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Al Gore Overcomes the Fear Factor, Hillary Succumbs

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Last night, I attended the premiere of An Inconvenient Truth, the powerful new global warming documentary featuring an impassioned and surprisingly humorous Al Gore.

After the screening, as I watched him interact with well-wishers, accepting congratulations and answering questions, he radiated commitment and confidence. Here was a man truly comfortable in his own skin.

And it got me thinking how unlike his old self -- and the vast majority of our would-be leaders -- he has become. I'm talking about the timid, walking-on-eggshells, pusillanimous poltroons that dominate modern politics.

They are Beltway versions of the Cowardly Lion of Oz, driven by the fear of saying the wrong thing (wouldn't want to give the other side ammo for the inevitable attack ad), of offending someone (anyone!), of going out on a limb (the branches of government get a little shaky out there). And, the Wickedest Bitch of them all, the fear of having a giant red "Loser" stamped on their foreheads and their resumes.

Just before I'd left for the screening, I'd read about a new ad campaign timed to coincide with the Gore film, calling into question the message of the film and, by extension, the messenger. The ads were put together by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a group funded by ExxonMobil, General Motors, and Ford. No discernable corporate agenda there! (I'm well acquainted with the attack dog nature of the CEI; they're the ones who also tried to undermine The Detroit Project).

Gore isn't running for office, and already the negative campaigning has begun. This is what anyone who takes a stand faces these days -- politics as demolition derby -- and why so many politicians operate out of fear. But when I asked Gore about it, he was unfazed.

I couldn't help but flash on the stiff, robotic Gore of the 2000 campaign. You could smell the fear on the Gore of 2000. Just as you could smell it on Kerry in 2004, as he ran a campaign that consistently chose caution over boldness.

And it's the same sickening scent that Hillary Clinton is wearing today: Eau de Don't Let Me Screw Up and Flush My Chances Down the Toilette.

There she was recently -- uptight, tentative, inauthentic -- trying to throw an off-handed bone to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce by implying that young people are lazy and "think work is a four-letter word." And the minute there was some blowback, she turned around and apologized to the youthful voters whose fingers she'd slammed in the Chamber of Commerce door. And even used Chelsea as a crutch to explain her turnaround.

As a result of the soul-sapping tyranny of trying to please and placate everybody, she's become more processed than Velveeta. You can almost see every word that comes out of her mouth first being marched through the different compartments of her brain -- analyzed, evaluated, and vetted by each of them. What will the consultants think of this? How will it poll? Will working women between 25-35 in eastern Ohio think it's okay? How about likely voters in northern Oklahoma?

Her fear has caused a complete disconnect from who she really is and what she really thinks (that is, if she even knows anymore).

Which is a shame -- both for her and for all politicians who are short-changing the smart, strong, determined leaders they could be. Instead, we get a seemingly endless lineup of fear-driven candidates who, with each new election cycle, become a little more wrinkle-free, a little more foible-free, a good bit less interesting -- and considerably more idea free. They are so programmed to avoid the pitfalls of actually standing for something, we might as well have robots running.

Whether Al Gore ends up running in 2008 or not, he is modeling the way our public figures, and especially our would-be presidents, should be operating -- from the heart and true to themselves. Standing for something more important than just winning, and more powerful than the fear of losing.

Candidates -- and especially Democratic ones -- need to stop fooling themselves that the road to victory is paved with pandering.

Someone should shoot a training film for the Democrats, featuring Gore as a D.C. version of Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now. As the Election Day bombs of 2000, 2002, and 2004 drop all around him, he sucks in the fumes and declares: "I loathe the smell of fear on a candidate. It smells like... defeat."

(Check out Ana Marie Cox about Gore at the DC premiere.)