07/29/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Sunday Watch 7-20-08

[originally published on, the Web site of the Columbia Journalism Review]

Imagine! Almost an entire installment of Meet the Press devoted to an interview with a private citizen who is not running for office—who receives the attention not only because he is famous but because he…knows something. Quite a lot, actually. He is, of course, Al Gore, and he knows quite a lot about how our Earth became unstable after centuries worth of humans tampering with carbon.

Tom Brokaw sat still for this rampant seriousness. He did not force Gore to debate a crackpot from cloud-cuckoo-land who is still waiting for the evidence to arrive about human sources of radical climate change. He cited Gore’s challenge to break our dependence on carbon-generating electricity production within ten years as if such an idea were not prima facie evidence of raving insanity. He gave Gore a chance to warn against the folly of continuing the reckless addiction to coal and oil without treating him as a stick-figure “ozone man,” as did a certain politician—without being ridiculed by the curators of the national dialogue—not so many years ago. He gave Gore the chance to argue against “just taking baby steps and offering gimmicks and, instead,” defend the proposition of “a strategic initiative.”

Brokaw broached a doubt: cost. “Let’s talk about the cost.” “What would electricity cost?” “What do we have to give up to reach the cost of a trillion and a half to three trillion dollars? There's going to have to be some pain, some sacrifice on the part of the American taxpayer, isn't there?” Somehow I don’t remember any of television’s talking heads acting so vociferously as surrogates for the American taxpayer in questioning the cost of the Iraq war during the heroic run-up days. But never mind. The cost question is legitimate, as is the question of how those costs will be paid. Brokaw rightly inquired.

He invited Gore to condemn Hillary Clinton for her provisional gas tax rollback (not noting that she joined John McCain in this). Gore refused to play the great game of inside baseball. He said that he disagreed, and more: “The real way to bring gasoline prices down is not by going back to try more of the same things that have not worked in the past, but to say, ‘Wait a minute, now is the time for a really dramatic shift over to renewable energy.’” He stayed on message: “Incremental baby steps are no longer responsible proposals.”

Brokaw could have nitpicked around the edges. To his credit, he didn’t. So, for a change, we got a TV talk show for grown-ups, where a burning issue of our time was discussed without a single gotcha moment, a single accusation of flip-flopping, a single objection from a representative of the Flat Earth Society. Hallelujah.