Will Gore Play a Role?

Former vice president Al Gore is notoriously evasive when it comes to talking horse-race politics, which seems peculiar for a guy who was once one of those horses himself. Instead, he has focused on issues like global climate change, work for which he was recognized with an Oscar and a Nobel Prize. But amid the buzz about the 2008 candidates and their high-profile endorsers, Gore's silence has been notable. NEWSWEEK's Daniel Stone sat down with Bob Shrum, longtime Democratic political consultant and senior strategist for Gore's 2000 campaign, to find out what the "Almost President" might be thinking--although in truth, Gore rarely talks to Shrum, either. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Al Gore is a heavy voice in Democratic politics. As the nation debates and analyzes these primary elections, where is he?
Bob Shrum:
I believe that Al Gore has become much more than a politician. He's become a prophet. He's affected the world more than many presidents have, and my own instinct is that he doesn't want to get down in the political battle at this point. He'll support the Democratic nominee and campaign for him or her, but I don't think that he'll endorse. He's one of those rare politicians who, since having had the election stolen from him, has managed to reconstitute himself into a much bigger figure than he was before. My guess is that he's not putting that on the line in the primary.

But he's still human. Isn't he tempted to exercise his influence--which political experts think would be considerable at this point?
Since every prediction in this primary season is wrong, I'll make one too: he won't do it, and I'll probably be wrong.

He has said repeatedly that he's happily retired from politics--
But he's also said that he hasn't ruled out running for office on some future day. If the Democrats don't win this year, there will be a lot of people urging him to run the next time.

That happened in this election last year when a sizeable group attempted to draft him into the process.
Look, people have walked away from running for president before. Ted Kennedy, who I think would have had the nomination in 1984, didn't run and decided to make his life and mark in the Senate. I think in a different way, Al Gore has made the same decision. That doesn't mean four years from now that he could make a different decision. He's still young. I don't know his plan.

Well, you've got his cell-phone number with you, right? Let's call him up now. Let's see what he's thinking.
Oh, no no no. You're fishing for gold in a place where there is none.

OK. Some other big endorsements have come in over the past two weeks, like Senator Kennedy for Obama and Arnold Schwarzenegger for John McCain. How influential are these big-name endorsements?
I think some endorsements really matter. The Kennedy endorsement gave Obama a big lift right when he needed it, after South Carolina. Some people are going to say that just because Obama didn't win Massachusetts that endorsements don't matter, but it's clear that Kennedy had a big impact on people all across the country. What's interesting about the Republicans, though, is that McCain had a series of endorsements this week that were all from a wing of the party that the far right hates, like Giuliani and Schwarzenegger. If he wins the nomination, it won't be because of those endorsements.

Having strategized high-level Democratic politics for 30 years, what effect do you think this nomination process had on the Democratic Party?
So far, I think people are happy with both candidates and could live with either. As the process gets more protracted, there's a danger that people begin to get mad at each other, so it becomes more difficult to unify the party.

What do you think about the prospects of a Clinton-Obama or Obama-Clinton ticket?
Well look, you never know. If you had asked me at this point in 1960 what the prospects were of a Kennedy-Johnson ticket, I would have given you the conventional response: zero. And I would have been wrong. But very few people turn down the vice presidency.

You've been a writer and pundit over the past few months, which is far different from your former roles as campaign senior adviser. Are you enjoying the change?
I think it's time. I'm from the very beginning of the baby-boom '60s generation. I was part of the group that came early and stayed late. I decided it's time to switch tables and let someone else do what I did. For now, I just like to comment. And I've managed to offend both sides [laughs].

But if Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton calls you next month and asks?
Nope. Sorry.