For a man in whom the expectation of occupying the Oval Office was ingrained from birth, Gore handled the disappointment of 2000 with rare poise and stoicism. Though his jokes about it—“Hi, I’m Al Gore and I used to be the next president of the United States”—are now shopworn, they never fail to get a laugh. In An Inconvenient Truth, he expresses his reaction to the outcome thus: “That was a hard blow, but what do you do? You make the best of it.”
Gore is quick to tell me, when I ask about the hardness of the blow, that the phrase isn’t entirely personal. “The principal source of disappointment was not the dashed expectations for me or my family,” he explains, “but the consequences for the country” of George W. Bush’s victory. “What the country has subsequently gone through was much worse than I ever thought, but I expected it to be bad.”
Gore’s anger at Bush may be a kind of coping mechanism—but it is searing and visceral. And it’s been the fuel propelling him on the road to political rehabilitation.
Gore took his first step on that road in September 2002, when he gave a speech at the Commonwealth Club, in San Francisco. The speech, a blazing attack on Bush’s march to war in Iraq, centered on the argument that an incursion against Saddam Hussein would undermine the struggle against Al Qaeda. Gore read a draft of the speech to a friend before delivering it. “I said, ‘Holy shit, this is powerful,’ ” recalls this friend. “And nobody else is saying this.”
A few months later, Gore decided to forgo a Bush grudge match in 2004; a year after that, he endorsed Howard Dean. When Dean imploded, the choice looked foolish—but in retrospect, it seems shrewd. Gore says his endorsement was based on Dean’s being the only Democrat in the field (not including the no-hope caucus of Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich) fervently denouncing the Iraq war; and that Dean, as Gore puts it, “was modeling a new kind of campaign, based on the Internet, a new hope of being less dependent on special-interest money.”
Between the Dean endorsement, his position on the war, and the fury of his critique of the administration, Gore was building a constituency where he’d never had one before: on the left wing of his party. Had Gore been radicalized by his loss in 2000? Was he always more populist than he’d let on? Or had he simply grasped that the energy in Democratic politics was shifting from the Beltway toward the so-called Netroots? Possibly, the answer is all three.
As for taking a pass on 2004, that now seems the clever play, too. Gore explained his recusal by saying that another round of Bush v. Gore would be divisive to the country. A race nasty, brutish, personal—and expensive. “The Bush crowd was going to throw hundreds of millions of dollars at that campaign,” says Roy Neel, a veteran Gore adviser. “Fund-raising would have been a nightmare.”
But at least one of Gore’s former aides believes that there was more calculation involved—that Gore was keeping his powder dry for 2008. “He has acquired a halo from being out of politics,” this person says. “Americans love nonpoliticians, and Gore understands this. For a couple years, in a very disciplined way, he resisted a lot of tempting offers to make himself a more public figure.” At one point in the run-up to 2004, this person called Gore and begged him to enter the fray. Gore demurred, offering an explanation that was infinitely telling: “You can’t be missed if you never go away,” he said.
After dinner in Toronto, Gore and I walk across the street from the hotel to the cinema where An Inconvenient Truth has just finished screening. Gore is talking about his fascination with the future and what an oddball it has made him politically. “We had this meeting in London for Generation”—his investment fund—“and there was a presentation that looks at all the business ideas that can be invested in. There’re ideas that are mature, ideas that are maturing, ideas that are past their prime, venture-capital-stage ideas—and a category called ‘predawn.’ And all of a sudden it hit me: Most of my political career was spent investing in predawn ideas!” Gore laughs. “I thought, Oh, that’s where I went wrong!”
Gore’s arrival in the theater is greeted with thunderous applause. Standing on a riser in front, he takes questions for 45 minutes. Gore is winning in this setting, loose and informal. Asked about the connection between faith and being green, he quips, “Noah was commanded to preserve biodiversity.” Only once does he lapse into Old Gore didacticism, answering a query about the film’s release schedule with a lecture—“There is, in the modern-day economics of movies, a certain time lag after the theatrical release, when there will be DVDs available”—that leaves his questioner looking stunned and defeated, as if he’s been bludgeoned with a stick.