Al Gore once campaigned for me with his foot in a cast. As we waited to be introduced at a luncheon he confided that the injury had ended his dream of an NBA career; that and the fact that he was 46 and Vice President of the United States. I expressed my sympathy.
Later, I was privileged to work with him in the Clinton White House. I saw right away he had impeccable character and a superb mind; curious, imaginative and relentless. And he was funny. This last part was hard to get across to friends back home.
One problem was his dry humor. Like the best sketch comics, he never smiled too soon. He used pauses like Jack Benny, pretending to mull over an indignity, allowing his listener to absorb the full irony of a remark or situation.
A bigger problem was that he was less funny in public, as if on the way to the lectern his personality seized up. His wooden, sing song delivery reminded me of how my third grade class said good morning to our principal. He liked to preach.
It was easy to lampoon. Reporters, including scores of envious boomers out to burnish their 'just plain folk' credentials, were merciless. In a pivotal 2000 debate, Bush lied and Gore sighed. Cable news spent a week ignoring the lies and replaying the sighs, long enough to reverse overnight polls that had Gore winning the encounter.
That December, the Supreme Court disgraced itself by declaring Bush president. A new book by Jeffrey Toobin reveals that Justice David Souter, an appointee of Bush's father, considered resigning over it and that Sandra Day O'Connor, a Reagan appointee and the critical fifth vote, sees it now as the worst mistake of her career, which it no doubt was.
Gore won the popular vote not only nationally but in Florida, where thousands of blacks were robbed of their franchise and where a deceptive ballot tricked thousands of Jews into voting for a man they loathed. 'Hanging chads' were beside the point. Gore won Florida not by a few hundred but by many thousand votes.
The duty of a court in an election case is to honor the intent of the voters. In Bush v. Gore, the Court deliberately ignored voter intent. The majority believed so little in the logic of its own ruling that it forbade its use as precedent in future cases, an act itself without precedent in a system built on it.
The arc of the moral universe indeed bends toward justice. Seven years later, the true winner of 2000 is taking a victory lap such as the appointed winner will never know. The Nobel Prize Gore won for his crusade against global warming has whipped into a frenzy fans already bent on drawing him into the 2008 presidential race.
God knows there's reason to pick him. He's funny in public now and he's as close to visionary as politics gets. He championed the internet before other politicians knew the word. He studied terrorism and loose Soviet nukes a decade before 9/11. His 2002 speech opposing the Iraq war was more than prescient, it was brave.
Gore was taking punches on the environment long before the elder Bush taunted him as 'Ozone Man'. Even as he savors the world's applause, his thick skin comes in handy back home, where the debate on global warming heats up more slowly than the planet, there being so few politicians in the business of telling inconvenient truths.
In the last Republican debate not even John McCain said the word 'conservation'. Mitt Romney is for fuel efficiency but isn't sure we need federal standards. Fred Thompson wonders what causes global warming. Fred got endorsed by James Inhofe, the guy who compares Gore's Oscar winning film to "Mein Kampf" and calls global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated."
Democrats are better but not by enough. House Democrats passed a bill raising fuel standards to 35 miles a gallon by 2020--13 years to get to where Europe is now. In the presidential race, only Dodd has a believable energy blueprint. As always, the front runners have the least to say.
The Democrats' odious 2004 platform endorsed "the right of every American to drive the vehicle of his or her choice." Gore would never tolerate such an abdication today, but he once did. In 2000 his advisors, pitching him as the un-Clinton, gulled him into dropping the environment for "family values" and a tinny sounding populism. Gore says he'll never again let a pollster tell him what to say. His supporters think he means it; so do his opponents.
Gore's willingness to risk the skepticism of the unconverted is invaluable when so many basic systems are in need of restructuring; energy, health care, defense and the budget being just the big four. His election may be the one thing that could wipe clean a stain on our democracy.
But will he? A million pundits have already told you why not. Some ask why, with global celebrity, a sizeable fortune, an Oscar, an Emmy and a Nobel Prize, he ever would. He can already hang with Leonardo DiCaprio and Nelson Mandela.
I read him differently. Gore knows all the things a president can do that even a Nobel Laureate can only dream of. If Hillary weren't leading the field he'd already be in. But she isn't planning on faltering any time soon and Gore is smart enough to know that a primary challenge to her would only license a lazy media to put him back on the couch.
There is still a faint possibility, a chance not only for Gore but for an Edwards, Dodd or Richardson. It's the chance that the insanely frontloaded nominating process backfires on party insiders, distributing delegates to enough different candidates to keep anyone from getting a majority.
Democrats have jiggered the rules to favor front runners ever since McGovern. Believing that a short primary calendar, like a short meeting, favors whoever's in charge, they front load the process. States lusting for attention pushed it up even further.
The first New Hampshire primary took place on March 11, 1952. By February 9th, 2008, the Virgin Islands, District of Columbia and 31 states will select 2,776 delegates, about two thirds of the total. By March 11, 2008, 87% of delegates will already be chosen.
Never before has there been a prospect of so many delegates up for grabs with so many candidates still in the race. One of two things will happen. If Clinton sweeps, prepare for the longest intermission in the history of show business, from early February till August 25th in Denver. But if Obama, Edwards and a second tier candidate outperform expectations, she might not make 50%. Then the fun begins.
Both parties have embarrassed themselves by allowing primaries to begin so early that campaigns bleed into the holiday season of the preceding year. (Jingle Bell Rock the vote.) The debates are a stinging disappointment. Delegates would ask much tougher questions than those posed by the celebrity press, and demand real answers to boot.
A political party ought to have time for second thoughts. It ought to make its selection at a point closer in time to when voters make theirs. Ironically, a convention might prove more open than primaries, at least to ideas. For the first time in memory, the platform might matter, forcing Democrats to sort out whatever it is they really believe.
Republican justices who appointed Bush were said to fear "chaos." But in a system as calcified as ours, a little chaos may be just the thing to water liberty's tree. A process can be more chaotic and more rational. The convention and the months leading to it would be a battle for the soul of a party. In that battle, the drumbeat for Gore could be deafening.