The Failure of Al Gore: Part One

Source: The American Interest 

by Walter Russell Mead

It must be as perplexing to his many admirers as it is frustrating to himself that a man of Vice President Gore’s many talents, great skills and strong beliefs is one of the most consistent losers in American politics.

“All political careers end in failure,” said Enoch Powell; Gore has not won an election on his own since his 1990 re-election to the Senate from Tennessee.  His 1988 presidential bid ended well short of the nomination.  Many observers felt Gore was headed for defeat in a third Senate campaign as the south continued to swing Republican; Clinton’s offer of the vice presidential slot in 1992 gave Gore the opportunity to reach a national audience as his home state cooled.  On his own again in 2000, gifted by the departing Clinton with the most bubbliciously expanding economy in American history and a comfortable budget surplus, and insulated from the innuendo and scandal of the Clinton White House by his still-vibrant marriage, he found the elusive road to defeat against a flawed and inexperienced challenger.  Tennessee voted for Bush; Florida or no Florida Gore would have gone to the White House if those who knew him longest and best had rallied to his support.

Once out of office, he assumed the leadership of the global green movement, steering that movement into a tsunami of defeat that, when the debris is finally cleared away, will loom as one of the greatest failures of civil society in all time.

Gore has the Midas touch in reverse; objects of great value (Nobel prizes, Oscars) turn dull and leaden at his touch.  Few celebrity cause leaders have had more or better publicity than Gore has had for his climate advocacy.  Hailed by the world press, lionized by the entertainment community and the Global Assemblage of the Great and the Good as incarnated in the Nobel Peace Prize committee, he has nevertheless seen the movement he led flounder from one inglorious defeat to the next.  The most recent, failed global climate meeting passed almost unnoticed last week in Bonn; the world has turned its eyes away from the expiring anguish of the Copenhagen agenda.

The state of the global green movement is shambolic.  The Kyoto Protocol is withering on the vine; it will almost certainly die with no successor in place.  There is no chance of cap and trade legislation in the US under Obama, and even the EPA’s regulatory authority over carbon dioxide is under threat.  Brazil is debating a forestry law that critics charge will open the floodgates to a new round of deforestation in the Amazon.  China is taking the green lobby head on, suspending a multibillion dollar Airbus order to protest EU carbon cutting plans.

It is hard to think of any recent failure in international politics this comprehensive, this swift, this humiliating.  Two years ago almost every head of state in the world was engaged with Al Gore’s issue; today the abolition of nuclear weapons looks like a more hopeful cause than the drafting of an effective international treaty that will curb carbon emissions even a little bit.

The plunge from the brink of victory to the pit of defeat must be as unpleasant as it is familiar to the winner of the 2000 popular vote; in his latest essay in Rolling Stone he gives his own best analysis of why he keeps losing.  Few American politicians could write an essay this eloquent or this clear.  Few people in the world can command this kind of attention for their thoughts.  Even so, the results of all this talent and effort are exactly the opposite of what the former vice president would wish; the essay illuminates his shortcomings more than his strengths and makes crystal clear that if global climate policy is going to change, then Al Gore must get out of the way.

Let us begin with a basic question of judgment.  The former vice president has failed to grasp the basic nature of the kind of leadership the global green cause requires.  Vice President Gore, like all who aspire to lead great causes, must reconcile his advocacy with his conduct — that is, he must conduct himself in a way that is consistent with the great cause he seeks to promote.

Not all character flaws are inconsistent with positions of great dignity.  General Grant’s fondness for whiskey did not make him unfit for command.  Other statesmen have combined great public achievement with failure in their personal lives.  Franklin Roosevelt was neither a good father nor a good husband; Edward VII was a better monarch than man.

But while some forms of inconsistency or even hypocrisy can be combined with public leadership, others cannot be.  A television preacher can eat too many french fries, watch too much cheesy TV and neglect his kids in the quest for global fame.  But he cannot indulge in drug fueled trysts with male prostitutes while preaching conservative Christian doctrine.  The head of Mothers Against Drunk Driving cannot be convicted of driving while under the influence.  The head of the IRS cannot be a tax cheat.  The most visible leader of the world’s green movement cannot live a life of conspicuous consumption, spewing far more carbon into the atmosphere than almost all of those he castigates for their wasteful ways.  Mr. Top Green can’t also be a carbon pig.

You can be a leading environmentalist and fail to pay all of your taxes.  You can be a leading environmentalist and be unkind to your aged mother.  You can be a leading environmentalist and squeeze the toothpaste tube from the middle, park in the handicapped spots at the mall or scribble angry marginal notes in library books.

But you cannot be a leading environmentalist who hopes to lead the general public into a long and difficult struggle for sacrifice and fundamental change if your own conduct is so flagrantly inconsistent with the green gospel you profess.  If the heart of your message is that the peril of climate change is so imminent and so overwhelming that the entire political and social system of the world must change, now, you cannot fly on private jets.  You cannot own multiple mansions.  You cannot even become enormously rich investing in companies that will profit if the policies you advocate are put into place.

It is not enough to buy carbon offsets (aka “indulgences”) with your vast wealth, not enough to power your luxurious mansions with exotic low impact energy sources the average person could not afford, not enough to argue that you only needed the jet so that you could promote your earth-saving film.

You are asking billions of people, the overwhelming majority of whom lack many of the basic life amenities you take for granted, people who can’t afford Whole Foods environmentalism, to slash their meager living standards.  You may well be right, and those changes may be necessary — the more shame on you that with your superior insight and knowledge you refuse to live a modest life.  There’s a gospel hymn some people in Tennessee still sing that makes the point:  “You can’t be a beacon if your light don’t shine.”

St. Francis of Assisi understood the point well.  Taken by the Pope on a tour to see the treasures of the Vatican, St. Francis was notably unimpressed.  “Peter can no longer say, ‘silver and gold have I none,’” smiled the Pontiff, referring to the story in the Book of Acts that recounts what St. Peter said to a crippled beggar asking him for alms.

“Neither can he say, ‘rise up and walk.’” replied St. Francis — quoting what St. Peter said as he miraculously cured the beggar of his affliction.

You can sit on ivory chairs with kings in their halls of gold, participating in the world of politics as usual, or you can live with the prophets and visionaries in the wilderness, voices of a greater truth and higher meaning that challenge the smug certainties and false assumptions of the comfortable, business as usual elites.  You cannot do both.

Al Gore cannot say “silver and gold have I none and no excess carbon do I spew,” and neither can he say to the paralyzed global green movement “rise up and walk.”  He speaks, he writes, he speaks again, and the movement lies on the ground, crippled and inert.

A fawning establishment press spares the former vice president the vitriol and schadenfreude it pours over the preachers and priests whose personal conduct compromised the core tenets of their mission; Gore is not mocked as others have been.  This gentle treatment hurts both Gore and the greens; he does not know just how disabling, how crippling the gap between conduct and message truly is.  The greens do not know that his presence as the visible head of the movement helps ensure its political failure.

Consider how Gore looks to the skeptics.  The peril is imminent, he says.  It is desperate.  The hands of the clock point to twelve.  The seas rise, the coral dies, the fires burn and the great droughts have already begun.  The hounds of Hell have slipped the huntsman’s leash and even now they rush upon us, mouths agape and fangs afoam.

But grave as that danger is, Al Gore can consume more carbon than whole villages in the developing world.  He can consume more electricity than most African schools, incur more carbon debt with one trip in a private plane than most of the earth’s toiling billions will pile up in a lifetime — and he doesn’t worry.  A father of four, he can lecture the world on the perils of overpopulation.  Surely, skeptics reason, if the peril were as great as he says and he cares about it as much as he claims, Gore’s sense of civic duty would call him to set an example of conspicuous non-consumption.  This general sleeps in a mansion, and lectures the soldiers because they want tents.

What this tells the skeptics is that Vice President Gore doesn’t really believe the gospel he proclaims.  That profits from his environmental advocacy enable his affluent lifestyle only deepens their skepticism of the messenger and therefore of the message.  And when they see that the rest of the environmental movement accepts this flagrant contradiction, they conclude, naturally enough, that the other green leaders aren’t as worried as they claim to be.  Al Gore’s lifestyle is a test case for the credibility of his gospel — and it fails. The tolerance of Al Gore’s lifestyle by the environmental leadership is a further test — and that test, too, the greens fail.

The average citizen is all too likely to conclude that if Mr. Gore can keep his lifestyle, the average American family can keep its SUV and incandescent bulbs.  If Gore can take a charter flight, I don’t have to take the bus.  If Gore can have many mansions, I can use the old fashioned kind of shower heads that actually clean and toilets that actually flush.  Al Gore looks to the average American the way American greens look to poor people in the third world: hypocritically demanding that others accept permanently lower standards of living than those the activists propose for themselves.

There are gospels that can be preached by the comfortable and the well fed.  But radical environmentalism is not one of them.  If you want to be Savonarola, you must don the hair shirt.  If you want a public bonfire of the vanities, you must sleep on an iron cot and throw your own cherished treasures into the flame.

That is how you change the world.  That is what you do if you believe that humanity’s future hangs in the balance, and Providence has appointed you a leader in the fight.

The Vice President thinks he can square this circle, but he can’t. Sometimes the truth is inconvenient.  Mr. Gore must find either a new cause or a new way to live.

I am not one of those who thinks him a hypocrite; I think rather that he shares an illusion common amongst the narcissistic glitterati of our time: that politically fashionable virtue cancels private vice.  The drug addled Hollywood celeb whose personal life is a long record of broken promises and failed relationships and whose serial bouts with drug and alcohol abuse and revolving door rehab adventures are notorious can redeem all by “standing up” for some exotic, stylish cause. These moral poseurs and dilettantes of virtue are modern versions of those guilt-plagued medieval nobles who built churches and monasteries to ‘atone’ for their careers of bloodshed, oppression and scandal.

Mr. Gore is sincere, as the fur-fighting actresses are sincere, as so many ’causey’ plutocrats and moguls are sincere.  It is perhaps also true that the fundraisers who absolve them of their guilt in exchange for the donations and the publicity are at least as sincere as the indulgence sellers in Martin Luther’s Germany.

I don’t judge, dear reader, and neither should you.  May we all find mercy when we stand alone, naked and ashamed before the judgement seat of God.

But whether or not Vice President Gore’s lifestyle will pass muster on the Day of Wrath, it does not pass muster in American politics. Worse, by hanging out with the glitterati and identifying himself so clearly with the elite against the Great Unwashed, Gore does irreparable harm to the cause he seeks to lead.   The Achilles heel of environmentalism in politics has always been its association with upper crust ‘starve the peasants to save the pheasants’ thinking.  Gore’s lifestyle and the way he positions the issue strengthen that fatal association rather than undermining it.  The more the rich and the well bred applaud his heroism and swoon over his courage, the more sullen and resistant the peasants grow.

Add to this that the Vice President persists in partisanship — taking pot shots not simply at Republicans and conservatives who disagree with him on climate issues, but mocking and scorning precisely the values and views of the people he (ostensibly) hopes to persuade — and he presents the inescapable impression among skeptics that he is not serious.

If Al Gore really wants to understand why the global green movement has tanked, he should start by taking a long hard look in the mirror.  Gaia, too, can be betrayed by a kiss.

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