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The Comeback Kid

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What Gore has said about 2008, repeatedly, is that he does not intend to run, that he does not expect to run, that he has no plans to run. All of which, as every politically sentient being knows, is thoroughly meaningless. What Gore has not said—the magic words—is that he will not run.

I tell him that all of his allies are telling me that everyone they know is telling them that he ought to run. He knows. I tell him about people in Hollywood and Silicon Valley, New York and Washington who say that the country needs him to run. He knows. So what does he say to those people?

“I don’t want to give them any false signal,” Gore replies. “I don’t want to be responsible for anyone feeling that I’m inching toward running again when I’m not. You won’t find a single person in Iowa, New Hampshire, or anywhere who has had the slightest signal that originated with me or anyone speaking for me.”

So let’s clear this up: Why don’t you say right now, unequivocally, that you will not run? Then no one will have the impression that you’re leaving the door ajar.

Gore puts his left elbow on the table, cups his cheek in his hand, and audibly exhales.

“It’s really more a function of my own internal shifting of gears, not an outward coyness. It’s just honest. I was in elected politics for 24 years. I ran four national campaigns. I was first elected to Congress in my twenties. I was around it for all my life before that. And when I say I’m not at a point where I’m willing to say, ‘Never, never, never again under any circumstances,’ I’m just not at the point where I want to say that.”

Coy is not what Gore is being. What Gore is being is smart. His rehabilitation has been propelled by his liberation—by the fact that, as Roy Neel puts it, “he’s not forced into various boxes that you subject yourself to when you’re a traditional politician running for office.” But Gore’s liberation isn’t simply about the words that he can utter; it’s about how those words are heard. He is liberated from the filters that people put on their ears when they’re listening to scheming candidates.

This second form of liberation is essential to the success of his global-warming efforts. Recently, Gore’s people announced the formation of a new nonprofit called the Alliance for Climate Protection. Funded initially by Gore, its mission is to promote public awareness about the climate crisis. The group will be scrupulously nonpartisan, with board members ranging from Carol Browner, Clinton’s head of the EPA, to Brent Scowcroft, Bush 41’s national-security adviser. Were Gore an out-front candidate like, say, Mark Warner, the group would seem tainted—indeed, it might never get off the ground.

Gore is also aware that the moment he becomes a candidate, the halo above his head would be removed with extreme prejudice. “Right now, everyone loves him because he’s not running,” notes Fowler. “But as soon as that changes, all the stored-up venom will be poured on top of him.”

Tony Coehlo agrees. “If there’s a need, he can be a candidate, but it’s not time yet, “ he says. “If he starts thinking that he’s running for president, he screws up what he’s got going, because then he starts to fudge and round his edges. His being free to say what he believes is the right thing, because it’s not how people have ever perceived him. If people start to know who he is, they’ll listen when he speaks about anything.”

The people are listening on a hot Sunday afternoon in West Palm Beach. Gore has returned to the scene of the crime to talk to a group of the Floridian Democratic faithful. The mayor of West Palm introduces Gore with a blend of awkwardness (“We wish you would have had, uh, a better result here”) and fury (“If Al Gore had been president, our sons wouldn’t have been in war!”). The song playing when Gore takes the stage is Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.”

Though Gore is a religious man, one doesn’t recall him quoting Scripture often in the past in his oratory. But today his talk is built around a biblical refrain: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Time and again he repeats the phrase to punctuate a litany of Bush abominations—all of them illustrating the central theme of willful blindness. The ignoring of the warnings before 9/11. Of the warnings before Katrina. Of the warnings about global warming.

This is a stump speech—or rather, half a stump speech. And a damn fine one at that. It’s certainly a more coherent and rousing condemnation of the Bush administration than I’ve heard from any other potential 2008 candidate.


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