Sadly, Al Gore played right into the hands of his detractors while at Netroots Nation this weekend. When he surprised the gathering during a session with Nancy Pelosi, the speaker filled in the crowd on who their guest was, in case they had perhaps been residing under a rock since the early-90s. "Without him," Pelosi said of Gore, "there would be no Netroots Nation." A straight read could be that Pelosi's remark was reference to his leadership on high-tech while in the Senate and White House. But it seemed to hit too close to a sore spot for Gore: the idea that he had once claimed to have created the Internet. He responded with a laugh: "I think I'll refrain from saying that."
Gore has had fun with the topic in the past. In his 2000 campaign he joked, "Remember America, I gave you the Internet and I can take it away." For Gore, such demurring is a matter of political (and who knows -- perhaps emotional) survival. The reaction to An Inconvenient Truth was as much "wow, Al Gore functions like an actual human being!" as it was "oh my gosh the ice caps are melting and we're all gonna die before lunch." He clearly benefits from seeming recognizably more human. How'd we get here? In her masterful look in Vanity Fair at how the Al Gore of the late 90s and early 2000s was largely a media creation, Evgenia Peretz pins it down:
On March 9, 1999, CNN's Wolf Blitzer conducted an interview with Gore shortly before he officially announced his candidacy. In answer to a question about why Democrats should support him, Gore spoke about his record. "During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative"—politico-speak for leadership—"in creating the Internet," he said, before going on to describe other accomplishments.
The press could hardly contain their glee. Lou Dobbs called it "a case study … in delusions of grandeur" -- which is as textbook a case of the pot calling the kettle black as has ever been recorded. Despite never having used the word "invent," quotes were wrapped around the word in media accounts. The idea was spun into a bigger picture, a stand-in for what we all -- supporters and otherwise -- knew to be true. Al Gore stretched the truth when it served his purposes. Al Gore was a creature of the Beltway with an elevated sense of self. Al Gore seemed to live in a universe different than the one the rest of us were inhabiting. Get a load of this guy! He thinks he made the Internet.
Oh, and we the public bought it hook, line, and sinker. The only problem is, Gore hadn't said anything all that far-fetched. As a Senator in the '90s, Gore did take the lead congressional role in creating the Internet. As Peretz notes, Newt Gingrich himself said that "Gore is the person who, in the Congress, most systematically worked to make sure that we got to an Internet." His 1991 High-Performance Computing Act -- aka, the Gore Bill -- provided the federal funding for developing the "information superhighway" -- a term he popularized. And the so-called "Father of the Internet" Vint Cerf said that Gore "has played a powerful role in policy terms that has supported its continued growth and application, for which we should be thankful."
Perhaps Gore was a little sloppy tongued in his conversation with Blitzer. But his word choice pales in importance to the fact that he spent a big chunk of his time in DC helping to build a global network.
But now Gore is turning his back on that legacy, a record he should, in a sane world, be proud of. We buy into the media's myth-making at our own peril. We'd all benefit from leaders who reject the tactic. We've seen signs from Barack Obama and, a bit belatedly, no doubt, John Kerry that they've learned that lesson. But Al Gore, candidate for nothing, needs to be willing to get up on stage and say, "You know what? Damn right. The Internet? All me." We all must remain ever vigilant against getting spun by the press, by pundits, by politicians. Al Gore should by all rights be leading that effort -- if he can fit it into his busy schedule of single-handedly saving the world.