Hirsh: Why Isn't Gore Running?

There he was again on the world stage--in Oslo this time--celebrating his Nobel Peace Prize with singer Melissa Etheridge and actress Uma Thurman, the Hollywood hottie who called him "adorable" and said listening to him talk was "like watching a beautiful racehorse run." But Al Gore isn't running. Which raises the question: maybe Gore's gotten a little too adorable--too comfortable in his role as a globe-trotting guru. What about his own damn country? Why isn't Al Gore--Nobel laureate and enviro rock star, embodiment of the alternative history that never was, winner of the largest popular-vote total in U.S. presidential history (at the time) --seeking the job that many people still think should have been his in 2000? Yes, we've all heard that Gore's reached a kind of peace within himself, and what fire that is left in his belly is guttering out. But shouldn't this Hamlet of the Hustings be tormented with a little of the melancholy Dane's anguished ambition, telling himself: "The time is out of joint; O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right?"

Gore is obviously not without ambition to set things right: he appears to want to save the entire planet single-handedly. "Without realizing it, we have begun to wage war on the earth itself," he said in his Nobel acceptance speech. "It is time to make peace with the planet." After receiving his prize, Gore flew onto Bali, where the U.S. government this week succeeded in single-handedly blocking a proposal that called on industrialized nations to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 25 percent to 40 percent by 2020. The Bush administration's lonely stand at the two-week-long meeting of nearly 190 nations--convened to start talks on a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012--came even as new NASA satellite data showed a frightening acceleration in the melting of the Arctic. "My own country, the United States, is principally responsible for obstructing progress here in Bali," Gore declared as the Bali negotiations bogged down. And that comes after 10 years of limbo for Kyoto, thanks in large part to the Bush administration. Even Australia, whose zealously pro-Bush prime minister, John Howard, was defeated recently in part because of his opposition to Kyoto, has now signed the protocol. That leaves the United States as the only developed nation that has not joined the agreement.

Gore's passion and prescience on global warming are admirable. But let's get real: without a U.S. president who's fully behind an emission-reduction program, it's simply not going to happen. That's the lesson of Bali. America is still the only superpower, and there is no replacement on the horizon. The way to really save the planet is to move into the Oval Office. And a presidential race that only a short time ago some pundits were calling a Clinton coronation now seems wide open again. But Al Gore conveys no sense whatsoever that he's the man to set things right in Washington. He's already missed many of the filing deadlines for the primaries, discouraging the various Draft Gore campaigns from gathering signatures (undeterred, some have launched write-in campaigns). And Super Tuesday is less than two months away. "Please trust me to make good decisions about where I can do the most good," Gore told his supporters recently. "And don't automatically assume that running for president again is the right thing for me to do."

He's obviously still open to suggestion. I asked Donna Brazile, his campaign manager from 2000, whether there's any way Gore could still become president. "America might decide to turn to a 'recovering politician' in 2008, and Al Gore is ready to lead day one. I'm still a dreamer," she said by e-mail today. Gore, interviewed by CNN in Oslo, said cautiously that "I haven't ruled out the idea of getting back into the political process at some point in the future. I don't expect to. But if I did get back, it would be as a candidate for president, not in any other position." That's not much of a promise, but it's marginally more ambitious than what he said when he announced on Dec. 15, 2002 that he wouldn't run in 2004. "I made the decision in the full awareness that that probably means I will never have another opportunity to run for president, and I'm at peace with that," he said back then.

Well, Al, I'm glad you're at peace, but your planet and your country aren't. If you believe that instead of the "nuclear winter" that you and other politicians worked to avoid during the cold war we now face a "carbon summer," as you put it in your Nobel speech, then why the devil are you cavorting around on stage with Hollywood types in Oslo? Gore, we must remember, originally took himself out of what many Americans believed should have been his rightful rematch with George W. Bush when the former veep announced at the height of Bush's popularity that he wouldn't run again. Gore has had cause to regret that, obviously. Well, now there is a similar window of opportunity. Hillary Clinton's inevitability engine is stalled; the Democratic mantle seems up for grabs (at least between Hillary and Barack Obama). There is similar uncertainty on the Republican side, with the obscure Mike Huckabee filling the vacuum for the moment. It's clear that the nation and the world are looking for the right kind of American president.

Why not you, Al? The last time Gore decided not to run, memories of his close race with Bush were still fresh in the minds of unforgiving Dems. "In 2002, there was lot of anger at him within the Democratic Party," says one former adviser. "He could have taken Bush in 2004, but the road to the nomination was not going to be easy. The party really treated him terribly." Now he's got real hero status, having transformed his image from wooden wonk to globo-guy. And while the Dems have several candidates of substance to choose from, serious doubts about electability continue to plague the two front runners. But time is running out fast for Gore."The only way he becomes president now is if there's a catastrophic collapse of the field, and something we haven't seen in ages, a brokered convention," says the former adviser. Better that, perhaps, than a broken environment.