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Prince Albert in a Can | The Nation

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Prince Albert in a Can

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Back in the Senate, and chastened, Gore did help to create the Internet--by advocating funding for its predecessor. He gravitated toward environmental issues, and Turque does a fine job of showing how psychological and political impulses merged as Gore remade himself once more, this time into a bold champion who would heal the earth and the human spirit. Gore's bestselling book, Earth in the Balance (just reissued), was a passionate diagnosis of environmental ills and a compelling call for change. "We must take a bold and unequivocal action; we must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization," Gore proclaimed. He maintained that he was fed up with the tendency of politicians--including himself--to place a finger to the wind and listen to the ever-present murmurs of caution. "The time has long since come to take more political risks," he observed.

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David Corn
David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. Until 2007, he was Washington editor of The Nation. He has written...

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But Gore could not heal himself. When he accepted Clinton's invitation to be his running mate, he had to realize he was putting aside the chance to live up to his own words. As Vice President, he could not be a damn-the-polls hero willing to say and do whatever it takes to save Mother Nature. Was this a compromise so he could one day gain control of the ship and steer the course he advocated? Or a sellout for career purposes? Gore did manage to turn this joke of a job into one of importance, becoming a close adviser to Clinton. But it has been difficult to assess Gore's impact on the Clinton presidency. Turque writes: "He was, as one aide put it, 'a New Age pragmatist' with no consistent ideological coloring, capable of landing on Clinton's left or right, depending on the issue."

In the first year Gore eagerly played deficit hawk, willing to forget the campaign promises about funding government investments that put people first. He also pushed for an unorthodox green-friendly energy tax that went down in flames. (Here was that caution and boldness side by side.) In 1995, after Newt Gingrich and his Republican marauders assumed control of Congress, Gore sided with toe-sucking consultant/mercenary Dick Morris in urging Clinton to offer a balanced-budget plan that could compete with Gingrich's proposal. Clinton's more liberal advisers thought this was ceding too much to the Republicans. But when Morris then advised Clinton to cut a budget deal with Gingrich, Gore egged the boss to kick the GOPers in the teeth on what Washington wonks call E2M2--education, the environment, Medicare and Medicaid.

Turque does not unearth any oh-shit revelations about Gore's Veep days. Nor does he illuminate a pattern. Gore pushed Clinton to be daring on gays in the military. Yet after the energy tax flopped, he became timid on environmental policy. "With each passing year of his vice presidency," Turque notes, "Gore's environmental evangelism seemed increasingly to give way to conventional incrementalism." Instead, he devoted more energy to streamlining the federal bureaucracy and hailing the information superhighway. When Clinton was reluctant to make direct fundraising appeals to big donors, Gore reached for the phone, perhaps violating an ancient law prohibiting cup-rattling in federal buildings. He made that now-famous trip to a Buddhist temple in California--then offered contradictory explanations for his involvement in what was an illegal fundraiser. Yet Gore's true offense in campaign fundraising was not these pissant infractions but his enthusiastic collusion in the soft-money scheme adopted by Clinton and Morris (and also utilized by Republicans), which was designed to undermine existing campaign finance law by using large, unrestricted, "soft money" contributions to the party to promote the presidential ticket. Now Gore is running as a campaign finance reform advocate. How many reinventions can one man have? If there were a patent office for politicians, he'd keep it damn busy.

Through the hellish Clinton years, Gore stood by his man. And on the day the House of Representatives voted to impeach the President who had stained an intern's dress (if not the office of the presidency), Gore gathered with Democratic members of the House on the South Lawn of the White House and pronounced, "What happened as a result does a great disservice to a man I believe will be regarded in the history books as one of our greatest Presidents." Yet when it was time to run for the office himself, Gore had trouble calculating just how close he should keep to this greatest of Presidents. His problem was not due only to Clinton's scandalous behavior but to the nature of the vice presidency, which does not allow its holder to shine as an autonomous politician. Gore needed to prove he had his own identity--which, of course, he does.

As Turque's book aptly indicates, there is a decades-long record revealing the man Gore is. He's an odd combination of the perfect schoolboy and a fellow who is not quite comfortable with himself. He's a slash-and-distort, truth-stretching competitor. He's a hyperbolic advocate who throws himself into serious issues but who is often too quick to compromise or to place his passion on hold. He worries about global warming and the digital divide. He panders when necessary (see Elián). He flip-flops (medical marijuana, yes; then medical marijuana, no). But what does Gore really care about--besides winning elections? That question is hard to answer. A better way of putting it, perhaps, is to inquire, For what would he endanger his career? One could ask the same of most leaders and not receive a reply. Gore's father, though, had an answer: civil rights and ending an unjust war. Against this family yardstick, the son falls short. (Gore's father was not all nobility and public service. After he left office, he eagerly accepted a high-paying job as a lobbyist for Armand Hammer.)

In assessing Gore, Turque nicely sums up the challenge the Veep faces. The "real test" of a leader, he writes, "is his ability to take the citizenry where it is not necessarily willing or able to go on its own. For Gore, that test will be his success in building a domestic and international consensus over the long-term dangers of global warming. He will have to decide, finally, what political risks he is willing to assume in advancing the issue that he says is closest to his core. To do so will require Al Gore's greatest invention--as a leader." Can Gore change his life story from that of a number two to that of a number one? Sure, says Turque. He only has to transform himself into the politician his father was.

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