The evolution of the character invented by the media to play the role “Al Gore” will one day make a remarkable doctoral dissertation. The most doctrinaire postmodernist would have a hard time keeping up with the myriad literary inventions, textual subversions and convenient fictions necessary to sustain the ever-changing narrative. One day Gore is an uptight, hypercautious “serial exaggerator.” Later, when it turns out that it was the media–most egregiously, the Washington Post‘s Ceci Connolly–who spread false stories about Gore that were picked up and trumpeted on cable TV and talk-radio, he is recast as a radical wild man, sporting a frightening beard and spouting dangerous left-wing nostrums.

In a New York Times story titled “An Endorsement From Gore Became a Dubious Prize,” Elisabeth Bumiller gives us the newest version, asking, “Is an endorsement from Al Gore the kiss of political death?” She cites observations made by Bob Dole on Larry King Live along with an anonymous “friend” of Gore. The story line is now set in stone: The Dean endorsement proved the final dot in the ideological rebranding of Al Gore from centrist Democrat to left-wing Democrat. You can almost hear the tongues clucking at Ben and Sally’s.

I’ve got a bias here. I never liked Gore when I was beating up Naderites who thought it’d be fun to throw the election to George W. Bush. I had heard he could be charming in private–funny, self-effacing and intellectually inquisitive–but I never knew anyone who claimed to have personally seen this. And the fact that the only one outside his immediate family who seemed passionate about his presidential candidacy was Marty Peretz didn’t help.

But in the past year I’ve watched Gore, freed from the burden of office-holding, finally finding the authentic voice that appeared to elude him for much of his political career. It began with his brave and early denunciations of the Bush Administration’s war-planning, picked up steam with his attacks on its deceptions that enabled the war effort and manifested itself again with a recent speech on its AWOL attitude on global warming. Gore summed it all up over the weekend of February 5-7 in a speech at a New School University conference on “Uses and Misuses of Fear” in our political system, sponsored by the journal Social Research, and at a rally of Tennessee Democrats in Nashville, where he was joined by Wes Clark and John Edwards. He gave roughly the same speech to the rednecks and the pointy-heads.

At the New School conference, I was amazed at Gore’s courage in calling the President to task for his (undeniable) manipulation of Americans’ fear of terrorism and also at Gore’s willingness to apply the same unflinching analysis to Bush’s economic policies, environmental policies and abuse of civil liberties. And he didn’t stop there. Gore took the further step to ask, systemically, just what was allowing these egregious abuses of power and trust to take place: “How could our precious nation have become so uncharacteristically vulnerable to such an effective use of fear to manipulate our politics?” His response:

What happened? For one thing there’s been a dramatic change in the nature of what the philosopher Jürgen Habermas has described as the structure of the public forum–the way our political discourse takes place. It no longer operates as it once did. It is simply no longer as accessible to the vigorous and free exchange of ideas from individuals in the way those ideas were freely and vigorously exchanged during the period of our founding.

Leaving aside the question of whether any nominee for President of the United States has ever before seen fit to quote a Frankfurt School philosopher, these are brave words for any mainstream politician. With nothing to gain and much to lose should he want to continue his career in public life someday, Gore is taking on the entire media structure that makes it so difficult for his increasingly complex critique of the Administration’s policies to be heard. It’s not only their fault for lying to us; it’s everybody’s fault for letting them get away with it.

Gore’s presentation was impressive on many levels. He had clearly read a number of the papers to be given later at the conference and spoke perceptively about the physiological effects of fear on the cognitive processes and the ease with which these can be manipulated by advertisers and politicians alike. He admitted his own (relative) ignorance about many of the topics about which he had been reading but still managed to weave them into a coherent critique not only of how awful the Bush Administration is but how attenuated the muscles of our democratic body politic have grown, allowing Bush to get away with so much.

It is hardly any wonder that mainstream media mavens would react negatively to Gore’s newfound self-confidence coupled with his uncompromised criticism of their willful self-delusion about the current Administration, the war and so much else. Even New School president (and Gore’s former Senate colleague) Bob Kerrey didn’t seem to get it, when he tried, after Gore’s talk, to equate Democrats’ manipulation of Republican untrustworthiness on Medicare and Social Security with Bush & Co.’s deliberate use of deception to fool Americans into an unnecessary, counterproductive war.

At the post-speech dinner, Gore took questions and demonstrated that self-effacing charm and penetrating intelligence I had heard about, admitting that he’d try to “bullshit” his way through the “essay question” I asked him and later demonstrating the technique he developed during his teenage years for hypnotizing chickens. His combination of brains and bravery–even in the face of his grave miscalculation regarding Dean–when viewed against the smug, shallow self-satisfaction of the media bigfeet who mock him, redounds enormously to Gore’s benefit. When you compare him to the current occupant of the Oval Office and consider the nefarious manner by which he got there, it is more than enough to inspire despair about the state of our country, its unhappy immediate past and its profoundly frightening future.