An Oscar. The Nobel Peace Prize. Now, can Al Gore win the presidency?

Rupert Cornwell on an astonishing journey of rebranding, redemption and self-rediscovery
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The Independent Online

On that bleak evening of 12 December 2000, when Al Gore sat huddled with his advisers pondering what seemed like life's crowning disappointment, the presidency of the United States snatched from him not by the voters but by the Supreme Court – who could have imagined that, less than seven years later, it would come to this?

Yesterday's award of the Nobel Peace Prize caps an astonishing journey of rebranding, redemption and self-rediscovery that transformed a defeated, lacklustre former vice-president into the most famous environmentalist on the planet. It has also, inevitably, rekindled among the faithful the hope that, even at this late hour, Gore will enter the 2008 presidential race, and seek the office that has eluded him.

As launch-pad for a political candidacy, these last 10 months have exceeded the wildest strategist's dream: a hit movie, an Oscar, and now the Nobel prize, lending him a moral authority that no potential rival in 2008 could possibly match. "America and the Earth need a hero right now," pleaded the "Draft Gore" campaign in a full page ad in The New York Times this week, urging him to run. Yet, yesterday once again, he gave not the slightest indication that he will. After all he has been through, Al Gore, one suspects, knows better.

Defeat, in an election that most felt he ought to have won with ease, was a traumatic blow that Gore is still reluctant to discuss. "It was difficult and you just have to make the best of it," he told the Los Angeles Times last year. But his loss "did help me to focus on what was most important to carry me forward and right away this surfaced for me very powerfully."

It did not seem so at first. He grew a beard, spent time in Europe and taught a college course. Always a little fleshy, Gore also visibly put on weight. "If Al Gore slims down 25 or 30lb, then watch out," Donna Brazile, his 2000 campaign manager, said earlier this year of tell-tale signs of whether he was contemplating a run next year. As far as can be judged, most of those pounds are still there.

Oddly though, with politics lifted from his shoulders, Gore became a far more convincing politician. He spoke with a passion and urgency long lacking. In December 2002, he took himself out of the 2004 White House contest, saying he did not want the election to turn into a rematch with George Bush, that it was time for the Democrats to move on. By then, however, he was already an outspoken opponent of the all-but-certain war against Iraq, and a more eloquent critic of Republican excesses than he ever was as a candidate two years before.

In the meantime, private citizen Gore founded a cable TV network, joined the board of Apple, and served as a senior adviser for Google. Most important, be hurled himself anew into the environmental issues that had fascinated him since his days at Harvard in the late 1960s, when Roger Revelle, one of his science teachers, warned students how greenhouse gas emissions would – if not curbed – devastate the Earth.

In 1976, Gore was elected to the House of Representatives, where he organised the first congressional hearings on global warming. In the Senate, where he represented Tennessee from 1984 until he was picked by Bill Clinton as his running mate in 1992, he pursued the issue. As Vice-President he helped broker the 1997 Kyoto protocol (never ratified by the US and explicitly repudiated by Mr Bush).

But that activism pales beside the peripatetic Gore of the past few years, as he travelled the globe, lecturing, lobbying, and starring in the documentary film An Inconvenient Truth, spelling out the perils of global warming. He also found time to write a book, The Assault on Reason, a devastating critique of the Bush administration, its trampling of the constitution, and of the US political system in general. All the while, honours and awards rained upon him, culminating in the Oscar and the Nobel Prize. If ever Gore's hour had come, it was surely now.

In cryptic remarks that could be interpreted as an indication of plans for the future,he said last night: "I will be doing everything I can to try to understand how best to use the honour and recognition of this award as a way of speeding up the change in awareness and the change in urgency."

But every sign is that his supporters will be disappointed – this time around at least. "I have no plans to do so," he replies, mantra-like, to the endlessly posed question of whether he will run. Yesterday, at a brief appearance in Palo Alto, California, he ignored it utterly. Now was the time to "elevate global consciousness" about the crisis, he told his audience, "I'm going back to work." Gore ignored shouted questions about his political future as he left the room.

His cause is a higher one, the unwilling hero implies, that is better served by the public advocacy his celebrity makes possible, than by political office with its constraints and inevitable compromises. "The range of things we're talking about now will come to seem so small. "This [climate change] is not a political issue but a moral and spiritual challenge."

But in the US, as nowhere else, once a candidate joins battle, morals and spirituality are part of the package. Were he to reverse course and declare his candidacy, Gore would come to the game very late, less than three months before the first caucus and primary votes, and $80m (£40m) in fundraising behind Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Even so a scenario can – just about – be constructed. Suppose the cautious, ever-more centrist Clinton continues to lap the Democratic field and Obama and John Edwards fall even further behind – even as polls start to show Clinton faring less well in match-ups with Republican front-runner Rudy Giuliani.

A "left-of-Hillary" space would open up. Who better to fill it than the battle-tested, lionised Gore, now clad in the mantle of saviour of the planet? At least one poll in the vital first primary state of New Hampshire has suggested that were he to do so, he would vault over the former first lady.

Look more closely, however, and even larger obstacles emerge. A Gore-Clinton contest would split the party, and create great conflicts of loyalty between their advisers. The Clinton marital psychodrama is moreover surely enough for American voters. The media, bored with what seems the foregone conclusion of a Clinton victory, clamour for Gore to enter the race. The electorate might however suffer psychodrama overload that would rebound against the Democrats.

Moreover, a candidate is never more attractive than when he floats above the fray. Once in the race, he might revert to bad old Gore – the leaden campaigner.

The private Gore can be immensely engaging and funny. Not so, however, in the public political arena, at least in 2000. "How do you tell Gore from his secret service detail?" the joke used to run. "They're the ones who smile."

Most important, Gore appears fulfilled in his current role, committed to the cause that gives him strength, and in whose service being ponderous, even boring, earns admiration, not mockery

One last tantalising consideration. A Gore run may be unlikely in 2008. But if Republicans win next November, he could challenge in 2012, when he would be only 64. And even if a fellow Democrat wins, Gore would be a perfectly electable 68 in 2016. Global warming will not go away.

And nor will Al Gore.

His statement

"For my part, I will be doing everything I can to try to understand how best to use the honour and recognition of this award as a way of speeding up the change in awareness and the change in urgency.

"There's an old African proverb that says if you want to go quickly, go alone; if you want to go far, go together. We have to go far, quickly, and that means that we have to quickly find a way to change the world's consciousness about exactly what we're facing.

"It is the most dangerous challenge we've ever faced but it is also the greatest opportunity that we have ever had to make changes that we should be making for other reasons anyway.

"This is a chance to elevate global consciousness about the challenges that we face now.

"I'm going back to work right now. This is just the beginning. Now is the time to elevate global consciousness about the challenges that we face."

The other Oscar and Nobel winner

The only other person to win a Nobel Prize and an Oscar is the George Bernard Shaw. He won his Nobel in 1925, for services to literature, including plays such as Arms and the Man (1894) and Saint Joan (1923), while the Oscar, for best adapted screenplay, was for Pygmalion (1938), with Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller, adapted from the 1913 play. Born in 1856 in Dublin, Shaw moved to London at the age of 20, where he became an anti-establishment, radical writer of reviews, polemical material, novels and plays. He was highly political and a bastion of the socialist Fabian Society but was equally as well known for comedy writing.

Honoured

* 2006

Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank, Bangladesh

For providing small loans to the poor

* 2005

Mohamed ElBaradei, Egypt and IAEA, based Austria

For efforts to prevent nuclear energy being used by military

* 2004

Wangari Maathai, Kenya

"For her contribution to sustainable development"

* 2003

Shirin Ebadi, Iran

First Muslim woman to win, "for democracy and rights"

* 2002

Jimmy Carter, US

For the Carter Centre which "is committed to alleviating unnecessary suffering"

* 2001

Kofi Annan, Ghana, and UN

For work on HIV/Aids

* 2000

Kim Dae-jung, South Korea

As President, awarded for joint declaration signed with North

* 1999

Médecins Sans Frontières, based in Belgium

For providing emergency medical assistance

* 1998

John Hume and David Trimble, UK

For Good Friday Agreement

* 1997

Jody Williams and International Campaign to Ban Landmines, based in US

For achieving a ban on anti-personnel mines

Source: nobelprize.org

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