The Cannes Landslide for Al Gore
By FRANK RICH
LET it never be said that the Democrats don't believe in anything. They still believe in Hollywood and they still believe in miracles. Witness the magical mystery comeback tour of Al Gore.
Like Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" before it, Mr. Gore's new documentary about global warming, "An Inconvenient Truth," has wowed the liberal caucus at Cannes (who needs landlocked Iowa?) and fueled fantasies of political victory back home. "Al Gore Takes Cannes by Storm — Will the Oval Office Be Next?" Arianna Huffington asks on her blog, reporting that the former vice president was hotter on the Croisette than Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis and Penelope Cruz. In a "fantasy" presidential poll on the liberal Web site Daily Kos, Mr. Gore racks up a landslide 68 percent, with the closest also-ran, Russ Feingold, at 15. Liberal Washington pundits wonder whether the wonkishness that seemed off-putting in 2000 may actually be a virtue. In choosing a president, Margaret Carlson writes on Bloomberg.com, maybe "we should give a rest to that old saw about likeability."
Still, the unexpected rebirth of Al Gore says more about the desperation of the Democrats than it does about him. He is most of all the beneficiary of a perfect storm of events, the right man in the right place at the right time. It was just after Mr. Gore appeared on "Saturday Night Live" to kick off his movie's publicity campaign that long-rumbling discontent with the party's presumptive (if unannounced) presidential front-runner, Hillary Clinton, boiled over. Last week both New York magazine and The New Yorker ran lead articles quoting party insiders who described a Clinton candidacy in 2008 as a pox tantamount to avian flu. The Times jumped in with a front-page remembrance of headlines past: a dissection of the Clinton marriage.
If Senator Clinton is the Antichrist, might not it be time for a resurrected messiah to inherit (and save) the earth? Enter Mr. Gore, celebrated by New York on its cover as "The Un-Hillary."
There's a certain logic to this. Mrs. Clinton does look like a weak candidate — not so much because of her marriage, her gender or her liberalism, but because of her eagerness to fudge her stands on anything and everything to appeal to any and all potential voters. Where once she inspired passions pro and con, now she often induces apathy. Her most excited constituency seems to be the right-wing pundits who still hope to make a killing with books excoriating her. At least eight fresh titles are listed at Amazon.com, including my own personal favorite, "Liberal Fascism: The Totalitarian Temptation From Mussolini to Hillary Clinton." (Why settle for Il Duce when you can go for Hitler?)
Since no crowd-pleasing Democratic challenger has emerged at this early date to disrupt Mrs. Clinton's presumed coronation, the newly crowned movie star who won the popular vote in 2000 is the quick fix. Better the defeated devil the Democrats know than the losers they don't. Besides, there are at least two strong arguments in favor of Mr. Gore. He was way ahead of the Washington curve, not just on greenhouse gases but on another issue far more pressing than Mrs. Clinton's spirited crusade to stamp out flag burning: Iraq.
An anti-Hussein hawk who was among the rare Senate Democrats to vote for the first gulf war, Mr. Gore forecast the disasters lying in wait for the second when he spoke out at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco on Sept. 23, 2002. He saw that the administration was jumping "from one unfinished task to another" and risked letting Afghanistan destabilize and Osama bin Laden flee. He saw that the White House was recklessly putting politics over policy by hurrying a Congressional war resolution before the midterm elections (and before securing international support). Most important, he noticed then that the administration had "not said much of anything" about "what would follow regime change." He imagined how "chaos in the aftermath of a military victory in Iraq could easily pose a far greater danger to the United States than we presently face from Saddam."
At the time, the White House professed to ignore Mr. Gore's speech, but on cue in the next five days Condoleezza Rice, Ari Fleischer, Donald Rumsfeld and the president all stepped up the hype of what Mr. Rumsfeld falsely called "bulletproof" evidence of links between Saddam and Al Qaeda. Democratic leaders in Congress, meanwhile, blew off Mr. Gore for fear that talk of Iraq might distract the electorate from all those compelling domestic issues that would guarantee victory in the midterms. (That brilliant strategy cost Democrats the Senate.) On CNN, a representative from The New Republic, a frequent Gore cheerleader, reported that "the vast majority of the staff" condemned his speech as "the bitter rantings of a guy who is being politically motivated and disingenuous in his arguments."
But in truth, as with global warming, Mr. Gore's stands on Iraq (both in 1991 and 2002) were manifestations of leadership — the single attribute most missing from the current Democrats with presidential ambitions. Of the potential candidates for 2008, only Senator Feingold raised similar questions about the war so articulately so early. The Gore stand on the environment, though still rejected by the president and his oil-industry base, has become a bipartisan cause: 86 evangelical Christian leaders broke with the administration's do-nothing policy in February.
If this were the whole picture, Mr. Gore would seem the perfect antidote to the Democrats' ills. But it's not. The less flattering aspect of Mr. Gore has not gone away: the cautious and contrived presidential candidate who, like Mrs. Clinton now, was so in thrall to consultants that he ran away from his own administration's record and muted his views, even about pet subjects like science. (He waffled on the teaching of creationism in August 1999, after the Kansas Board of Education struck down the teaching of evolution.) That Gore is actually accentuated, not obscured, by "An Inconvenient Truth." The more hard-hitting his onscreen slide show about global warming, the more he reminds you of how much less he focused on the issue in 2000. Gore the uninhibited private citizen is not the same as Gore the timid candidate.
Though many of the rave reviews don't mention it, there are also considerable chunks of "An Inconvenient Truth" that are more about hawking Mr. Gore's image than his cause. They also bring back unflattering memories of him as a politician. The movie contains no other voices that might upstage him, not even those of scientists supporting his argument. It is instead larded with sycophantic audiences, as meticulously multicultural as any Benetton ad, who dote on every word and laugh at every joke, like the studio audience at "Live With Regis and Kelly."
We are also treated to a heavy-handed, grainy glimpse of Katherine Harris, Michael Moore-style, and are reminded that Mr. Gore is not a rigid blue-state N.R.A. foe (he shows us where he shot his rifle as a farm kid in Tennessee). There's even an ingenious bit of fearmongering to go head to head with the Republicans' exploitation of 9/11: in a worst-case climactic scenario, we're told, the World Trade Center memorial "would be under water." Given so blatant a political context, the film's big emotional digressions — Mr. Gore's tragic near-loss of his young son and the death of his revered older sister from lung cancer — are as discomforting as they were in his 1992 and 1996 convention speeches.
If "An Inconvenient Truth" isn't actually a test drive for a presidential run, it's the biggest tease since Colin Powell encouraged speculation about his political aspirations during his 1995 book tour. Mr. Gore's nondenial denials about his ambitions (he has "no plans" to run) are Clintonesque. Told by John Heilemann of New York magazine that his movie sometimes feels like a campaign film, Mr. Gore gives a disingenuous answer that triggers an instant flashback to his equivocation about weightier matters during the 2000 debates: "Audiences don't see the movie as political. Paramount did a number of focus-group screenings, and that was very clear." You want to scream: stop this man before he listens to a focus group again!
Even so, let's hope Mr. Gore runs. He may not be able to pull off the Nixon-style comeback of some bloggers' fantasies, but by pounding away on his best issues, he could at the very least play the role of an Adlai Stevenson or Wendell Willkie, patriotically goading the national debate onto higher ground. "I think the war looms over everything," said Karl Rove this month in bemoaning his boss's poll numbers. It looms over the Democrats, too. But the party's leaders would rather let John Murtha take the heat on Iraq; they don't even have the guts to endorse tougher fuel economy standards in their "new" energy policy. While a Gore candidacy could not single-handedly save the Democrats from themselves any more than his movie can vanquish "X-Men" at the multiplex, it might at least force the party powers that be to start facing some inconvenient but necessary truths.