startling amount of science—and is all the better for it. But it also contains much familiar material drawn from Gore’s life. The story of his son’s accident. Of his sister’s death from cancer. Guggenheim reports that Gore was reluctant to use the personal stuff. “When he’s brought up those stories in the past,” Guggenheim notes, “he’s been punished for it.”