Over the weekend, I flew from Washington to Cannes. In Washington, the talk was all about 2006. In Cannes, the talk is all about 2008.
That's because even with Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Penelope Cruz, Jamie Foxx, and Halle Berry here for the film festival, the hottest star in town is Al Gore.
In Cannes for the European premiere of his powerful global warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, Gore has been surrounded by adoring crowds and deluged with interview requests. He told me that he gave 23 back-to-back-to-back interviews on Sunday, Hollywood junket-style (all on only one hour's sleep), and had another 23 scheduled for Monday. "This is my second visit to Cannes," he said. "The first was when I was fifteen years old and came here for the summer to study the existentialists -- Sartre, Camus... We were not allowed to speak anything but French!" Which may explain his pitch-perfect French accent.
It's clear that the film, and the engaging "New Gore" on display both in the film and his public appearances promoting it, have connected with people in a big way.
The film is an environmental punch in the gut. Gore 2.0 is a revelation, and a critical smash. When asked at his press conference how he should be addressed, he replied "Your Adequacy." "Hanks himself could not have delivered the line more smoothly," gushed The Guardian. The Washington Post's Sebastian Mallaby labeled him "a hero." Time's Anne Marie Cox called him "a rock star." New York magazine touted his "amazing comeback." And even Fox News' Roger Friedman described him as "funny and relaxed." Talk about killer reviews.
Of course, as potent as the film is (Friedman says the minds of skeptics "will be changed in a nanosecond" and Franklin Foer says "it will certainly change elite opinion"), the other reason is the "Will he or Won't he?" speculation about 2008.
He's saying no -- but you can hear the "Run, Al, Run" chant growing louder.
"Democrats are looking everywhere to find their presidential candidate," Graydon Carter told me. "But the solution may be right under their noses."
And I think that the pressure on Gore to run will only increase as we move toward 2008.
Sure, that's a lifetime away in politics. And the shelf-life of movie buzz isn't very long -- I doubt people will be debating the relative merits of X-Men 3 and The Break-Up two months from now, let alone a year and a half.
But the debate over global warming is only going to heat up -- and Gore has a whole campaign planned to ensure that it does.
"We are planning to train a thousand people to be able to deliver the presentation all over the country," he told me, "so we can more quickly reach the tipping point."
With An Inconvenient Truth likely to move the discussion about global warming toward critical mass -- and the White House and the oil companies and the likes of Sen. James 'Global Warming is a Hoax' Inhofe making a mockery of the crisis -- the issue, with Gore as its leading spokesman, will remain in the spotlight.
So at no moment between now and the Democratic convention in the summer of 2008 will those eyeing the Democratic nomination be able to fully relax about not having Gore as a potential rival.
Because of his unique position in the political landscape -- i.e. the 2000 White House winner who wasn't allowed to move in -- and because of the platform his environmental moral crusade provides, Gore won't have to abide by the standard running-for-president timetable. He won't have to hit the usual marks of when to form an exploratory committee, when to officially announce, when to show up in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Instead, he can lay back, bide his time, continue doing what he's doing -- and is so clearly passionate about -- and perhaps be able to chart a path to the Oval Office while avoiding the things about politics that he says "feel toxic" to him.
So today's repeated denials don't really mean very much. Not because he doesn't mean it, but because so much can happen between now and the convention.
Especially if it appears that Hillary is close to securing the nomination. Then the pressure for him to enter the race -- to act as the anti-Hillary -- will increase significantly.
But it's not just that so many Democrats fear a Hillary-led ticket.
The pressure on Gore to run will continue to grow because watching him speak out so eloquently, so passionately, and so personally on this issue -- in other words, displaying real leadership -- is like suddenly being served a steak after a steady diet of fast-food burgers. It's a stark reminder of just how far we've lowered the bar on what we expect from those we elect.
It's as if we've been so pummeled by ersatz candidates espousing focus-group approved piffle that we've come to accept as normal the idea that if you are going to be in politics you are going to have to sell out -- shaped and molded by campaign consultants and pollsters, your ideals and principles wrung out by the very process of becoming a candidate. Each disappointment (et tu, John McCain?) is like a wound, and the scar tissue that remains has desensitized us.
When people are exposed to the new Gore -- authentic, funny, self-deprecating -- you can almost feel their relief and surprise as they suddenly come to face to face with what a real leader could be.
Even major skeptics like myself (and I've never been shy about attacking Gore, as you can see here, here, here, and here) can't help but be affected. It's why he suddenly finds himself surrounded by people all but begging him to run.
And here's an interesting grace note from Cannes: One of the films generating the biggest buzz at the festival is Climate, by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan. Despite its title, the film has absolutely nothing to do with global warming or climate change. Rather it's the story of a man's inner change. Festival audiences have been mesmerized by the powerful rendering of his transformation.
Is this a cinematic omen of things to come in 2008?
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