In other words, you would want someone like Al Gorethe improbably charismatic, Academy Awardwinning, Nobel Prizenominated environmental prophet with an army of followers and huge reserves of political and cultural capital at his command. There's only one problem. The former Vice President just doesn't seem interested. He says he has "fallen out of love with politics," which is shorthand for both his general disgust with the process and the pain he still feels over the hard blow of the 2000 election, when he became only the fourth man in U.S. history to win the popular vote but lose a presidential election. In the face of wrenching disappointment, he showed enormous disciplinewaking up every day knowing he came so close, believing the Supreme Court was dead wrong to shut down the Florida recount but never talking about it publicly because he didn't want Americans to lose faith in their system. That changes a man forever.
It changed Gore for the better. He dedicated himself to a larger cause, doing everything in his power to sound the alarm about the climate crisis, and that decision helped transform the way Americans think about global warming and carried Gore to a new state of grace. So now the question becomes, How will he choose to spend all the capital he has accumulated? No wonder friends, party elders, moneymen and green leaders are still trying to talk him into running. "We have dug ourselves into a 20-ft. hole, and we need somebody who knows how to build a ladder. Al's the guy," says Steve Jobs of Apple. "Like many others, I have tried my best to convince him. So far, no luck."
"It happens all the time," says Tipper Gore. "Everybody wants to take him for a walk in the woods. He won't go. He's not doing it!" But even Tipperso happy and relieved to see her husband freed up after 30 years in politicsknows better than to say never: "If the feeling came over him and he had to do it, of course I'd be with him." Perhaps that feeling never comes over him. Maybe Obama or Clinton or John Edwards achieves bulletproof inevitability and Gore never sees his opening. But if it does come, if at some point in the next five months or so the leader stumbles and the party has one of its periodic crises of faith, then he will have to decide once and for all whether to take a final shot at reaching his life's dream. It's the Last Temptation of Gore, and it's one reason he has been so careful not to rule out a presidential bid. Is it far-fetched to think that his grassroots climate campaign could yet turn into a presidential one? As the recovering politician himself says, "You always have to worry about a relapse."
For now, at least, Gore is firmly in the program. He's working mightily to build a popular movement to confront what he calls "the most serious crisis we've ever faced." He has logged countless miles in the past four years, crisscrossing the planet to present his remarkably powerful slide show and the Oscar-winning documentary that's based on it, An Inconvenient Truth, to groups of every size and description. He flies commercial most of the time to use less CO2 and buys offsets to maintain a carbon-neutral life. In tandem with Hurricane Katrina and a rising chorus of warning from climate scientists, Gore's film helped trigger one of the most dramatic opinion shifts in history as Americans suddenly realized they must change the way they live. In a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, an overwhelming majority of those surveyed90% of Democrats, 80% of independents, 60% of Republicanssaid they favor "immediate action" to confront the crisis.
The day that poll was published, in April, I spent some time with Gore, 59, in his hotel room in Buffalo, N.Y., during a break between two slide-show events at the state university. Draped across an easy chair, he looked exhaustednot as heavy as he has been (he is dieting and working out hard these days) but flushed and a little bleary. He was in the throes of an eight-show week4,000 people in Regina, Sask.; 1,200 in Indianapolis; 2,000 near Utica, N.Y.; a flight to New York City the night before for a meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon; then back to Buffalo this morning for a matinee for 4,000 and, soon, an evening show for 6,000. I congratulated him on the poll and mentioned the dozen or so states thatin the absence of federal actionhave moved to restrict CO2 emissions. Gore wasn't declaring victory. "I feel like the country singer who spends 30 years on the road to become an overnight sensation," he said with a smile. "And I've seen public interest wax and wane beforebut this time does feel different."
So Gore is turning up the pressure. He has testified before both houses of Congress, recommending policies and warning the lawmakers that the Alliance for Climate Protection, his nonprofit advocacy group, will be running ads in their districts next year. He has been meeting privately with the presidential candidates (but won't talk about the meetings or handicap the race). He has trained a small army of volunteers to give his slide show all over the world. And on July 7, he will preside over Live Earth, producer Kevin Wall's televised global rock festival (nine concerts on seven continents in a single day), designed to get 2 billion people engaged in the crisis all at once. Since Gore is sometimes accused of profiting from the climate crisis, it's worth noting that he donates all his profits from the Inconvenient Truth movie and book to the alliance. He can afford to: he's a senior adviser at Google and sits on the board of directors at Apple. He's also a co-founder of Current TV, the cable network that was an early champion of user-generated content, and chairman of Generation Investment Management, a sustainable investment fund with assets approaching $1 billion. "I'm working harder than I ever have in my life," he says. "The other day a friend said, 'Why don't you just take a break, Al, and run for President?'"
That night, at the University of Buffalo's Alumni Arena, there was a moment when Gore seemed to be doing just that. After the peoplestudents, middle-aged men and women, retireestook their seats, images of the earth appeared on three giant screens, and a natural-born teacher took them on a two-hour planetary tour. He was playful, eloquent, fully restored from his afternoon lull. He has given this presentation some 2,000 times yet still imbues it with a sense of discovery. He laid out the overwhelming evidence that human activity has given the earth a raging fever, then urged the people to respond"If the crib's on fire, you don't speculate the baby's flame retardant! If the crib's on fire, you save the baby!" Yet he was optimistic. There's still time to acttwo decades at most, according to the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changeand by rising to meet the challenge, this generation will achieve "the enhanced moral authority" it needs to solve so many other problems. Then, suddenly, Gore was laying American democracy itself on the couch, asking why the U.S. has been unable to take action on global warming, why it has made so many other disastrous choicesrushing into war in Iraq, spying on Americans without search warrants, holding prisoners at Guantánamo Bay without due process.