The quirky Tennessean’s political loss might paradoxically have been his – and the world’s gain.

What’s with Al Gore? Can it be that the former presidential candidate has become a new all-purpose Paul Revere? 

Mere days before he was to sound a highly public alarm this week in Atlanta about what he sees as the drastic erosion of Americans’ civil liberties, Gore had appeared before a Standing-Room-Only audience in Nashville to deliver an apocalyptic – if highly specific --forecast about the planet’s imminent ruin from global warming.

Actually, this synopsis understates both cases. The exhaustive (detractors might say “exhausting”) address in Atlanta, on Monday’s Martin Luther King holiday, was a detailed excursion through the history of abuse of power at the presidential level – culminating in and focusing on Gore’s excoriation of George W. Bush’s newly revealed domestic wiretaps.

Even so, Gore, now a media entrepreneur and corporate rainmaker, was scrupulously bipartisan down in Georgia. His Atlanta speech was jointly sponsored by the Liberty Coalition and the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy, two right-of-center groups. And the venue for the former Democratic standard-bearer was the Daughters of the American Revolution’s Constitution Hall, where he was introduced by none other than former Republican congressman Bob Barr, a conservative’s conservative and a relentless scourge of former President Bill Clinton throughout the Monica Lewinsky affair.

What Gore had done at Nashville last week was even more devoid of politics in the usual sense. Appearing as part of a regular lecture series at Vanderbilt University, he gave what was not so much a lecture as a fully-fledged course in the dire environmental consequences of polluting the earth at the current pell-mell rate.

Introducing himself at Vanderbilt thusly, “I am Al Gore. I used to be the next president of the United States,” the self-described “recovering politician” then stood modestly in a darkened auditorium at the bottom of a huge, wall-sized screen and narrated a slide show to end all slide shows – employing scores upon scores of stills and videos dealing with every aspect of his subject.

A partial list of the contents: Hybrid energy sources, the greenhouse-gas effect, Third-World environmental practices, the proliferation of carbon dioxide, the convection energy of hurricanes, the evaporation of drinking-water sources on the Tibetan plateau (river by river), the paradoxical flood-drought syndrome, melting methane in Siberia, pine-beetle infestation in the American West, the “North Atlantic Pump,” the history of the Ice Age, the physics of solar-ray absorption, the dangerously increasing incidence of “moulins” (vertical troughs) in the polar ice caps….

And Gore made it clear he knows whereof he speaks concerning this all-inclusive “nature hike through the Book of Revelation” – pointing out, for example, that he had made two fact-finding trips under the North Pole by submarine.

Disingenuously or not, he went so far as to make the claim that his initial run for the presidency, in 1988, was driven by a need to communicate the facts concerning the growing environmental peril. And anyone who thought Gore’s subsequent 1991 bestseller, Earth in the Balance, was ghostwritten or mere political boilerplate might well have been disabused of such notions by being in the audience at Vanderbilt.

To be sure, Gore the partisan politician surfaced here and there in Nashville. Mocking an old prep-school science teacher of his who had been woefully ignorant on the subject of continental drift, Gore cracked, “He went on to become science adviser to the current White House.”

Much more typical, though, was Gore’s lament, after a discourse on soul evaporation in Darfur: “How in the world do you put that in the political dialogue with issues like – I don’t know, the ones that are talked about?”

Tongue-tied as that might have sounded (and reminiscent of his political stump style), the erstwhile veep was eloquence itself when he got into his peroration: “If we allow this [environmental destruction] to happen, it is deeply and unforgivably immoral and unethical. This really is not a political issue. It is a moral issue. It is a spiritual issue. It is an ethical issue.”

This new Al Gore – awkward, earnest and somewhat bumptious but sincerely and endearingly so, in the manner of one’s favorite college professor – just might be an improvement over the old one. In losing his presidential race and (evidently) his prospects in the political constellation, Gore might finally have found his place in a larger one.

(Jackson Baker is a Flyer senior editor.)

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