I get accused of "hero worshiping" Gore, which I don't think is right, but I do have immense respect for the guy, so I thought I'd say why.
Even now, I don't think people appreciate what a punch in the gut the 2000 election was for Gore. The previous eight years had been spent in the shadow of a pol who had the charm and magnetism Gore lacked, but Clinton did not share Gore's passion for the environment, wasn't willing to put his ass on the line for it, and his poor discipline and unforced errors left much of the rest of their shared agenda unfulfilled. 2000 was Gore's chance to finally control his own fate, to rise to the test for which he had been preparing almost his entire life.
Then he walked into a slow motion disaster: got terrible advice, had to fend off a third-party run from the left, endured a hail of antagonism, caricature, and mockery from the press (right-wing and mainstream), got very little support from the Democratic establishment, and ran a hesitant, confused campaign. He still managed to get more votes, yet defeat came nonetheless, in the most arbitrary, unjust way possible.
He had to step aside and watch the presidency go to a callow, incurious silver spoon who'd been a shiftless drunk 'til the age of 40. With some justification, he saw himself as a victim, but he got no support from his party -- most Democrats abandoned or disdained him. On top of it all, he was more or less broke. Who knows what stew of shame, anger, and regret he must have faced afterward.
He could have withdrawn completely. He could have taken a cushy job in a think tank or university somewhere, or stayed at home writing books. Who among us wouldn't have?
It says something about his character that Gore went through the ringer, got up, dusted himself off, and tried to figure how best he could be of use. The solid ground that led him out of the fog was the one constant in his professional life: public service. He'd always tried to make the world a better place. In doing so, he has struggled against his own limitations, his inwardness and introversion, his prosaic style of speaking, his inability to appear comfortable in his own skin in public, his uncanny ability to inspire mockery even among those he is trying to serve. In spite of all of it, he has never retreated into the shell of cynicism that protects so many of us. He has always continued to care and to try, as best he could, to serve.
So it was to service he turned after his bitter loss. He fired up his little slideshow and trudged out in the world to try to get people concerned about a danger he believes could end civilization. In those early years there was no glamour. He was playing to rooms of dozens, or hundreds, not thousands. He wasn't being feted, he was flying coach. Global warming wasn't on the agenda. He never could have anticipated awards or acclaim.
I don't mean to paint Gore as a saint, or say there's no ego or calculation behind his actions. Human beings are complicated. But the explanation of his life that makes the most sense, that requires the fewest pop-psychological speculations and conspiracy theories, is that he's a decent, committed human being. He kept plodding on, kept trying, until he got it right. What finally worked for him was artless, unapologetic sincerity. This irony-armored reality TV world goes piss poorly on sincerity. I won't apologize for being inspired by its improbable success.
Follow David Roberts on Twitter: www.twitter.com/drgrist