The Magazine

Faux Candor

Al Gore rewrites himself

May 29, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 35 • By DEBRA J. SAUNDERS
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Since Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit appeared in 1992, Al Gore's environmental manifesto has been the source of considerable praise -- and considerable ridicule. Time hailed it as "a labor of statesmanship" and Bill Moyers praised it as "a powerful summons for the politics of life and hope." But the Bush-Quayle campaign used the book to dub Gore "Ozone Man," and even pundits on the left were appalled at Gore's tendency to issue the most dire of predictions based upon dubious evidence. In an internal memo, a Democratic operative warned that the book would enable Republicans to charge "Al is a radical environmentalist who wants to change the very fabric of America." He was right. The GOP has had a field day warning voters that Gore wants to ban the family car with his "strategic goal of completely eliminating the internal combustion engine over, say, a twenty-five year period."


It is with a gesture of faux candor that Gore ends the foreword to the new edition of Earth in the Balance with the page citation to this passage on the internal combustion engine, so "those who want to attack my view" can find the statement without "the trouble of reading the entire book." As he runs for president, the book places Gore in an uncomfortable position. He can't recant what he wrote without critics calling him a flip-flopping panderer. Besides, the man doesn't like to admit that he has altered his stand on anything (as he demonstrated in his refusal to admit his changed position on abortion during the Democratic primary: The vice president seems to think politics means never having to admit that you changed your mind). And even if he tried to distance himself from what he wrote back in 1992, his critics would still wrap his old positions around his tight neck. So he might as well embrace Earth in the Balance. Gore was shrewd when he told Time recently that "There's not a statement in that book that I don't endorse. Not one."


He makes the same assertion in his new foreword. He writes that he is "proud" that he once called for an end to the combustion engine. He argues the environmental challenge "is more urgent than ever." He cites evidence that shows that global warming is if anything more confirmed as a global threat. And then with the same honesty that he used when he told reporters he doesn't have to answer whether he would pardon Bill Clinton because Clinton himself has said he would not accept a pardon (not true, by the way; it was one of Clinton's lawyers who made that claim), Gore makes this curious statement: "The big lie in this debate is that a good environment is bad economics. That's one of the reasons I wrote Earth in the Balance. One of its central themes is that we do not face harsh choices between economic growth and saving the environment."


It makes the reader wonder whether Gore hopes no one does actually take the trouble to read the book. The new foreword is Gore's way of earning praise in 2000 for his fidelity to environmental principles by claiming to stand by everything he wrote, while running headlong from the actual proposals he made in 1992 for new taxes, regulations, and global initiatives. The 1992 edition of Earth in the Balance was a call to sacrifice; the 2000 foreword is a claim of comfy changes.


In the book itself he wrote, "Minor shifts in policy, marginal adjustments in ongoing programs, moderate improvements in laws and regulations, rhetoric offered in lieu of genuine change -- these are all forms of appeasement, designed to satisfy the public's desire to believe that sacrifice, struggle, and a wrenching transformation of society will not be necessary." Then he compares environmental incrementalists to Neville Chamberlain, adding, "The struggle to save the global environment is in one way much more difficult than the struggle to vanquish Hitler, for this time the war is with ourselves. We are the enemy."


While the 1992 Gore loved nature, his feelings for his fellow man were more nuanced. "The Pacific yew can be cut down and processed to produce a potent chemical, taxol, which offers some promise of curing forms of lung, breast, and ovarian cancer in patients who otherwise would quickly die. It seems an easy choice -- sacrifice a tree for a human life -- until one learns that three trees must be destroyed for each patient treated." (There may not be "harsh choices" between the environment and the economy, but choosing between trees and people can be a hard call.)


Gore also seems to speak of the impending demise of the planet with a relish only misanthropes and hard-core environmentalists can muster. "The massive clearing of tropical rain forests is, of course, an ecological catastrophe of the first magnitude, beside which the Dust Bowl pales in comparison -- not least because the earth could at least recover from the latter in a few generations, whereas the damage from the former could last for tens of millions of years." And "we are carelessly initiating climate changes that could well last for hundreds or thousands of years." Longer than an Ice Age? Millions of years of damage from a thirty-thousand-year-old species? The book has no sense of geological time.


Of course, the earth-lover must warn of global collapse because man has grown too unappreciative of the environment and so needs Gore to return mankind to the proper perspective. He writes of our "dysfunctional civilization" that is "addicted to the consumption of the earth itself." This addiction causes "a psychic numbness," which "prevents us from feeling the pain of our alienation from our world. Both the dysfunctional family and our dysfunctional civilization abhor direct contact with the full and honest experience of life."


Yes, Gore was in therapy ("family counseling") when he wrote Earth in the Balance. His mid-life crisis -- or as he calls it, "life change" -- occurred after a horrible car accident almost took his six-year-old son's life: "For me, something changed in a fundamental way. I don't think my son's brush with death was solely responsible, although that was the catalyst. But I had also just lost a presidential election; moreover I had just turned forty years old. I was, in a sense, vulnerable to the change that sought me out in the middle of my life."


Left unstated was that Gore's failed presidential bid in 1988 -- his only electoral loss thus far -- must have put him in touch with the strong feeling of anger he felt after the only other defeat he had experienced in such a personal way, when Tennessee voters failed to reelect his father senator in 1970. Young Al had enlisted in the Army and was about to go to Vietnam in an effort to help save his father, and he felt brutally betrayed when voters rejected his father. And so, Gore emerged from his own presidential loss seeing destruction across the global landscape and a need for a prince to save the people from themselves.


Perhaps when Gore writes in his new foreword that "we do not face harsh choices," he means he no longer feels obliged to advocate any if they would risk his own political hide. In the book itself, Gore endorsed a huge set of taxes to discourage the harvesting of natural resources, as well as energy consumption. "In fact, almost every poll shows Americans decisively rejecting higher taxes on fossil fuels, even though that proposal is one of the logical first steps in changing policies in a manner consistent with a more responsible approach to the environment. . . . I have found that voters are willing to go much further to meet the crisis than most politicians assume possible -- but they are waiting for the leadership."


Voters will have to continue to wait. As Bill Clinton's vice president and as a candidate for president in his own right, Gore has distanced himself from even a modest energy tax hike -- though he writes that without stern measures his own children could be subjected to "a decade without a winter," while rising sea levels could lead to "unprecedented" numbers of refugees in Third World countries.


But then, that is Gore's relation to environmentalism. In Earth in the Balance, he found a winning formula:


First, make gloom-and-doom predictions that justify great changes in taxation and regulation so that a green messiah can remake the world into a gentler planet. This gives a candidate credentials as a better human being than his rivals and wins votes among those who consider themselves environmentalists.


Second, don't actually endorse a single tax touted in the book. Call for tough measures, but depend on the media not to ask you what those measures may be. Don't put a price tag on any reforms, but tell people that all these regulations will actually save money. That will let big corporate donors understand that they have nothing to fear from your candidacy, because you are not willing to risk anything for your reelection.


Third, tell everyone you are proud of your book. To show you mean it, bring up that old saw about getting rid of the combustion engine. Win points for candor.




Debra J. Saunders is a nationally syndicated columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle. Her book, The World According to Gore, will be released shortly by Encounter Books.