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The Comeback Kid

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The inclusion of biographical material gives An Inconvenient Truth, at times, the feel of a campaign film. But when I mention this to Gore, he adamantly disagrees. “Audiences don’t see the movie as political,” he says. “Paramount did a number of focus-group screenings, and that was very clear.”

That may be true when it comes to the science: Gore’s presentation is lucid, empirical, and scarily persuasive. But when it comes to Gore himself, it’s impossible not to be struck by impressions with political implications. Two of those impressions come as no surprise: that Gore is a classic pedant or pedagogue, depending on your tastes (I know more about this than you do, so please listen closely), and that he has a messianic streak (The world is about to end unless you follow my lead). But overriding both is something less expected and more alluring: the image of Gore as passionate, funny, full of conviction, free of contrivance—utterly authentic.

Among Gore’s friends, there is nothing unexpected about it. “This is the true Al Gore,” says Elaine Kamarck, a senior Gore adviser in the White House. “The world has suddenly caught up with him, but the passion has always been there, and the frustration that sometimes makes him sound preachy has always been there, too.”

The Gore boomlet is being driven by a sense of foreboding about Hillary. One strategist likens it to a movie “where everyone sees the disaster coming but no one can figure out what to do about it.”

Yet for those less intimate with Gore, the demeanor on display is sharply at odds with that of the Old Gore—especially the Gore of 2000. “When Al Gore is being Al Gore, he’s incredible, and that’s who he’s being now,” Senator Chuck Schumer tells me. “But that’s not who he was as a presidential candidate. And that’s why he lost.”

The 2000 campaign remains a painful topic for Gore. In the years since, he has dealt with that hurt by generally refusing to discuss the contest. But over dinner one night at the Four Seasons in Toronto, where Gore has come for a screening of the film, I broach the subject anyway—and find him willing to go there.

Looking back, I ask, are you happy with the campaign you ran?

“I think it was a tough environment,” he replies. “It’s now clear that a fairly significant recession started in the spring of the election year, and the stock market fell dramatically all through the campaign, and it came at the end of an eight-year cycle that triggered the normal pendulum effect of American politics—which cuts in two different ways. The hunger of the party that’s been satiated for eight years has a half-life. And the hunger and determination of the party that’s been out for eight years is built up to a fevered pitch. And then there’s a third factor. In both 1992 and 1996, Bill Clinton and I were very fortunate to have a significant third-party candidate that drew virtually all of his votes from the Republican nominee. By contrast, in 2000, there was a third-party candidate drawing from me. And the task of holding down that number to the noise level, while simultaneously reaching out to the centrist voters who were vulnerable to that pendulum effect, made it a campaign of an impressive degree of difficulty.

“In spite of that,” Gore goes on, “we won the popular vote and came within one Supreme Court justice’s vote of winning the election. So if that final decision had gone the other way, the question might well be, how did you guys pull it off?”

Does he, like many Democrats, think the election was stolen?

Gore pauses a long time and stares into the middle distance. “There may come a time when I speak on that,” Gore says, “but it’s not now; I need more time to frame it carefully if I do.” Gore sighs. “In our system, there’s no intermediate step between a definitive Supreme Court decision and violent revolution.”

Later, I put the question of Gore’s views on the matter to David Boies, his lawyer in the Florida-recount battle. “He thought the court’s ruling was wrong and obviously political,” Boies says. So he considers the election stolen? “I think he does—and he’s right.”

Gore’s reading of history has much to commend it, to be sure. But it leaves out a number of salient factors, principally his own failures as a candidate: the failure to capitalize on, or take credit for, the previous eight remarkable years of prosperity and peace; the failure to exploit Clinton’s enduring popularity despite the Monica Lewinsky scandal; the failure to take Bush apart in the debates, where Gore’s performances left the impression that he suffered from multiple-personality disorder; the failure to present a consistent or coherent image of himself, instead offering an incessant series of self-reinventions that made him seem about as authentic as a Prada bag on Canal Street.


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