The Magazine

Faux Candor

Al Gore rewrites himself

May 29, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 35 • By DEBRA J. SAUNDERS
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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.