Former Vice-President Al Gore had just finished speaking in San Rafael, California, on November 9, 2009, about his new book Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis. The 800 people in Domincan University's Angelico Hall - along with the over-flow crowd of 200 listening by TV monitor in an adjacent hall - were giving him a long and enthusiastic applause.
As he stepped backstage, I complimented him on the poem on pg. 28 of his book, which he had read at the end of his speech. He gave me a smile of thanks.
"When I submitted the manuscript to the publisher," Gore said, "my editor wanted to know who wrote it, because I hadn't attributed it to anyone."
"I told him, 'William Butler Yeats.'" Then Gore burst out laughing..
"When he acted like he might believe me, I had to tell him 'No, no, I wrote it!'"
In person, Al Gore is thoughtful, modest, and almost shy - totally different than the caricature his political opponents have painted. He looks trim and invigorated, which is surprising considering the weight that is probably riding on his shoulders. Gore right now has a role that is totally unique in American history. By immersing himself in the details of a global climate disaster that seems to be getting closer and closer, he has become, almost by default, the spokesman for everyone's grandchildren. Someday, he says, they might be asking, "How could you have let this happened?"
Al Gore could be spending time working on his golf game or be out giving pep-talks to motivational groups, but he decided instead to work hard to master the details of the climate-change crisis. He was one of the first major figures to sound the alarm about that impending disaster, and his message hit home in 2006 with the filming and publication of An Inconvenient Truth. After that film and book, Gore realized that he needed to immerse himself in the scientific details of the problem so that he could help guide the debate. He's done just that. Do you want to know the relative impact of CO2, methane, halocarbons, and nitrous oxide in creating global warming? Gore can give you the figures. Do you want to know how carbon sequestration works? Gore can lay out the details. Do you want to know how geothermal energy contributes to the problem but could also contribute to the solution? Gore can summarize what scientists are thinking.
It's an educational task that draws upon a lifetime of skills. Al Gore has to grab and keep the attention of many different audiences, explaining over and over again why the issue is so important - why we have to put short-term political concerns aside. All the while, he has to fight his way past an array of neo-Know-Nothings, babbling pundits, and right-wing opportunists. He knows he can't sink to their level - he can't indulge in the luxury of getting angry or fighting back on their terms, because the issue is too important. Part of the job he has taken upon himself is to be calm - to be right without being righteous.
Al Gore keeps reassuring nervous audiences that we have the tools to solve the crisis. Time is short, he says, but it hasn't run out yet. We haven't yet reached the point where our descendants are doomed to live on a grim and desiccated planet. Not yet.
And with all that, he had time to write a poem - one that Yeats might have been proud of.
One thin September soon
A floating continent disappears
In midnight sun
Vapors rise as
Fever settles on an acid sea
Neptune's bones dissolve
Snow glides from the mountain
Ice fathers floods for a season
A hard rain comes quickly
Then dirt is parched
Kindling is placed in the forest
For the lightning's celebration
Take their leave, unmourned
Horsemen ready their stirrups
Passion seeks heroes and friends
The bell of the city
On the hill is rung
The shepherd cries
The hour of choosing has arrived
Here are your tools
Follow William Petrocelli on Twitter: www.twitter.com/billpetrocelli