Citizen Gore

The race for the Democratic presidential nomination is more up in the air than it seems. Much has been made on cable news channels of Hillary Clinton’s lead, which has grown since the spring to 22 points over Barack Obama, according to a recent USA Today poll.1 But national polls are meaningless because we choose nominees state by state, and in the crucial early primary states, such as New Hampshire, the picture is far different. The best snapshot we’ve been given to date of Iowa, for example, is to be found in a Washington Post–ABC News poll from the same week showing Obama with 27 percent, leading both Clinton and John Edwards by a (statistically insignificant) single point.2 In other early-voting states, surveys similarly show that the race is much closer than suggested by the national polls.3

Such polls obscure what is in fact a volatile situation that will likely pass through two or three more distinct phases as the actual primaries near. If, for example, 2004 is any guide, the voters of Iowa and New Hampshire will begin, about three weeks before they vote, to take a hard look at the question of which of the candidates seems the most electable (this was the main basis on which John Kerry vaulted past Howard Dean). Looking at the race from this perspective only blurs the picture further, however, because each of the three leading contenders can make reasonable-sounding claims: Clinton, that she is the most battle-tested, experienced, and safely centrist, and brings Bill with her; Obama, that he is the freshest face and the least vulnerable to attack, and that he alone among the leading contenders never supported the unpopular Iraq war; Edwards, that he is the boldest at a time when boldness is called for, and that he is a white—Southern—male, although of course he can’t quite put it that way.4

For a significant number of impatient citizens, there is one more possible candidate who is, they would argue, the most electable of all. First, he’s already won a presidential election; he was merely denied his rightful victory by an ethically compromised Supreme Court majority. Second, to the extent that foreign policy and terrorism remain potential Democratic weaknesses, he has extensive experience and expertise in dealing with both. Third, he was right on Iraq. And fourth and most importantly, he has reemerged in the Bush era as a completely different man from the cautious candidate, surrounded by too many consultants, we saw in the 2000 campaign.

Al Gore could not even bring himself to criticize the teaching of creationism alongside evolution in the science curricula of Kansas schools in 1999 (a moment that has stuck with me). Now, he has cast caution aside and is a truth-teller—on Iraq, on executive power, on the corrosive role of television in politics, and indeed on the need to give science priority over faith in public deliberations (although not specifically, to my knowledge, on Darwin). The Assault on Reason, in which he meticulously considers these four subjects, reflects the speeches he’s given in recent years and, of course, his film on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth—a record that has, for most liberals, washed away the memory of the man who couldn’t quite decide in 2000 whether he was a centrist or a populist and who, facing the likes of Karl Rove and James Baker in Florida, didn’t seem willing to fight.

And so we have, a movement of “grassroots Democrats from across the country who believe Al Gore is the true voice of our party and the only leader and statesman who can return the White House back to the American people.” They have gathered 109,000 signatures on a petition urging Gore to enter the race. A visitor to the Web site can sign the petition and read Gore’s speeches. One can listen to a folk song in the style of Woody Guthrie’s lighter numbers, called “Run Al Run!” by Paul Kaplan, whose refrain is:

Run, Al, run

How can you lose when you already won

Way back before all the damage was done

Now you’re the number one favorite son

So run, Al, run.

More intriguing is a “stunning art poster” by the Nashville artist J. William Myers, $30 unsigned and $60 signed. Seeming to mimic the palette and style of Orozco, Myers shows Gore as a latter-day Zapata, not whipping up the throng in the Zócalo but nevertheless speaking passionately to an unseen audience, finger pointed skyward, with the blazing sun and a baking Earth behind him symbolizing the issue for which he is best known. I don’t believe that even Barack Obama has inspired such overtly political iconography.

For all this, one doubts that Gore will ever be a candidate again. When the Democrats’ front-runners were Clinton and Edwards, the case for a Gore candidacy was more convincing; there was room for one more heavyweight. But Obama seems to have taken up much of the space that Gore could have occupied. When Gore’s name is tossed into polls, he still comes out third, usually well behind Clinton and Obama. Around the time An Inconvenient Truth was released, I had lunch with a longtime Gore loyalist who speculated about the remote possibility that Gore might enter the race as late as this fall. He would have little need to campaign from state to state, since he’s so well known, and he could use the Internet to raise millions quickly, give speeches, and talk with voters via the Web.

That is still technically plausible. But Democratic voters tell pollsters they’re quite satisfied with the current candidates (more so than Republican voters are). And even though Democrats say they admire his recent work on climate change and obviously wish he’d been president for the last seven years, whether he has appeal to independents is an open question. Gore surely knows this, and he undoubtedly has little taste for exposing himself one more time to a national press that so coarsely caricatured him in 2000 and which he has since criticized vigorously, inviting even worse treatment, perhaps, in 2008. Most likely he’ll prefer to be seen as a “citizen,” which would allow him to be something of a prophet, unconstrained by politics.

This prospect raises a question: Should he, perhaps, have been a citizen all along? There is no indication whatever that had he not been the son of Senator Albert Gore of Tennessee, he would have sought a career in politics. Bill Turque, a Gore biographer, has written at length on the expectations that accompanied Gore quite literally from the moment of his birth, and how he wrestled with and for a time resisted those expectations.5

Gore did not, upon graduation from Harvard, go immediately to law school and into politics, which would have been the expected route. He volunteered for the Army (in part to give some political cover to his father, who had opposed American involvement in Vietnam and was at the time locked in a bitter election race, which he lost). He undertook divinity studies at Vanderbilt, which he did not complete. He became a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean, insisting that he not be assigned to the politics beat lest his famous name intimidate or confuse sources. My guess has always been that he wanted very much not to follow in his father’s footsteps, that a career as an academic or an editor would have suited him well. But the expectations proved too great. When a House seat in Tennessee opened up in 1976, he ran and won.

But even then he was uneasy about the distorted political “environment within which ideas either live and spread, or wither and die.” There is almost no autobiographical reflection in The Assault on Reason, but early on he tells a story about his first Senate race, in 1984. He had done no polling when he first ran for the House, but as a statewide candidate, he succumbed. He describes a “turning point” in the race when his opponent, Victor Ashe, was gaining on him:

After a long and detailed review of all the polling information and careful testing of potential TV commercials, the anticipated response from my opponent’s campaign and the planned response to the response, my campaign advisers made a recommendation and prediction that surprised me with its specificity: “If you run this ad at this many ‘points’ [a measure of the size of the advertising buy], and if Ashe responds as we anticipate, and then we purchase this many points to air our response to his response, the net result after three weeks will be an increase of 8.5 percent in your lead in the polls.”

I authorized the plan and was astonished when three weeks later my lead had increased by exactly 8.5 percent. Though pleased, of course, for my own campaign, I had a sense of foreboding for what this revealed about our democracy. Clearly, at least to some degree, the “consent of the governed” was becoming a commodity to be purchased by the highest bidder.

Gore won that race, but as he has acknowledged, he wasn’t a natural, like Bill Clinton, and could not adroitly move across the ideological minefields of the time. His mid-career period was defined by his aggressive moderation and especially by his disastrous 1988 presidential campaign. He was like the basketball player sent into the game by his coaches—his were at the Democratic Leadership Council—to do nothing but commit fouls and injure the other team (but in this case his own team, in the sense that they were fellow Democrats). His campaign produced an ad harshly attacking Dick Gephardt in Florida. He was the first candidate to press Michael Dukakis on his state’s prison-furlough program (though he did not mention Willie Horton by name). And in the New York primary, I remember clearly that even before he arrived in the state, he was already pandering to the Jewish vote and attacking Jesse Jackson and Dukakis over Israel, the latter for supporting a letter thirty senators sent to Yitzhak Shamir condemning his refusal to negotiate over the occupied territories.6

What was striking was how politically inept he seemed in making those attacks; he finished a distant third in New York and dropped out. And he wasn’t that much better at inspiring audiences. I remember seeing him speak in a hotel ballroom in 1998 in Rye, New York, at that year’s New York State Democratic Party Convention. This was at a point when Gore was starting to lay the groundwork for his expected 2000 run for president. His reputation as “wooden” was considered a liability, so he and his handlers had decided that he would become instead something of a Southern preacher—the speech was fervent in manner but sounded forced.

All this came to plague him in 2000. Most of the press coverage of Gore was either untrue (that he’d lied in a debate about an incident involving then FEMA director James Lee Witt) or childish and infuriating (that he sighed too much), while George Bush got away with the claim that he would govern as a moderate “compassionate conservative.” Gore had little of the politician’s necessary talent for rebutting the baseless charges against him with a quick witticism or a devastating riposte that put the facts in a convincing perspective and critics in their place.

The sad irony of the 2000 debacle is not only that we’ve been stuck with George W. Bush, frightful as that is, but also that Gore, even with his limitations, could have been a great president. He distinguished himself as an engaged—though not overbearing—vice president, whose participation in “eight years of six-days-a-week CIA briefings” would clearly have counted for a great deal in light of events. I’ve always thought it possible that a Gore administration might have prevented the September 11 attacks. But even failing that, his response to September 11 would have been along the lines many Americans now wish we’d pursued—forceful but measured and concerned to promote a new, democratic internationalism that would not have squandered the world’s good will. We would at least have started doing something about climate change, health care, and a host of other issues. But his ambivalence about electoral politics, about the fact that an 8.5 percent jump in the polls could be so precisely and cynically calibrated, seemingly prevented him from having the gusto to finish Bush off as he should have. (One senses a touch of a similar ambivalence in Obama, though not in Edwards and certainly not in Hillary Clinton.)

So it’s not surprising that, whatever pain he must still feel about 2000, he has flourished as the prophetic citizen, freed finally from the demands of politics and the burden of expectation that has been with him all his life. As a citizen, he has some interesting things to say—and some important challenges for the next Democratic president.

The Assault on Reason is organized into nine chapters with an introduction and brief conclusion. The book opens with a rumination on the sad state of our body politic. “More and more people are trying to figure out what has gone wrong in our democracy,” Gore writes, “and how we can fix it.”

He offers a list of explanations that have also been put forward by others, from the increasing power of interest groups to voter apathy to excessive partisanship; but Gore sees those concerns, however real, as symptoms of the problem and not causes. More than any other public figure today, he fixes the blame on the power of television. His lament is not the standard one about the medium’s superficiality. He argues that a discourse dominated by television—it is, he notes, now almost half a century since television replaced newspapers as Americans’ chief source of information—inherently corrupts the Founders’ notion of the reasoned deliberation in the civic forum that they judged essential to a republic’s survival:

The present threat…is based on several serious problems that stem from the dramatic and fundamental change in the way we communicate among ourselves….

Consider the rules by which our present public forum now operates and how different they are from the norms our Founders knew during the age of print. Today’s massive flows of information are largely in only one direction. The world of television makes it virtually impossible for individuals to take part in what passes for a national conversation.

Individuals receive, but they cannot send. They absorb, but they cannot share. They hear, but they do not speak. They see constant motion, but they do not move themselves. The “well-informed citizenry” is in danger of becoming the “well-amused audience.”

Gore proceeds, through a discussion of recent brain science, to describe television’s effects, at once inflammatory and narcotizing, on viewers, whom he compares at one point to the chickens he learned how to hypnotize growing up on the family farm. He then asserts that a citizenry so reliant on such a medium is susceptible to any kind of manipulation and falsehood.

It is here that the Bush administration enters the picture, for most of the subsequent chapters are devoted to the practices of the Bush presidency that Gore argues should be seen as all-out attacks on deliberation and reason: the use of fear after September 11; the sops to religious extremism; the penchant for secrecy and expansive executive power; the cavalier attitude toward individual liberty; the arrogant desire for dominance in world affairs; and naturally the inaction in the face of “the carbon crisis.”

Methodically, he presents the facts in each case, and even if we’re familiar with much of the evidence by now, he still delivers a jolt when he reminds us that the administration censored parts of an Environmental Protection Agency report on climate change and substituted, “in the official government report,” language from a document prepared by ExxonMobil. Or that before September 11, acting FBI director Thomas Pickard was begging Attorney General John Ashcroft “to pay attention to the many warning signs that were being picked up by the FBI throughout the summer of 2001,” and that Ashcroft ignored him. (Pickard testified to this before the 9/11 Commission; Ashcroft denied it.) At regular intervals, Gore invokes a Founder to dramatize the extent of the crisis:

I’ve alluded to James Madison’s warning, over two centuries old, that “a religious sect may degenerate into a political faction.” Now, with the radical Right, we have a political faction disguised as a religious sect, and the president of the United States is heading it.

In his concluding chapter, Gore places his hopes in the Internet as the source of a new civic forum with the potential to change the way we talk to one another. Now that all the Democratic candidates have participated in a candidates’ forum at the YearlyKos Convention, the annual meeting arranged by the liberal Daily Kos Web site, this is not the controversial assertion it might have been, say, three years ago. Nevertheless, the conflict between “the mainstream media” (the MSM, in blogger shorthand) and the “netroots” continues. Many in the MSM see bloggers as people in their pajamas who don’t do any reporting of their own and devalue their own arguments by engaging in abusive name-calling. Many liberal bloggers see the MSM collectively as an institution that relies on a false conventional wisdom about American politics and that, whatever the value of its reporting, almost always gets the big things wrong (e.g., the support of most newspapers and cable news stations for the administration’s pre-war claims about Iraq). In Gore’s view:

Generally speaking, bloggers are concerned citizens who want to share their ideas and opinions with the rest of the public.

Some have genuinely interesting things to say, while others do not, but what is most significant about blogging may be the process itself. By posting their ideas online, bloggers are reclaiming the tradition of our Founders of making their reflections on the national state of affairs publicly available.

Therefore he concludes his book with an argument over the issue of “net neutrality.” Huge corporations that provide broadband access, largely cable and telephone companies such as AT&T, own the actual structural capacity of the Internet, i.e., the cables and wires and switches through which Web pages are transmitted to users. Web site operators pay these corporations to upload their content to consumers. The corporations are currently engaged in an intense lobbying effort to raise their fees, which would create a “tiered” Internet system. Those who couldn’t pay the higher fees could be relegated to a slower “lane” on the Internet, making such sites harder for consumers to use, thus limiting their reach, influence, and potential for advertising revenue. Bloggers, political advocacy groups both left and right, and Google and Amazon (which also pay the corporations) are strongly opposed to such a move, as is Gore. He equates the potential of a free and open Internet with the “democratization of knowledge” brought about through the print medium during the Enlightenment.

Does the Internet really have a transformative power akin to that of the printing press? Obviously, the influence of the netroots has increased dramatically in a short period of time. A Web evangelist could argue with some justification that YouTube—specifically, one video clip, that of former Virginia Senator George Allen’s “macaca” moment—changed that election and hence control of the United States Senate. But Gore’s new civic cybersphere is far from convincing as a solution to the accumulated deceptions and brutalities of the Bush regime. We will still need leaders who will take civic and constitutional responsibility seriously by reversing the current administration’s policies on the very matters Gore discusses: secrecy, civil liberties, and executive power. This is a question that has received little attention so far in this campaign and deserves far more.

Though Gore rarely gets into the matter directly, it keeps occurring to the reader of The Assault on Reason that soon enough we will have a new president, and perhaps an opportunity to undo the damage of the Bush years.

Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that the new president is a Democrat, and is therefore on record as having opposed many or most of the excesses of Bush that Gore describes and is committed to reversing most of the Bush administration’s policies. At the same time, though, the new president will—thanks to Bush, Dick Cheney, and others—be entering the White House with a huge range of powers at his or her disposal. How confident can we be that a sitting president, whatever his or her beliefs, will relinquish specific powers to another branch of government? Advocates for impeaching Bush and Cheney have made this argument, asserting, as The Nation’s John Nichols put it, that “if Bush and Cheney are not held accountable, this Administration will hand off to its successors a toolbox of powers greater than any executive has ever held.”7 You don’t have to be for impeachment, which I am not, to acknowledge that he has a point.

Gore for his part invokes Jefferson’s hope that when the United States wanders from its republican principles “in moments of error or of alarm” it will soon set things right. He identifies a pattern in American history in which something like this has happened: Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, the Red Scare and the Palmer raids, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, McCarthyism, and the FBI’s COINTELPRO program were all eventually undone when “the country recovered its equilibrium and absorbed the lessons learned.”

He warns, though, that there are at least five reasons why such recovery may not occur: the war against terrorism is predicted to last “for the rest of our lives”; recent decades have witnessed a “slow and steady accumulation of presidential power”; new surveillance technologies are widespread, rendering privacy and freedom more vulnerable than ever; the threat of more terrorism is “all too real”; and the Bush administration has wrapped these powers in clever, self-justifying legal theories that any future administration could rely on.

The Democratic candidates have pledged to close Guantánamo Bay, renounce the use of torture, and balance the fight against terrorism with greater concern for civil liberties. But once politicians are in office, things change. Right now, of course, the president has the personal power, unchecked by any other person or entity, to declare an American citizen an “enemy combatant.” Will the next president give up that right unilaterally? Democratic candidates should be pressed on that specific question and a host of others like it, including whether they will continue the administration’s domestic surveillance programs, whether they’ll amend any provisions of the Patriot Act, and whether they’ll revise the 2006 Military Commissions Act, which may deny habeas corpus rights to US citizens in some circumstances. Forget the leading Republicans; Mitt Romney’s vow to “double” the size of Guantánamo is representative of their views.

When Gore is asked, he never explicitly rules out the possibility of a run for president, although at this point it would be quite unexpected. If he does not, and if a Democrat wins the White House, we have to hope Gore will not abandon the concerns he raises so forcefully here and that he’ll act as a prodding conscience to encourage the next president to rein in the executive branch. He has had his ups and downs as a politician, but as he has shown these last five years, he is a remarkable citizen.

August 29, 2007

  1. 1

    The survey was conducted August 3– 5. See the tables of full results at The sample size is small, just 490 “Democrats and Democratic leaners,” with no explanation of whether those surveyed are likely voters, which is a key distinction in polling. The margin of error for the poll was plus or minus five percentage points, meaning that Clinton’s 48–26 lead could in fact be as low as 43–31. Naturally, the panting television coverage didn’t mention this.

  2. 2

    These tables can be seen at polls/postpoll_080307.html. This sample size is small as well, just five hundred, but the Post-ABC contacted only likely caucus-goers.

  3. 3

    Readers interested in following all this closely should bookmark, the best poll aggregator I’ve come across.

  4. 4

    Here’s how he did put it in a talk before fellow trial lawyers in Chicago in mid-July, as captured by The New York Observer‘s Jason Horowitz: “Well, this is not even close—who’s the strongest general election candidate. Every piece of empirical evidence shows you exactly the same thing that your gut will tell you anyway.” He left unsaid the reasons why his audience’s guts would tell them that. From “John Edwards Says: Empirically, You Know I’m Strong!,” July 17, 2007.

  5. 5

    Turque’s book is Inventing Al Gore (Houghton Mifflin, 2000). See my review, “The Candidate,” The New York Times Book Review, March 26, 2000.

  6. 6

    See for example page 5 of the electronic version of Walter Shapiro, “Taking Jesse Seriously,” Time, April 11, 1988, at article/0,9171,967157-5,00.html.

  7. 7

    John Nichols, “Impeachable Offenses,” The Nation, August 13, 2007.