One persistent theory is that Gore was in thrall to his campaign consultants, who poll-tested, dial-metered, and focus-grouped every ounce of verve and spontaneity out of him. In the journalist Joe Klein’s new book, Politics Lost, Klein claims that Gore even let his hired guns keep him from talking about the environment.
“It’s almost completely untrue,” Gore declares. “I’m certain there were times when some people in the campaign said, ‘Oh no, he wants to talk about the global environment again, and that’s not going to get us anywhere.’ But that is just a grain of truth—it’s not the truth.” Gore’s voice rises now, and he begins to gesticulate. “My perception is that I talked about it frequently, at length. But the media was less than convinced that global warming was a legitimate issue. They said, ‘It’s odd that he’s talking about this.’ And now, after the fact, they say, ‘I don’t remember him talking about it.’ Well, hello?”
No doubt Gore is right about the media’s myopia concerning the environment. In June 2000, for example, Gore delivered a speech in Philadelphia laying out what Elaine Kamarck calls “the most comprehensive anti-fossil-fuels program ever”—a $150 billion, ten-year plan. The New York Times covered the speech on page A24.
Yet Kamarck remembers Gore’s consultants as having a pernicious effect. “There was a feeling among them that the public already knew that Gore was in favor of the environment,” she says. “The problem was that they didn’t understand that the issue wasn’t the environment; the issue was Gore’s passion. When he talked about that, you saw what he cared about. But it was a constant fight to get the consultants to give him opportunities to talk about it.”
But the fault for this clearly lay with Gore. “He set up a campaign that was run by people who didn’t know him, who were too arrogant to get to know him, who didn’t particularly like him,” says a former aide. “He fought his campaign with a bunch of Hessians.”
And even some of the non-Hessians were singularly unhelpful—in particular, the writer Naomi Wolf, whose advice to Gore to shed his “beta male” image and adopt earth tones in his wardrobe made him a laughingstock. Tony Coelho, Gore’s campaign chairman, tells me that he tried to fire Wolf, but that because she was close to Gore’s elder daughter, Karenna, she was untouchable. “When Gore’s son got hit by the car and Tipper fell into depression, who was the stable one for Al? Karenna,” says Coelho. “He depended on her then and he still does—and she really felt that Naomi could help, so he listened to her.”
The deeper problem was that Gore seemed to listen to everyone about what kind of candidate he should be—everyone but himself. “He said to me once that he felt as if he were that character in Being John Malkovich,” says Carter Eskew, Gore’s longtime adman. “There were all of these voices in his head telling him what to do.”
Staggering as Gore’s deafness to his own voice was in 2000, it had a precedent: the race he ran in 1988. “I began to doubt my own political judgment,” he later wrote, “so I began to ask the pollsters and professional politicians what they thought I ought to talk about. . . . I discussed what everybody else discussed, which too often was a familiar list of what the insiders agree are ‘the issues.’ ”
Gore penned that self-castigation for the introduction to Earth in the Balance. For him, the book and his devotion to environmentalism were part of a quest to absolve himself for his “timidity of vision” and “tendency to put a finger to the political winds and proceed cautiously.” Late in 2000, those who noticed the similarities between that year’s campaign and the one twelve years earlier wondered whether Gore would feel the need afterward to redeem himself by plunging into another moral crusade. And, judging from An Inconvenient Truth, the answer turned out to be yes.
When I point out the parallel to Gore, he gravely nods his head.
“It’s often true that the most important lessons any of us have to learn,” he says, “are the lessons we have to learn more than once.”
In the years before Gore’s father died, in 1998, the old man liked to offer visitors to the marble farmhouse where he lived in middle Tennessee a tour of the kitchen. Its walls were filled with family photographs, many of them tracing the arc of the career of his only son. But one of the walls was left conspicuously bare—the one that Gore Sr. had reserved to memorialize the presidency of Gore Jr.