The New New Gore
Five years ago, Al Gore was the much-mocked pol who blew a gimme with his stiff demeanor and know-it-all style. Today? C’mon, admit it: You like him again.
By Ezra Klein
American Prospect/April 8, 2006
The most important speech of Al Gore’s post–non-presidency was neither well-covered nor particularly dramatic. He delivered it against a plain blue curtain, and when he finished, the applause rippled but never roared. None in attendance, however, would have dared call it boring.
The address was the keynote for the We Media conference, held at the Associated Press headquarters in New York last October and attended by an audience that included both old media luminaries and new media innovators. In attendance were Tom Curley, president of the AP, Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News, and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, all leading lights of a media establishment that, five years earlier, had deputized itself judge, jury, and executioner for Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, spinning each day’s events to portray the stolid, capable vice president as a wild exaggerator, ideological chameleon, and total, unforgivable bore. They must have been wondering what changed. Over the next 48 minutes, Gore laced into the state of the media, lamenting the “systematic decay of the public forum,” and echoing Walter Lippmann’s belief that the propaganda emanating from the press corps was rendering America’s “dogma of democracy” void. Journalism, Gore said, had grown “dysfunctional,” and now “fails to inform the people.” The speech wasn’t just an isolated blast aimed at wresting some headlines or settling some scores. Gore has long been quietly obsessed with excising the media from the politician-public relationship. That’s been the unifying aim of all his seemingly disconnected ventures since returning to the public eye: a determination to evade, and eventually end, the media’s stranglehold on political communication. Yet few seem to have noticed this campaign, with most observers too caught up in Gore’s old storylines to recognize his new efforts.
So when he taught a class at Columbia’s School of Journalism, the conventional wisdom held that Al Gore was becoming the boring professor he was always meant to be. When he began distributing his speeches through MoveOn.org, the pundits intoned that he was merely proving himself the wild-eyed liberal they’d always suspected he was. When he started the Gen-Y oriented Current TV, the commentators snickered at his pathetic attempts to become cool. And when he endorsed Howard Dean for president, political watchers quickly associated Dean’s downfall with Gore’s reverse-Midas touch, laughing as Al lost another one. Taken together, these moves, and Gore’s coming film on the global warming crisis -- “An Inconvenient Truth,” to be released in May -- point to a new narrative: Gore as warrior against the gatekeepers of the press. As it has turned out, Al Gore as presented by Al Gore is infinitely more electric and attractive than the anodyne stiff the media popularized and the voters remembered. Since his loss, Gore has undergone a resurrection of sorts, shrugging off the consultants and the caution that hampered him during the campaign and -- aided by new distribution technologies -- evolving into perhaps the most articulate, animated, and forceful critic of the Bush administration. And now, with Democrats taking a fresh look at a man they thought they knew and speculation mounting around his ambitions in 2008, it seems that the man much mocked for inventing the Internet is in fact using the direct communication it enables to reinvent himself.
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The standard holding pattern for leading politicians who awaken one morning to find themselves suddenly out of a job is to take the helm at a major company or maybe join a couple of corporate boards. They often choose major multinationals like Halliburton or shadowy investment consortiums like The Carlyle Group. Gore’s chosen berths were a bit different. The “inventor of the Internet” decided to join the powwows of its popularizers, becoming a senior adviser to Google and a member of Apple’s board of directors, arguably the two most innovative companies on the tech landscape. It seemed an almost overly symbolic rejection of his monochromatic reputation: the candidate of earth tones joining two companies with famously multihued logos. But it wasn’t. In fact, little could’ve been more natural for Gore, one of Congress’ earliest and most committed computer nerds. Though his misreported comments on the Internet’s lineage were unfortunate for his campaign, Gore, in fact, was a prime mover in its early days -- if not its father, then definitely the rich uncle who sent it to college, using his seat on the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee to ensure the fledgling technology had the financial wherewithal to make something of itself. Vinton Cerf and Bob Kahn, the two men most often given credit for birthing the Web (due to their development of the crucial TCP/IP protocols), were so appalled by the media’s distortion of Gore’s comments that they jointly penned a defense, writing that “no other elected official … has made a greater contribution over a longer period of time” than Gore. Gore’s interest in communicative technology and media dates back at least to the late 1960s, when he was attending Harvard and, under the direction of presidential historian Richard Neustadt, wrote his thesis on television’s relationship to the presidency. It continued when he enlisted in Vietnam as an army journalist and deepened when, on returning, he signed up with his hometown paper, The Tennessean, where he remained for four and a half years, breaking a corruption scandal that resulted in the arrest of two city council members. He has often mused that if he had not assumed dynastic responsibilities and followed his father’s footsteps into politics, he would’ve enjoyed being a journalist. It’s fitting, then, that after some hanging chads lynched his political ambitions, he returned to his roots, accepting a post at Columbia’s journalism school to teach about the intersection between journalism, his first career, and the Internet, his longstanding obsession.
The class, which began in Spring 2001, was entitled “Covering National Affairs in an Information Age.” Gore’s first lecture engaged objectivity itself, challenging the journalistic trope that fairness resides in controversy and an article has to represent all sides -- no matter how marginal -- equally. Instead, Gore argued that the journalistic impulse to exalt even the most fringe views to parity in order to furnish opposing perspectives is harmful to basic accuracy. This didn’t sit well with more than a few of the wannabe reporters in the class, many of whom were aghast at the suggestion that the media should attempt to actually mediate between truth and spin. As Josh Bearman, a student in that class and now an editor at the LA Weekly, recalls it, “He stood up there challenging the entire dogma of the journalism school. First semester, you learned that objectivity was emperor, then Gore came in and told you it had no clothes.” And along with that backlash, the old anti-intellectualism Gore experienced in 2000 made a reappearance. As Bearman tells it, “He knew more than everyone in the room. So the class basically turned against him because he was smarter than they were, and they didn’t like that. We witnessed exactly what had happened on the campaign plane in the year prior.” Gore did not return to teach the class in 2002. It’s possible, though, that the class taught something to Gore, because not long after that he began actively seeking to evade the media. On August 7, 2003, Gore headed to New York University to offer one of his first major speeches since his concession address; it was a notably prescient condemnation of the Bush administration’s later bellicosity and overreach.
But more visionary than the content was the distribution method: the speech was Gore’s first -- but not his last -- offered under the auspices of the online-activism powerhouse MoveOn.org, an alliance that granted Gore a direct conduit to millions of engaged liberal activists nationwide. “I know the word fell out of favor after the dot-com collapse,” mused Wes Boyd, founder of MoveOn.org, “but he’s doing disintermediation. He contacted us in the summer of 2003, said he wanted to give a speech, and was wondering if we’d like to sponsor it. What we lend to it is some of that disintermediation.” Disintermediation is a big word for a type of subtraction, the sort that excludes the middleman (the “mediator”). As a dot-com term, it described producers selling directly to customers rather than working through established retail channels. In Gore’s case, it describes a public figure distributing his words directly to the public rather than working through established media outlets. The reason Gore sought this out, as former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, Gore’s friend since 1961, told me, is that “Gore wants to make change, not be part of the distortive, stifling process of the mainstream media.” Speaking into the cameras, the former VP had learned, was like talking into one of those gag gift bullhorns -- what came out had little relation to what went in. “Gore’s own view,” says Hundt, “is that he sighed noisily in the debate and used the wrong telephone line to ask for money and the media said these are momentous events. Meanwhile, they ignore global warming and the failure to catch Osama and the destruction of the safety net.” So Gore sought a way to bypass the filter.
Every time he gives a speech under MoveOn’s auspices, a guaranteed 3 million MoveOn members get the address blasted directly in their inboxes, where it can be read in full. From there, the speech gets e-mailed around, promoted on the blogs, passed from friend to neighbor -- what tech types call “viral marketing.” At no point in this process does a news editor or television producer decide which sound bites will be emphasized for ratings. MoveOn allows him to speak on his own terms and individuals to distribute his speeches on theirs. It’s Gore Unplugged, and everyone’s got a ticket. If the Internet is reinventing Gore, though, Gore is using its lessons to reinvent television. His October 2005 speech to the We Media conference was a tour de force, ranging from Johannes Gutenberg to Thomas Paine, Walter Lippmann to John Kenneth Galbraith, the historian Henry Steele Commager to the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Gore was a know-it-all, and he didn’t care if they knew it too. He blasted the media for accepting “fewer reporters, fewer stories, smaller budgets, less travel, fewer bureaus, less independent judgment, more vulnerability to influence by management, and more dependence on government sources and canned public relations hand-outs,” for chasing sensationalism and conflict, for becoming “dumbed-down and tarted-up.” He lamented that “the inherent value or validity of political propositions put forward by candidates for office is now largely irrelevant compared to the advertising campaigns that shape the perceptions of voters.” But most of all, he decried television’s unidirectionality.
“[A]long with my partner, Joel Hyatt, I am trying to work within the medium of television to recreate a multi-way conversation that includes individuals and operates according to a meritocracy of ideas.” That’s the vision for Current Television. Hyatt, the wealthy son-in-law of former Ohio Senator Howard Metzenbaum, is probably best known for founding Hyatt Legal Services, whose commercials he’d close with “I’m Joel Hyatt and you have my word on it!” Hyatt was the Democratic Party’s finance chair during Gore’s campaign, and their partnership only deepened after the election. The two attempted to buy The New Republic in 2001; when that failed, they began to dream about something far bigger than a political weekly, eventually amassing enough money to take over the Newsworld International Network (an international news channel reaching 20 million homes and mainly playing Canadian Broadcasting Corporation content) and replace it with their participant-driven, short-form creation. When Gore announced the project, the assumption was that he would take aim at Fox News and the accelerating rightward bent of the cable media. But when Current was finally explained, those fears -- and hopes -- were laid to rest: Gore wasn’t launching a challenge, he was just promoting a channel of home movies hosted by hipsters. Or so went the CW, with even The Nation magazine running a cover story on the channel with a photo of Gore ludicrously bedecked in hip-hop garb. But Current, in fact, represents a far more fundamental assault on the news networks than anyone expected. If the problem with television is that the audience can’t talk back to the flickering box, then the answer, clearly, is to have them talk through it. Thus, Current devotes a large chunk of its programming hours to viewer-contributed content. The Web site offers instructions on how to create videos (“pods”), which amateur auteurs then upload to www.Current.tv.
The Current community then watches and rates the pods online, elevating the better ones, eventually, into rotation on the channel. The content is surprisingly strong -- including everything from clever, animated political shorts to reports from the Katrina-devastated Gulf and even a poignant, artfully done pod following a birth -- but the response has been tepid. No matter. If the revolution is indeed to be televised, it’ll be because Current helps do for television what blogs have done to punditry: democratize it, decredentialize it, open it to the masses. The one guy who’s not contributing much content to Current is Gore himself. But he’s been making his own pod. On May 26, Paramount Pictures will release “An Inconvenient Truth,” a made-for-theatres version of Gore’s digitized global-warming movie presentation. (Hundt says Gore views global warming as “the biggest challenge this species ever faced, the ultimate nightmare of technology, the ultimate nadir of pure capitalism unfettered.”) Deadening as it sounds -- Gore giving a slideshow on climate change -- the film received a standing ovation at Sundance and excellent reviews that seemed to leapfrog consideration of the work and trigger a larger reassessment of the man. The Village Voice’s Amy Taubin called him Sundance’s Celeb of the Week, and marveled at all the attendees saying, “He’s so amusing. Why wasn’t he more like that when he was running?” Kim Voyner at Cinematical.com was similarly appreciative, writing, “Gore is surprisingly entertaining, peppering the salad of scientific facts he serves up with sparks of humor, wit, and insight that frankly, I didn’t know he had in him.” Pretty good for a project tiptoeing so close to self-parody. It used to be that an out-of-power political figure who lacked media relevance but wanted to perpetuate his message had to devote his life to stumping across the country and belting out endless speeches in thousands of locales, still reaching only a fraction of the interested public. So, taking a page from Apple founder Steve Job’s book, Gore is working smarter, not harder. The nature of his film has rendered it possible for Americans everywhere to absorb his ideas unfiltered. And the audience won’t stop with filmgoers. Gore’s presentation will be repackaged and offered -- free -- to science classrooms across the country. If this generation insists on ignoring global warming, maybe the next one, incited by the world’s most widely viewed and slickly produced slideshow on atmospheric science, won’t.
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Out of office, Gore’s passion for issues hasn’t changed. Indeed, it has intensified, the excitement of a wonk whose obsessions have suddenly exploded into relevancy. Bruce Reed, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (the DLC, which Gore was once closely identified with) and former-domestic policy advisor in the Clinton White House, laughed that “it’s not the politics of climate change that made him want to do a documentary on it. For 25 years he’s tried to get people interested. … This is a guy who, in the late 1980’s, went to the South Pole and brought back home movies of penguins playing on the ice surrounded by senators in parkas and wrote about it for The New Republic.” Gore’s policy involvement has stretched beyond his crusade against global warming; his speeches shredding the rationale for the invasion of Iraq were true ripsnorters, and his recent address on the National Security Agency’s domestic spying program, symbolically delivered on the birthday of the oft-surveilled Martin Luther King Jr., evinced a clarity, fearlessness, and wider vision all too absent from the nightly news. Other addresses have reached similar rhetorical heights, confronting a score of weighty issues with a thoughtful, even soaring, eloquence that has restored Gore’s reputation by glittering in contrast to the leaden rhetoric of contemporary Democratic leaders. But it has been a strange trajectory, like watching a corporate yes-man regress back into an idealistic teenager -- Al Gore goes Bulworth.
And never was it so stunning as when he endorsed Howard Dean’s candidacy in December 2003, throwing his institutional weight behind the Democratic field’s anti-establishment, pugilistic, liberal champion. In doing so, he snubbed Joe Lieberman, his running mate from four years earlier. But what all the commentators who fretted about Gore’s etiquette missed was that the Dean endorsement wasn’t a repudiation of Lieberman, but a repudiation of Gore. That’s because Dean, in 2000, was the anti-Gore: a fiery outsider running against the equivocating Democrats -- like Al Gore -- of yesteryear. (Fun fact: Dean almost mounted a primary challenge against Gore in 2000). He was also running the way Gore wished he had run. The Dean campaign’s architect, Joe Trippi, told me, “What I’ve learned from people who are close to Gore was that, had he gone in 2004, he had this vision of running a disintermediated, Internet-driven, decentralized campaign. His vision was the Dean campaign! So one of the things that attracted him to the Dean campaign was that he looked and saw that, ‘Holy shit, these guys are running the campaign I wanted to run.’” In endorsing Dean, Gore did more than signal support for the chaotic, democratized nature of the campaign. For a wonk like Gore, the endorsement of Dean -- the DLC’s bête noire during the 2004 primaries -- was an embrace of the new “it” Democrat. If the DLC’s “New Democrats,” led by Clinton and Gore, were the buzzworthy wing of the Democratic Party in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the 2004 election ushered in their successors, led by Dean. Call them the New New Democrats, MoveOn Democrats, or whatever you want.
They were the liberal response to Clinton’s triangulation and Bush’s ascension. Gleefully pugilistic, fiercely opposed to the Iraq War, deeply distrustful of a “corporate media” they believe screwed Gore specifically and Democrats generally, and proudly unapologetic about the progressive agenda, they found their first champion in Dean and, in Gore, their most surprising convert. Gore, after all, had been one of only a handful of House Democrats to support the first Gulf War. In 2000, he slammed Bill Bradley’s expansive health-care plan from the right, spoke in dusty generalities, and reduced liberalism to a “lockbox.” He was considered so mealy-mouthed and corporatized that Ralph Nader’s lefty insurgency gained genuine momentum with a message based mainly around the assertion that Gore and Bush were indistinguishable. So it was a shock when, in 2002, he dispensed with the equivocating and endorsed a full-blown single-payer solution to health care, going further than even Bradley had dared. When he unleashed a blistering assault on the proposed invasion of Iraq, decried the corporatization of American media, and endorsed Dean, it became clear that this was not the Gore of yore. None of this has passed unnoticed. On the blogs, in the magazines, on the op-ed pages, and across the punditocracy, “Gore 2008” is simultaneously a rallying cry and a guessing game. Handicapping his rise has been one of the few unifying activities in contemporary political life, with everyone from Arianna Huffington to Tony Blankley to Dick Morris talking up his chances, and Gore asymptotically approaching, but never actually offering, a Shermanesque rejection of the enterprise. To be clear, there is no sign that Gore is preparing for a campaign. His spokesperson, Josh Cherwin, assured me that “there is no ’08 story.” MoveOn’s Wes Boyd notes that Gore has not parlayed his association with MoveOn into a fund-raising list. He has built no personal Web site, and Markos Moulitsas Zunigas, founder of DailyKos, the largest progressive political blog, noted in an e-mail that Gore has made no effort to engage with the netroots save for his association with MoveOn. “I’m personally focused on elections,” he wrote, “and in that regard, he’s yesterday’s news and will remain so unless he decides to reenter electoral politics.” In past years, the moment at which Gore had to make that decision would have been rapidly approaching. When Gore decided to sit out the 2004 election, The New Republic reported that many of his associates blamed the grueling, crushing fund raising the campaign would have demanded. Not so now. Planned or not, Gore’s alliance with MoveOn and Dean’s army of online volunteers has ensured him unique access and affection among one of the richest, most easily activated cash sources in the Democratic Party. Trippi estimates that a well-timed entrance, under certain conditions, could raise Gore $50 million almost instantly, and hundreds of millions more if he won the nomination. “Remember,” he told me, “McCain in 2000 has 40,000 people sign up on the web and raises a couple million bucks. A few years later Howard Dean raises $59 million. The next [netroot darling] is going to be as exponential as Dean was to McCain.” And it could be Gore, if he wants it. Here’s the scenario: Hillary Clinton continues rolling forward, amassing establishment support and locking down the large donors. Anti-Hillary voters prove unable to coalesce around a single champion, so Clinton is able to suck up all the oxygen but, as with most faits accomplis, attracts little genuine enthusiasm. At the same time, her hawkishness and ostentatious moderation sparks widespread disillusionment among the online activist community. Inevitably, the liberal wing of the party begins calling for a Bigfoot of its own to enter the primary, and the obvious prospect is Gore. DraftGore.com, which already exists, amplifies the drumbeat, collecting pledges and holding events. The press corps, sensing a Godzilla vs. King Kong battle, begins covering the events. As Marty Peretz, publisher of The New Republic and a longtime friend of Gore, says, “if he were to find that there was some groundswell for him, I think it would be hard to resist.”
But not impossible. Long-standing associates of Gore’s say his appetite for a second campaign seems to depend, at least partially, on whether he judges it an issue-based endeavor that allows him to continue speaking out on matters of substance or just another round of dodging media-narratives and churlish characterizations. If Gore’s experiments in disintermediation pan out, the 2008 campaign may prove a very different undertaking from 2000’s. The fund raising will be easier. So will the communication. Rather than speaking through the press, Gore would be able to blast out speeches on e-mail, post videos on the Internet, release statements on a blog, use online organizing tools to empower the grassroots. The question is whether those distribution channels will have matured to the point that they could serve as primary communication methods for a successful presidential campaign. Because, as Reed Hundt warns, “if you’re using the new medium to get across a new message, but you believe that really the new medium is just a way to get back into the old medium, you’re doomed.”
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It’s hard to believe that Gore doesn’t wish to correct the record on himself, rewrite his legacy. In a sense, that’s what he’s been doing since 2000. Andrei Cherny, a former close aide of Gore’s interviewed for this piece, protested that “Gore was never a prototypical New Democrat. He never thought of himself that way. ... There were a lot moments of overlap, but he always had a much more populist streak than the DLC did. Partly his father’s son, that old southern populist tradition.”
Since his loss, that old populist tradition has burst through the membranes of caution and ambition that once constrained it, and Gore has exploded back into the Democratic consciousness. In the late 1980s, his reputation as a New Democrat propelled him to the party’s vanguard; in 1992, it netted him the vice presidency. Today, his leadership as a New New Democrat, enabled by his disintermediated communication strategies, has begun restoring his reputation among liberals and allowed him to step forth from the wreckage of 2000 as a progressive statesman. The question, of course, is whether he could retain that standing in the chaos of a presidential campaign. The Internet may well have reinvented Gore, but for Gore, the issue may be whether it’s done the same to politics.