The second half of the speech, of course, has yet to be written: the half that’s not about the GOP but about Al Gore. Yet its themes are not difficult to imagine. When Gore ran in 2000, he did so from a position of entitlement: the vice-presidency. But the story that he could tell in 2008 would be infinitely more compelling: how he suffered the harshest defeat imaginable and pulled himself back up. As Ron Klain observes, “Americans love a comeback. We’re a comeback-crazed country. And this would be a comeback beyond all comebacks.”
Could it happen? Certainly. In a way, it already has. In 1960, Richard Nixon was beaten by John F. Kennedy by the slenderest of margins (in another possibly stolen election). But eight years later, Nixon—benefiting mightily from the comparison with the 1964 GOP nominee, Barry Goldwater—sloughed off the rejection by the voters and his party to secure the White House.
For all the similarities between Gore’s trajectory and Nixon’s—including Gore’s having a Goldwater of his own in the person of John Kerry—the two men differ in a pivotal respect: Nixon loved politics, lived for it, in a way Gore never has. One night when we were talking, Gore candidly confessed, “I don’t think that my skills are necessarily best deployed as a candidate—I really don’t! I’m not being falsely self-critical. I think there is just an awful lot about politics that I don’t like, a lot of things that feel toxic to me.”
Gore’s ambivalence about politics is as genuine as anything about him. And, in the end, it might keep him out of the hunt in 2008—that and the appeal of the novel role that he’s carving out for himself in public life. The Democratic Party is in dire need of elder statesmen, not to mention truth-tellers, and Gore could provide a valuable service by filling both those voids. And the planet is certainly in need of saving, a cause to which his commitment is evident.
When I ask Gore whether that commitment—and his views about the imminence of environmental calamity unless the U.S. changes its policies—obligates him to seek the White House, he says, “I don’t dispute that a president can make a huge difference. So I feel what you’re saying there. But it’s not the end of the conversation, because what we need more than that is a change in the political conversation in America. In both parties. We need to breathe life back into American democracy. I think I’m making a contribution by speaking my heart as clearly and as boldly as I know how.”
He almost had me convinced with that, so well reasoned and apparently sincere was his disclamation. But then, a few days later, Gore replanted the seeds of doubt. At a talk in Atlanta, after yet another crowd beseeched him to run, he responded with a trusty comeback: “I am a recovering politician.” Then he added, mischievously, “But you always have to worry about a relapse.”