Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Life is good in Goreworld

Depending on how one keeps score, we’re currently enduring the third (or fourth, or fifth) Al Gore Boomlet.

Let’s see: There was a boffo guest stint on Saturday Night Live, right before he pulled the plug on a 2004 candidacy…a gush of Gore nostalgia, and four magazine covers, when the theatres were playing An Inconvenient Truth…an ‘07 victory lap at the Oscars, coupled with entreaties from the Hollywood crowd that he run again in ‘08….and now, this week, a national tour for his new book, The Assault on Reason, a broad brush indictment of the political-media industrial complex, coupled with a media blitz that allows him to play wink-wink with the TV anchors.

Message to Goreheads, and to all the other nostalgic Democrats who somehow forget that he was widely reviled in 2000 for failing to parlay years of peace and prosperity into victory:

He ain’t running next year. Get over it.

He performed last night on the friendly confines of Larry King’s CNN show, and it’s clear he is having a grand old time. He’s playing the media the way Herbie Hancock tickles the piano keys, with the deft touch of a seasoned pro. He knows that he can continue to stoke maximum attention for himself, and for his big-picture concepts, if he simply plays along with the will-he-or-won’t-he guessing game. He also knows that the some of the same media folks pining for his ’08 entry today would commence to tear him apart if he actually stepped into the ring. So it’s a win-win for Gore; he perpetuates the tease, by signaling that he really has no interest in running, while stopping just short of a Shermanesque refusal. (Gore to King: “I’m not thinking about being a candidate….I haven’t ruled it out for all time.”) Then it’s on to the next venue.

Why on earth would Gore want to revisit the indignities of 2000, and risk new ones? He’s clearly thriving inside Goreworld, an environment of his own design where he can frame a mega-message as he sees fit, circulate it through channels of his choosing, and show up at handpicked events where he is inevitably lionized. He was never a natural politician, and the street rules of politics have not become more high-minded during his seven-year absence. I believed Gore last night when he told King, in reference to politics, “I don’t have to play that game….I’m enjoying my life, I’m serving in other ways, I’ve been focused on a different kind of campaign.”

And nobody with a yen for traditional political combat would write a book like The Assault on Reason. The typical candidate tome, appearing on the eve of a presidential primary season, is filled with poll-tested swill and boilerplate passages such as “I believe that America’s best days are ahead of us” and “Together, we can forge a new tomorrow,” or whatever. Gore’s book, by contrast, is a scathing putdown of the prevailing American culture, everything from television’s obsession with celebrity trivia, the average citizen’s couch-potato propensities, and the average politician’s willingness to play on voters’ fears with the help of propaganda techniques perfected by “a new generation of media Machiavellis.”

Nor would a prospective candidate pepper his book with quotes from German philosophers, 17th-century British essayists and poets, or from academic neuroscientists who specialize in researching the pain-sensing neurons of the brain. That's just the kind of smarty-pants stuff that people didn't like about Gore in 2000, back when they seemed to think that Bush was better because he'd be more fun to drink brewskis with. But Gore is happy to invoke the heavy thinkers now, because he's free of his political restraints.

He elaborated on his big themes last night on CNN: “We have this huge onslaught of trivialities (on television)…So much of it is mind-deadening…The danger is that the volume of it excludes serious discussions of the choices we have to make as a free people.” These observations about TV aren’t exactly profound – Edward R. Murrow complained about the exact same tendencies in a 1958 speech that ultimately doomed him at CBS – so maybe Gore’s image as a seer is a tad overstated. I would argue, however, that anybody willing to say all this stuff out loud is clearly not thirsting to run for president.

Gore said last night that the ’08 Democratic candidates are “trapped in a bad system,” characterized by “the impressionistic approaches that come out of the daily news cycle, the tit for tat of what is a hot buzz-word issue of the day…the media’s obsession with the so-called horse race.” He said that the candidates are “all trapped in the spin cycle, ‘what is their motivation for doing this or doing that? What are they thinking about this or that?’ I think we ought to have a much greater focus on what the actual problems of the country are and how we can solve them.”

Somebody who is comfortable in the role of outsider can afford to talk that way. A prospective presidential candidate would never talk that way; any White House aspirant who implies that he is better or nobler than the political process probably wouldn’t get very far. And it’s not as if the Democrats desperately need Gore in order to win in 2008; the polls report broad rank-and-file satisfaction with the current Democratic field. And among Americans generally, Gore still has high negatives, competitive with Hillary Clinton.

So the odds are that this boomlet shall pass as well. Gore will hew to the high road, where the issues are loftier – and his prospects for success are just as daunting. Consider, for instance, this classic juxtaposition last night on CNN:

At one point, Gore went on a tear about the shallowness of cable TV coverage, complaining how “the line between entertainment and news is now very blurred, and a lot of news organizations feel the need to run polls and conduct focus groups the same as politicians now. And so we get a lot more of…Paris Hilton's legal battles on her jail term than we get about how we can solve the climate crisis.”

Several minutes later, as he was still talking, this is what appeared in the crawl at the bottom of the screen:

“Two weeks before Paris Hilton goes to jail, is she turning to religion to save her?”