The 'truth' about Al Gore

He's no hero, he says, but there's a movie he'd like you to see


WASHINGTON / / Disarming doesn't begin to describe the experience. Picture yourself walking into a Washington office and being introduced to Mr. Vice President Al Gore by Davis Guggenheim, the director of the urgently engaging documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, centered on Gore's traveling slide show about global warming.

Guggenheim begins to explain what initially intrigued him about the project. Gore interrupts. "I think his experience directing Deadwood is what prepared him to direct me."

Guggenheim deflects the reference to the HBO cult Western and soldiers on. "The story of global warming has never had a hero, never had a leading man. And now it has one. And I don't use 'hero' lightly."

Gore turns four-square on his colleague, bends his gravitas into a massive farcical disdain, and says, "I have this little battery-powered hubris alarm. I've got it set on vibrate. And it just went off. This is the first interview you've used that word. And I don't want you to use that word."

Guggenheim persists. "Take hero in the classic sense of a guy who confronts great obstacles ... "

"Puh-lease," Gore roars playfully and points to his own back. "Why not just put the bull's-eye right here?

It's the kind of casual, humorous byplay only a confident public figure would put before the press. Maybe Gore's so relaxed because he's been a target -- and survived. Maybe it's because, as Guggenheim suggests, he's definitely opted out of the presidential arena and feels personally and politically liberated.

Whatever the reason, Guggenheim might as well have said, "Meet the New Al Gore." He's happy and loose in his strapping 6-foot-1 1 / 2 -inch frame. He's spontaneous and open in his mindset. When I suggest he may be ecology's bard if he's not its hero, he starts playing air mandolin and delivering his lecture in a mock falsetto.

Once fodder for Saturday Night Live because of his heavy-handed presidential debate performance -- sighing in disgust, breaking words into syllables as if speaking for the intelligence-impaired, and repeating ad nauseam his pledge to keep the economic surplus "in a lockbox" -- he's become a show-stopping guest.

Two weeks ago, he opened the program as if he'd won the 2000 election and made the world a better place. Addressing the nation as President Gore, he reported that he'd so totally defeated terrorism that Afghanistan was the new, hot place to spend spring break. He proclaimed a slew of domestic triumphs, including providing universal health care while preserving the budget surplus "in the very successful lockbox." Slaying the audience with his deadpan-droll use of "lockbox" was the coup de grace for the Old Al Gore.

Back in Washington, repeating New Yorker editor David Remnick's description of him as "global warming's Willy Loman" clears the air and takes him back to his beloved Earth. "I am a messenger," he says, "but there are plenty of other messengers; Hurricane Katrina, for example." Even his serious touch seems deft now.

"I think something clicked after the 2000 election," Guggenheim says later, over the phone from Los Angeles. "It was such a traumatic event for him, I think he had to find his way, find his voice, and speak from a place of core beliefs. The first few times I saw him give his lecture in these huge conference areas in L.A., it was not like Willy Loman, but the context of it was like seeing those guys who get up and preach about the nine steps to success. Still, after 10 or 15 minutes, I was hooked. He's charming and humble, and immediately you understand that this isn't political -- this is him speaking from his heart."

Once derided for saying he took the initiative on the Internet, he's now an adviser to Google and sits on the board of directors at Apple. His youth-oriented network, Current TV, built around short videos from its viewers, has riveted the attention of cable rivals who are coming up with their own versions of it. And his Generation Investment Management fund, started in 2004, boasts a track record for predicting how greener companies like Toyota outperform dinosaurs like General Motors.

The movie An Inconvenient Truth and the book of the same name mark a return to roots for Gore. Much of it derives from Gore's 1992 book, Earth in the Balance. "The outlines of the story are the same," Gore acknowledges. "We've quadrupled human population in the last 100 years. We've multiplied the power of technology one thousand-fold. And we've adopted a curious modern philosophy that tells us it's OK to ignore the future consequences of present actions."

So what has changed in the years since he wrote Earth in the Balance? "The consequential effects have unfolded more rapidly than anyone predicted. The range of harm is now much greater than people predicted only 14 to 15 years ago. And the scientific linkages are now so vividly clear that scientists are saying there is no linkage clearer than [the one between post-industrial human practices and global warming]."

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