Al Gore: He's back

The anger that many Democrats felt towards him has been largely exhausted and something like a halo has settled over him
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The Independent Online

During the opening sequence of his new documentary on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore speaks about failure. He has failed, he says, "to get the message across" about the perils of carbon consumption for our planet. His film, accompanied by a new book, is his attempt to do better this time.

The movie, which opened on limited release in the US just three days ago, may indeed go far to heal Gore's frustration. The response at early screenings, including at the Sundance Festival in January and a week ago in Cannes, has been near adulatory. Industry insiders are already muttering "Best Documentary Oscar" and at last Gore may succeed in his quest to make "climate crisis" a household phrase.

Gore says something else more than once in the film: the issue of global warming is a moral one, not a political one. All of us share the responsibility to save Earth from the calamity of melting ice caps and rising oceans, whatever party we vote for. He doesn't want us distracted by memories of November 2000, of the botched Florida count, of George Bush swiping the White House from under his nose.

Yet, there is almost no one in America, whether Democrat or Republican, who doesn't think about Gore in those terms. When he says "failure", all of us still think 2000. The consequences of his losing are still with us. Memories rush back of butterfly ballots, of the 5-4 vote in the Supreme Court, of his vanishing from the public view and his resurfacing one year later sporting a scratchy beard.

And America is suddenly thinking about Gore, now 58, a very great deal. Are we to take his "this-is-not-political" protestations at face value? If he just missed hitting the target as an eco-evangelist before - his first tome on the matter, Earth in the Balance, came out back in 1992 and was a best seller - the film is his second chance and possibly his comeback. Are we, in fact, witnessing the stirrings of a political comeback too?

Gore flirted with being an artist as a young man and it is often observed that the art of politics, especially campaigning, does not come naturally to him. Yet, he has never really been able to escape politics. Born on 31 March 1948, he found himself as a boy enjoying summers on his father's ranch in Carthage, Tennessee, but confined the rest of the year to a hotel suite in Washington DC, where his father, Albert Sr, was himself a US senator. A high-flying student who went to Harvard, young Albert always knew what was expected of him - to serve and, ultimately, to become US president.

His father had little reason to complain when he died in 1998. Gore was only 28 when he was first elected to the US House of Representatives in 1976. He was re-elected by his Tennessee constituents three times until, in 1984, he ran and won a seat in the Senate. Four years later he made his first stab at realising his father's dream. However, his 1988 presidential campaign quickly petered out. Then, in 1992, came an invitation from Bill Clinton to be his running mate. The next eight years of his career were thus set, serving as a vice-president who quickly emerged as more than simply a cipher beside the Commander-in-Chief, even if he faced unusual competition for funding and public attention from the person who perhaps was the real White House number two: first lady Hillary Clinton.

Political analysts still argue about what went wrong exactly with Gore's 2002 campaign against George W. A common theory is that he became a slave to pollsters and consultants, thus giving a multi-personality performance to voters and allowing his true self - a politician of unimpeachable virtue with passions that were real - to be smothered. For better or worse (many say worse) he also distanced himself from his still popular boss, Bill Clinton.

The story of Florida in November 2000 has been told a thousand times. But the tragedy for Gore was surely acute. Not only did he win the popular vote across America, he actually won more votes than any Democrat candidate before him and indeed any candidate for president with the exception of Ronald Reagan. Still today, there are political scientists willing to argue that the manner of his final defeat, with the ultimate ruling left to the Supreme Court, amounted to the theft of the presidency by George Bush.

Gore finally accepted the ruling with grace, saying he had decided to concede, "for the sake of our unity of the people and the strength of our democracy". With his wife, Tipper, he decamped from Washington, where the memories of loss wouldn't die, to a house near the ranch of his upbringing in Tennessee. Rather than publicly venting about his former foe and his disappointment, he disappeared from view, taking up a teaching position in Tennessee and, in the summer of 2001, taking an extended sailing trip with Tipper around the Greek islands. It was on the boat that he grew the beard, which many took as symbolising a decision to lead a quiet life that would never again take him into the fray of politics.

When the terrorists struck on 11 September 2001, Gore offered George Bush praise for the way he led the country out of that crisis. But that support for the new Commander in Chief did not last very long. Gore has remarked many times that he believes Bush was doing fine until taking a disastrous turn the following year: making Iraq part of his formula for avenging the toppling of the Twin Towers.

If you are looking for the precise moment when Gore chose to end his political purdah, it was in September 2002 when he emerged to deliver a speech to the Commonwealth Club that was a scorching attack on Bush and his march towards war in Iraq. An invasion, Gore reasoned, would be a tragic distraction from the real task at hand, the punishing of al-Qa'ida and Osama bin Laden.

Gore did not stop making speeches, kindling speculation that his interest in presidential politics had not died after all. Yet soon thereafter he made the key decision not to stage a grudge match against Bush in 2004. A little later, he was to endorse the one man in the field of Democratic nominees who was most closely iterating his own views about Iraq, Howard Dean. It was a choice that painted Gore in more left-leaning and grass-roots colours than we had seen before even if the endorsement was perhaps ill-fated - Dean famously imploded early on in the campaign, handing the nomination to John Kerry.

But as Gore continued to shed the skin of hurt and disappointment, he directed his energies in directions other than party political. Reminding everyone of another of his long-held passions, the development and democratisation of the internet, he joined the board of Apple in 2003. Soon afterwards, he yoked himself to Google as an outside consultant. It was a move made a little before Google went public and the subsequent surge in the company's share value is rumoured to have made Gore millions.

He didn't stop there, however. Teaming up with the London-based former CEO of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, David Blood, Gore in late 2004 co-founded an investment fund with a declared commitment to companies making contributing to renewable industry. The firm, Generation Investment Management, has pumped money into BP, for instance, in recognition of its interest in renewable energy technology. Casting himself also as a media entrepreneur, Gore in the same year co-founded Current, a cable television channel aimed at the 18-34-year age group that asks viewers to contribute directly to its programming. The channel is struggling, but its intent seems refreshing.

The anger that many Democrats felt towards Gore in the wake of 2000 has largely been exhausted (some of it inherited by Kerry) and with all of this activism, something like a halo has settled over him. Many things about Gore are appealing again: his reconnection with grass-roots Democrats and the unimpeachable sincerity of his commitment to the environment. Though this is not widely advertised, he and Tipper, for example, go so far as to calculate the extent of their annual carbon fuel expenditure with their travels and compensate by buying off-sets. They have given money to a solar energy company in India and a hydro-electric project in Bulgaria.

In a breakfast television appearance last week, Gore once more made an attempt to damp down speculation about the comeback that would really matter: running for his party's nomination in 2008. Still skilled at the art of political obfuscation, he didn't exactly rule it out, however. "I've said I'm not at the stage of my life where I'm going to say never in the rest of my life will I ever think about such a thing."

Only Gore knows what he will do. Conventional wisdom still tips slightly in favour of his eschewing the challenge of another presidential run. But only slightly. Democrats, meanwhile, seem to be divided over the virtue of another Gore candidacy.

It is impossible to ponder a Gore 2008 campaign, meanwhile, without considering the other person whom everyone expects to seek the nomination, Senator Clinton. Those who favour Gore jumping in tend to be those (and there are many of them) who believe that while Hillary may almost be guaranteed the nomination as of now, she may easily lose badly when it comes to capturing the White House itself.

The minuses to a Hillary candidacy include an absence of charisma, the fact that she is woman - a factor that can't be ignored - and her newly acquired moderate position, which saw her support the Iraq war. Gore scores about the same on charisma, but he has something that appeals to some insiders: his base today is much more towards the left and the grass roots of the party.

At the least, Gore may be forced to admit that he is no longer the loser he was in 2000. Making a cameo appearance recently on the comedy show Saturday Night Live, he averred that "I wasn't a very good politician", to which a fan in the audience cried, "Well, you won." Gore, who in person is a much funnier man than you would imagine with a wry, self-deprecating wit, fired back: "Oh well. There is that."

A Life in Brief

BORN Albert Arnold Gore Jnr, Washington DC, 31 March 1948; son of Albert Gore Snr (a US Senator), and Pauline LaFon Gore (a lawyer).

FAMILY Married Mary Elizabeth Aitcheson (Tipper Gore), 1970; four children and two grandchildren.

EDUCATION St Albans Episcopal School for Boys in Washington, Harvard University (BA 1969), Vanderbilt School of Religion (1971-72), Vanderbilt Law School (1974-76).

CAREER Military journalist in Vietnam, January-May, 1971; reporter, The Tennessean, 1971-76; member of the US House of Representatives, 1977-85; US Senator, 1985-92; US Vice-President, 1993-2001; Democrat candidate for US President, 2000; visiting professor: Fisk University, Middle Tennessee State University, UCLA, 2001- present; star of An Inconvenient Truth, a film about global warming (2006).

HE SAYS "Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court's decision, I accept it." - conceding the 2000 election

THEY SAY "The reality is, Gore is back and he's hot" - USA Today