The Comeback Kid

Photo: Platon

Al Gore is back in Washington and back on the campaign trail, two realms with which he has always had a distinctly fraught relationship. For the past three weeks, Gore has been touring the country, appearing at screenings to gin up buzz about his global-warming documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth. The reception has been rapturous: adoring crowds everywhere. Now he’s here at the National Geographic Society for the East Coast premiere, enjoying his freshly minted status as a semi-hemi-demi-movie star (tomorrow he’s off to Cannes), hoping to impress an audience of politicos and pundits who once wrote him off for dead.

The houselights dim. The audience quiets. And Gore, up onscreen, begins to teach. An Inconvenient Truth, in case you haven’t heard, is a feature-length treatment of a slide show Gore has been honing for nearly two decades. For much of that time, he was virtually alone in the political class in fretting about global warming. But that was before what Gore describes as our recent “nature hike through the Book of Revelations.” Before the record-breaking heat waves, the melting glaciers, the drowning polar bears. Before the droughts, the typhoons, the tornadoes. And, oh, yes, before Katrina.

Gore professes no pride in having his warnings so vividly vindicated. “I wish that what I wrote in Earth in the Balance”—his best-selling 1992 jeremiad on the environment—“had been proven completely wrong,” he tells me during one of several lengthy conversations. “I don’t find satisfaction in being right about such a dangerous threat.”

Maybe so, but it would take either superhuman insouciance or acute amnesia for him not to relish the resurgence he’s currently experiencing. When Gore decamped from the capital to Nashville five years ago with his wife, Tipper, the move was seen as a kind of Nixonian exile. The Washington Establishment viewed him with a mix of scorn and pity. In the eyes of Democrats, he was the rightful heir to the White House who’d simultaneously let the prize slip through his fingers and be swiped from under his nose. The results for the country would prove calamitous—and Gore was to blame.

And yet tonight all of that seems a very long time ago. When the movie ends, the assembled panjandrums—from Democratic senators Harry Reid and Christopher Dodd to Joe Wilson, Valerie Plame, and Queen Noor—emit a warm ovation; at the cocktail party afterward, they slap his back, congratulate him on his recent cameo on Saturday Night Live, sing hosannas to the New Gore. Suddenly, the former vice-president no longer seems an entirely tragic figure but a faintly heroic one. Suddenly, many Democrats are wondering if he will run again in 2008—and reaching the improbable, nay astonishing, conclusion that it might be a good idea.

Al Gore has been in public life since 1976, when he was elected to Congress at the age of 28. Throughout his career, he has won praise for his intelligence and discipline, for his rectitude and engagement with ideas. He’s also been pilloried for his tone-deafness, lambasted for his lack of charisma, turned into a punch line for his (literal) rigidity. But what no one has ever said about Gore was that he inspired much passion, even among his adherents. He was always esteemed, never beloved—until now, that is.

The burst of enthusiasm for Gore owes much to his emergence, since 9/11, as one of the Bush administration’s most full-throated critics. On state-sanctioned torture, wiretapping, and, crucially, Iraq, his indictments have been searing and prescient, often far ahead of his party. He has sounded nothing like the Gore we remember—calculating, chameleonic, soporific—from the 2000 campaign. He has sounded like a man, in the words of a top Republican strategist, who “found his voice in the wilderness.”

But the Gore boomlet is also being driven by another force: the creeping sense of foreboding about the prospect of Hillary Clinton’s march to her party’s nomination. “Every conversation in Democratic politics right now has the same three sentences,” observes a senior party player. “One: ‘She is the presumptive front-runner.’ Two: ‘I don’t much like her, but I don’t want to cross her, for God’s sake!’ And three: ‘If she’s our nominee, we’re going to get killed.’ It’s like some Japanese epic film where everyone sees the disaster coming in the third reel but no one can figure out what to do about it.”

Gore’s loyalists take pains to avoid criticizing Hillary (on the record, at least). But many of them plainly see their guy as the solution to the Democrats’ dilemma. “If he runs, he’s certainly the front-runner or the co-front-runner with Mrs. Clinton,” contends Ron Klain, Gore’s former vice-presidential chief of staff. “And, in the end, he would probably win the nomination.”

The Clintons and the Gores on a bus during a 1992 campaign trip.Photo: Cynthia Johnson/Getty Images

Gore insists that An Inconvenient Truth isn’t meant to be a precursor to a presidential run. “This is a different kind of campaign,” he informs me flatly. “Politics is behind me.”

Yet Gore’s statements about 2008 are as precise and elusive as a Basho haiku: Saying that politics is behind him doesn’t foreclose the possibility that it might also be in front of him. What’s clear is that Gore would love to be president, but the thought of the whole awful business of getting there makes him nearly nauseous. Gore’s awareness of this conundrum is keen and wrenching. How he resolves it will determine not just the shape of the 2008 campaign but whether the New Gore is the real deal or the Old Gore in disguise.

Eleven years ago, I wrote a story about Gore in which I remarked that “what any sensible person does in anticipation of a sustained piece of oratory by Al Gore” is “order another cup of coffee—black.” So I can’t help but laugh when Gore arrives for the first of our conversations carrying a dainty white cup, walks silently over, waiterlike, and intones, “I understand, sir, you take it black.”

It’s a Tuesday afternoon in April, and Gore and I are in a conference room at DreamWorks (whose corporate parent, Paramount, is distributing An Inconvenient Truth) high above Madison Avenue. Gore, 58, is dressed in a dark-blue suit, a crisp white shirt, and cowboy boots. His hair is grayer, but not much thinner, than it was a few years ago. Since 2000, Gore has taken constant ribbing about his weight, to the point that he’s apparently become self-conscious about it. A friend of mine describes attending a party at an apartment in the city and finding Gore in the hallway, facing the wall, furtively wolfing down an ice-cream sundae.

Gore explains that his “life post-politics” consists of five major strands. There’s teaching: He lectures at Middle Tennessee State University and Fisk University. There’s technology: He sits on the board of Apple and serves as a “senior adviser” to Google (a hopelessly vague connection that is rumored to have netted him millions of dollars by way of Google stock). There’s Current TV, his youth-tilted, user-driven cable network. There’s Generation Investment Management, an equity fund run by London moneyman David Blood (the former CEO of Goldman Sachs Asset Management) and former Gore aide Peter Knight, who describes its philosophy as “trying to push the capital markets towards long-term thinking and sustainability.” And then there’s the crusade against global warming, which is clearly first among equals.

In An Inconvenient Truth, Gore traces his interest in climate change to his days as an undergraduate at Harvard, where he took a course taught by Roger Revelle, the first scientist to monitor carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere. In 1981, Gore held the first congressional hearing on the subject. But it wasn’t until the end of the decade, after his precocious but failed presidential-primary run and his son’s near-death in a car accident, that Gore immersed himself in global warming. “I took stock personally of what I was doing in all aspects of my life,” he tells me. “I decided this was the issue that I was going to focus on far more than any other.”

Gore started putting his slide show together. He sat down and wrote Earth in the Balance. And, according to his old friend Reed Hundt, the former FCC commissioner, he set his sights on making a documentary, “something along the lines of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos”—plans that were scuttled by a call from Bill Clinton in 1992.

After the smoke from 2000 cleared, Gore updated his slides—“Tipper said, ‘You should put those in computer-graphics form, Mr. Information Superhighway,’ ” Gore recalls—and started giving his talk in any forum that would invite him. One audience member who saw the presentation was Laurie David, the influential Hollywood activist and wife of comedian Larry David. David tells me she was floored: “It was just so clear that it had to be a movie,” she says.

After rounding up some producing partners and a director, Davis Guggenheim (Deadwood, 24), David flew to San Francisco to pitch Gore on the idea. “I was dubious,” Gore recalls, “that anyone would be willing to make a movie with so much science in it.”

An Inconvenient Truth does, in fact, contain a startling amount of science—and is all the better for it. But it also contains much familiar material drawn from Gore’s life. The story of his son’s accident. Of his sister’s death from cancer. Guggenheim reports that Gore was reluctant to use the personal stuff. “When he’s brought up those stories in the past,” Guggenheim notes, “he’s been punished for it.”

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.

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.

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.

Gore’s performances outside and inside the theater get me thinking about Bill Clinton; about what a cruel fate it was for Gore to be constantly compared with him. Though Clinton wasn’t as wonky or earnest about technology as Gore, he too always had an eye turned toward the future. But Clinton was always a man of the moment, and his performance skills were freakish. Where Clinton is a classic extrovert, Gore is “not a classic introvert, but I’m on the line,” as he puts it. “Most people in politics draw energy from backslapping and shaking hands and all that. I draw energy from discussing ideas.”

After the Lewinsky scandal and the 2000 campaign, the Clinton-Gore relationship plummeted into a downward spiral. On Gore’s side, there was a bedrock belief that, as one of his friends puts it, “if Clinton hadn’t been impeached, Al Gore would be president and the world would be a different place.” And on Clinton’s side, there was certainty that had Gore been even a modestly competent campaigner, the impeachment wouldn’t have mattered—a view the Clinton people (and Clinton himself) liberally spread around. By the time Clinton and Gore left the White House, each was nurturing such grave resentments that they were no longer speaking.

Back at the hotel, Gore informs me that the breach has been repaired. We’re sitting in his room—“The presidential suite! That hurts!” he cries—and Gore has just cracked his second Heineken.

“I’d just arrived in Vienna on September 11,” he says, “and when the planes hit the towers, I knew right away it was bin Laden.” Gore’s first thought was to call Tipper; his next was to call Clinton. “When we were in office, there was nothing significant that happened where we didn’t talk very quickly,” he says. “This was such a horrible event, one that affected the whole country, it was just a natural.”

“He felt as if he were that character in Being John Malkovich,” says a friend about the 2000 campaign. “There were all of these voices in his head, telling him what to do.”

But Clinton was in Australia, unreachable. Gore turned his attention to getting home. A private citizen now, he was stuck for two days, until he got a flight to Toronto. Traveling with an aide, he rented a car and headed for Washington, where Bush had scheduled a prayer service the next morning at the National Cathedral. They were planning to drive all night to get there, but at eleven o’clock, Gore says, “my cell phone rang, and it was Clinton. He said, ‘Why don’t you stop off in Chappaqua and spend the night with me?’ I said, ‘That would be great.’ He said, ‘They’re sending a plane for me tomorrow, so you can fly down with me.’ ”

Gore arrived in Chappaqua around three in the morning. “He and I stayed up all night long, talking and reminiscing,” Gore recalls. “It’s hard to say we were having a good time in the midst of that terrible tragedy—we were not—but it was great to be with him again; we have both always enjoyed the long conversations that we had.”

So that constituted the rapprochement? All of the resentments fell away?

“Yeah, I guess, but I don’t want to say that in a way that completely buys into the premise,” Gore replies. “There is truth to the premise, but it’s not true that whatever tensions there were matched the friendship and camaraderie and common purposes. We’ve just been through too much together. We have a bond that’ll never be shaken—and it was very clear that moment. We’ll never be eclipsed by any disagreement, we just won’t be. It’s not a brother-to-brother relationship, but it’s in that family.”

There is something ineffably comforting about knowing that Gore and Clinton are no longer stewing in the juices of mutual recrimination. But what makes Gore’s sepia-toned response even more notable is the contrast with how he addresses another question: What does he think of the politician Hillary Clinton is becoming?

“Well, I think that she’s doing a very effective job for her state,” he says slowly, ponderously. “I think she’s going to be reelected overwhelmingly. I think she has impressed her colleagues in the Senate and demonstrated an ability to work in a bipartisan way with Republican senators you might have not believed she could form alliances with.”

Oy vey.

Undaunted, I ask about Senator Clinton’s vote to authorize the Iraq war.

“Look, she and President Clinton and Tipper and I have been through so much together,” he says, now almost plaintively. “I will say that all the Democrats who supported the war made a mistake, in my opinion. But I’m not going to single her out.”

Gore’s relationship with Hillary has long been the subject of close study by those in their respective orbits. But few of the extant theories involve the concept of bonhomie. “He intensely dislikes her,” says one former Gore adjutant. “It all goes back to 1993 and 1994, when there were two vice-presidents: Al Gore and Hillary Clinton. They fought for turf, for resources, for projects. It was almost like a sibling rivalry over who was the second-most-important person in the White House. Second, they’re highly similar people. They’re very intellectual, very moralistic, very black-and-white—whereas President Clinton’s view was ‘You’re my enemy today, you’re my friend tomorrow. You fuck up today, you’re going to save the day tomorrow. I want to get along with everybody.’ And third, when Gore-istas say, ‘We think Clinton was a negative for Gore in 2000,’ high on that list is Mrs. Clinton’s running for Senate in 2000—so instead of her and the president being seen as a fading force and letting Gore emerge, it was the Clinton dynasty being seen as an ever-present force in American politics.”

Speculation about Gore’s inclination to thwart Hillary has grown in lockstep with the mounting disquiet over her status as the Democratic front-runner. The disquiet, says Clinton White House press secretary Mike McCurry, “comes from two things. It’s not just the sense that we’ve been into that soap opera before and we don’t need to see the country polarized again in that unique way that the Clintons seem to polarize people. It’s also this new, edgier voice that’s emerging in the party, which says, ‘We have got to stand up for what we believe, and that means not standing in the mushy center.’ ”

What those who see Hillary as the Great Equivocator (or, if you prefer, the Great Triangulator) and those who see her as the Great Polarizer share in common are doubts about her electability. “We can’t afford to fool around anymore—we need to win the next election,” says Laurie David. “It’s not time to experiment with trying to put in office the first female president or with somebody people feel is such a polarizing figure.”

Hence the argument for Gore. To begin with, unlike all but a handful of Democrats, Gore, with his ties to the Netroots and his burgeoning personal wealth, could readily raise the requisite funds to take on Mrs. Clinton. Having loudly and steadfastly opposed the war, he could challenge her from the left. Yet on national security, he could simultaneously run to her right, given his long-held expertise about bombs and bullets and his advocacy of intervention in Kosovo and Bosnia; as a putative commander-in-chief, his credentials are beyond reproach (no small thing in an age of terror). Similarly, Gore’s anti-global-warming jihad would stand him in good stead with the greens and other liberals, while his long and demonstrated history as a moderate on countless other issues (from the deficit to “reinventing government”) would allow him to score with centrist Democrats who fear that Clinton is a once-and-future lefty.

Thus does the Gore 2008 bandwagon gather steam from coast to coast. “I’d quit everything to work for the guy if he’d run,” David says. “And I think the Hollywood community would do anything to support him.” Donnie Fowler, the San Francisco– based operative who was runner-up to Howard Dean in the race for chairman of the Democratic National Committee, concurs: “Sure, I think he should run again. He’s speaking with no fear now about what he believes in, and that’s what the American people want from political leadership.”

The Washington Establishment, for its part, is more circumspect. Only one congressman—Jim Moran of Virginia—has called openly for Gore to run. And there are plenty of people inside the Beltway who doubt that Gore has overcome his shortcomings as a candidate. “He was god-awful in 1988, he was god-awful in 2000, and he’d be god-awful again in 2008,” says a Democratic think-tank maven. “This whole world-is-ending spiel is very dark and unattractive.”

But McCurry, among others, believes the party “would be receptive” to a Gore candidacy. “Rank-and-file Democrats, in a primary setting, are only going to have one thing on their minds: winning. If people watch Gore and think, By God, this guy’s got what it takes now, it’s perfectly possible that he could be the candidate of the party.”

How Gore might fare in a general election would depend, of course, on whom the GOP chooses as its nominee. But at least one senior Republican strategist for a top-tier presidential wannabe maintains that Gore would be far tougher to handle than Hillary. “Gore has liabilities of his own,” he says. “But there’s just no question that hers are much deeper than his.” (This strategist even goes so far as to suggest a perfect slogan for the former vice-president: “No more Clintons. No more Bushes. Gore 2008.”)

No surprise, then, that the prospect of Gore redux is causing queasiness in the Clinton ranks. For some time, the thinking there has been that only two potential candidates have the capacity to toss the chessboard in the air, altering Team Hillary’s carefully calibrated plans: Barack Obama and Gore. And it is Gore who would produce the biggest fits—not least because he would bring to the surface all the old internecine rivalries and interfamilial weirdness of the Clinton years.

“Think about Bill,” an old Clinton hand says, half-jokingly. “You can see him talking to Hillary one minute, then ducking into his study to take Gore’s call and advise him on how to beat her. He’s Clinton, you know—he just can’t help himself.”

Al Gore stares across the table. He’s ready for the question. He’s probably been waiting for it since he first laid eyes on me.

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.

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.” The Trouble With Hillary

The Trouble With Hillary

The Comeback Kid