From One Prize to Another

Will Al Gore now run for the White House?

Al Gore

Al Gore is a winner. Al Gore was right. One of the best things for Al Gore about winning the Nobel Peace Prize is that the sound bites are finally all on his side. For decades the two-term vice president has been championing environmental causes and until recently often received public scorn and derision. Now he’s been rewarded with one of the most coveted prizes on the planet.

This reversal in Gore’s fortunes is extraordinary. He’s not only seen a rolling vindication of his environmental activism as the world becomes more consumed with combating global climate change, but his prewar warnings about the conflict in Iraq now look prescient. Meanwhile, George Bush—the other political scion with whom Gore will forever be linked because of their bitter election fight in 2000—has followed almost exactly the opposite trajectory. Unpopular and increasingly criticized by many in his own party, Bush’s legacy will be the broken war. While Gore is lauded for his prescience and insight, Bush will for some time—perhaps forever—be best known for lacking those same qualities.

So, what does Al do with this prize? Wear it around his neck? Gore is meeting today with advisers to discuss how he will channel the new surge of publicity into the cause. One of those advisers told me the award will not change Gore’s political calculation. He’s just not running. If anything, the prize only puts more momentum behind his global-warming crusade. “It’s a great honor for him,” said the adviser, “but it’s a bigger honor for the issue. It’s huge for the issue. Think about how far things have moved in the last couple of years because of his work.”

Of course, this could all change as his phone keeps ringing and the petitions to enter the election keep coming in. Many of those advisers helping him deal with the incoming praise, requests, and gold-plated sucking up—”a pleasant dilemma, indeed,” as one put it—could certainly turn around in a moment and plot a political campaign.

Gore will have to face the toughest test of political instinct. His father used to joke that politicians usually listen to the one person in the room who wants them to run for higher office—ignoring the other 99 who are all saying, “Don’t do it.” Gore may now face the reverse situation. Petitions to draft Gore into the race are already circulating. What makes Gore such a powerful force in Democratic politics is that he is also emblematic of an entire set of arguments. For many, his rise is a natural rebuke of the current president, but it’s also become a rebuke of the perverted political process in which style is rewarded over substance. This is an argument that Gore expands on and applies to policy in his recent book The Assault on Reason.

The latest polling in early September from CNN had Gore at 13 percent in the Democratic primary field. But polls this summer in Michigan and New Hampshire showed him nearly topping the Democratic field (though there are some questions about the methodology in Michigan and New Hampshire). The latest Gallup poll shows that while many in the Democratic Party may love him, the general picture is more mixed. Fifty percent of the country has a favorable view. Forty-two percent does not. These numbers are fairly meaningless, though, since the polls were taken before Friday morning’s news.

There are many other reasons for Gore not to want to run. He is, by all accounts, happy. He’s got a great life full of comfort and a stack of opportunities to do good while enjoying the comforts of fame and international renown. “He is now on a different path,” his former top strategist Carter Eskew is fond of saying. Even the most popular politician in the world has to suffer through the drudgery of party dinners and frivolous symbolic speeches. Gore always hated that part of the job. Plus, to win the presidency, he’d have to fight Hillary Clinton—which would be ugly.

Even if Gore doesn’t run, there will continue to be a race for his endorsement. Advisers say he might endorse, but he also might not. John Edwards put down the first marker for that. I got an e-mail from the Edwards campaign in the same 5 a.m. e-mail dump that brought the news alert that Gore had won. (As of 10 a.m., he was still winning the suck-up race, with no other competition among his rivals.)

For Gore’s critics, today will be a day to rail, reiterating that global warming is a myth and the prize a purely political act. What did his actions have to do with peace? Is he really as great as Martin Luther King Jr., who also won the prize? The tide of popular sentiment will be against these naysayers. Some might have a point, but the majority of them will probably look lonely and bitter. They will be ridiculed for their obtuse views and maybe even parodied on Saturday Night Live as flat-earth wackos. They will, in short, have an opportunity to feel what it used to be like being Al Gore.