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Why Al Gore Should Not Run for President

I haven't read Al Gore's latest book, The Assault on Reason, but what I read of the excerpt has convinced me to go out and buy the book. I may buy it sooner rather than later after reading this Washington Post review. Not because the review is all that positive. But because I want to support Gore in his career as an author, in hopes that he will seriously consider not running for the White House in 2008. Not because I disagree with his ideas. Not at all. I think the country could benefit immensely from having someone in the White House who thinks as deeply about issues as Gore does.

But, and perhaps this is because I read it after reading several depressing headlines, the Post Review convinced me that All Gore shouldn't run for the White House in 2008 because for the most part America doesn't deserve a president with his qualifications for the job, and most probably wouldn't understand what the man was saying half the time. And when they did, they'd get pissed off, not because he's wrong, but more likely because he's right and — to break it down to grade school level — "He thinks he's so smart." At least that's what the Post reviewer seems to be saying.

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Al Gore possesses a skill that no other American politician can match — or would want to. He has a consistent ability to express fundamentally reasonable sentiments — often important ones — in ways that annoy the maximum possible number of people.

In the seven years since his narrow failure to become president, Gore has been an active and admirable public servant. He has explored ways of using technology to enhance civic participation, spoken out courageously against the fraudulence of the Iraq War and forced the issue of climate change into the front ranks of worldwide debate.

Even as a citizen activist, however, free from the burdens of office and campaigning, Gore nearly always manages to sound like Gore. His documentary film on global warming, "An Inconvenient Truth," is sophisticated, provocative and in many ways convincing. But it is also smug and self-centered, and its failure to consider even moderately differing points of view serves to alienate skeptics rather than to persuade them.

So, it's not that Gore's "scathing" (according to the reviewer) is wrong. The reviewer doesn't appear to dispute any of the assertions in Gore's book. Instead, he complains about two things. One, that Gore fails "to even mention moderately differing points of view," which in this case translates into "he's not nice enough to the people who got it wrong in the first place." Two, that he can't help showing (or "showing off") how much he knows.

On the first point, I can understand how anyone at the Post would be less than thrilled with 308 pages of "I/We told you so." And that's not counting the copious footnotes. (Gore's book may be more fact-checked than most of George W. Bush's state of the union addresses.) The Post, after all, fell for Colin Powell's Powerpoint presentation, went along with the pre-war falsehoods, failed to cover those questioning the Bush administration, and did it's part to help George W. Bush get four more years.

So now — when some 61% of Americans think we should have stayed out of Iraq, 76% thinks things are going badly in Iraq, and 47% thinks things are going very badly — I can imagine just about anybody at the Post wouldn't much relish the thought of opening up Al Gore's book. Not because he's wrong, but because they were wrong, the Bush administration and its supporters were wrong, and Gore's not going to be nearly conciliatory enough in saying so.

And why should they? Their president (perhaps more intellectually palatable than Gore), apparently prefers to read current polls upside, because he reads them in his favor.

Confronted with strong opposition to his Iraq policies, President Bush decides to interpret public opinion his own way. Actually, he says, people agree with him.

Increasingly isolated on a war that is going badly, Bush has presented his alternative reality in other ways, too. He expresses understanding for the public's dismay over the unrelenting sectarian violence and American losses that have passed 3,400, but then asserts that the public's solution matches his.

"A lot of Americans want to know, you know, when?" he said at a Rose Garden news conference Thursday. "When are you going to win?"

… Also in that session, Bush said: "I recognize there are a handful there, or some, who just say, `Get out, you know, it's just not worth it. Let's just leave.' I strongly disagree with that attitude. Most Americans do as well."

In fact, polls show Americans do not disagree, and that leaving — not winning — is their main goal.

Of course, now we know that Bush was warned about the disasters that would follow in Iraq post-invasion. And he ignored it. He ignored intelligence that predicted most of what's come to pass in Iraq.

Before the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, U.S. intelligence predicted many of the current challenges there, according to a Senate Intelligence Committee investigation report released Friday.

Those predicted — and realized — problems included an increase in al Qaeda operations, sectarian violence within Iraq and Iran's efforts to shape Iraq's future after the ouster of Saddam Hussein.

Intelligence analysts also predicted that establishing a stable democracy in Iraq would be a "long, difficult and probably turbulent challenge," the report said.

Noting that prewar Iraq was a "deeply divided society," intelligence warned that Shiite reprisals for their oppression under Hussein's regime would be a "major concern to the Sunni elite and could erupt if not prevented by an occupying force," the report said.

U.S. occupation of Iraq could lead to increased terror attacks and operations by al Qaeda, which was judged likely to seize the opportunity presented by the occupation, the intelligence community said, according to the report.

In addition, the report said, a U.S. occupation of Iraq "probably would result in a surge of political Islam and increased funding for terrorist groups."

Invading Iraq would provide an opportunity for Tehran to expand Iranian influence as well, the intelligence community said, and Iranian leaders might "try to influence the shape of post-Saddam Iraq to preserve Iranian security and demonstrate that Iran is an important regional actor," the report said.

Committee Democrats said the Bush administration's refusal to heed the warnings has led to "tragic consequences."

"The committee is unable to answer the question as to whether the president personally was presented with the intelligence community's informed judgments about the factors that could prevent success from being achieved in Iraq," said the Democratic response, signed by committee chairman Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia and two others.

"What can be said with greater certainty is that these prewar cautions were marginalized, if not ignored, by an administration set on going to war."

And why shouldn't he continue to ignore reality? Why should he face up to it? Whose gonna make him? Whose even going to bring up that we've failed on four out of five of our objectives in Iraq.

Not the Democtats. After their recent performance, I think Democrats are reading the same upside down polls. Why else would they — after achieving a majority in Congress — deliver an Iraq funding bill that essentially gives the Bush administration everything it wanted?

War opponents dismissed the bill as a capitulation to Bush and said they would seek to hold supporters in both parties accountable. But backers said the bill's provisions — including benchmarks for progress that the Iraqi government must meet to continue receiving reconstruction aid — represented an assertion of congressional authority over the war that was unthinkable a few months ago.

Bush, who had vowed to veto any legislation with restrictions on troop deployments, announced he would sign the $120 billion package, which was approved 80 to 14 last night in the Senate, after a 280 to 142 House vote.

He said the 18 benchmarks should signal to the Iraq government that "it needs to show real progress in return for America's continued support and sacrifice." But he added, "We're going to expect heavy fighting in the weeks and months" ahead.

The focus now shifts to September, when the new funding runs out, and when U.S. commanders say they will be able to assess the results of an ongoing troop buildup.

What else should we have expected? It's a sad day when Pat Buchanan nails the Democratic majority on it lack of conviction.

Remarkable. If the Republican rout of 2006 said anything, it was that America had lost faith in the Bush-Rumsfeld conduct of the war and wanted Democrats to lead the country out.

Yet, today, there are more U.S. troops in Iraq than when the Democrats won. More are on the way. And with the surge and retention of troops in Iraq beyond normal tours, there should be a record number of U.S. troops in country by year's end.

Why did the Democrats capitulate?

Because they lack the courage of their convictions. Because they fear the consequences if they put their antiwar beliefs into practice. Because they are afraid if they defund the war and force President Bush to withdraw U.S. troops, the calamity he predicts will come to pass and they will be held accountable for losing Iraq and the strategic disaster that might well ensue.

I only disagree with Buchanan on one count. It's hardly remarkable. This is a party that's already tussling with itself over a presidential debate on a network that barely even bothers to cover the Iraq war, while one of its front runners is cozying up to the network owner.

Why shouldn't Democrat's knuckle under to the Bush administration and its supporters? Consider the Rachel Carson debacle.

So, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) planned to introduce a bill to honor Rachel Carson — author of the seminal Silent Spring — on the 100th anniversary of her birth. Carson is, as non-psychotics know, a hero who did about as much as any human being in history to raise awareness, not only of toxic chemicals in the environment, but of our symbiotic and delicate relationship to the ecosystems we inhabit.

Cardin has since decided not to introduce the bill. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said he would block it.

Block it, you ask? Who would bother to block a piece of symbolism like this, especially one dedicated to someone like Carson?

… Beware! You are now entering the fever swamps of the far right. You see, conservatives have convinced one another that Carson is responsible for a ban of the insecticide DDT in Africa, and that the DDT ban is responsible for an epidemic of malaria, and the epidemic is responsible for thousands — millions! — of deaths. Thus, "Rachel Carson killed more people than Hitler." Thus, a new website from CEI (the brain trust behind "CO2: We call it life") called "Rachel Was Wrong."

So, this is the kind of thing that politicians cower in fear of, but intelligence that could prevent the loss of thousands (tens of thousands? hundreds of thousands?) of lives? It can apparently be ignored without consequence.

At least without consequence for some people. There are thousands of stories, like the mother whose son was killed while she was serving in Iraq. My state, Maryland, is about to send 1,300 National Guard members to Iraq, where the Pentagon is now saying it will probably have troops on the ground for decades.

And still this president sits un-impeached and will have the rest of his term to visit whatever else his fevered brain dreams up on this country and the rest of the the world. This president who, after ignoring all intelligence warnings, lead us into war with an "unseemly eagerness" as paul Krugman put it.

… For Mr. Bush took us to war not with reluctance, but with unseemly eagerness.

Now that war has turned into an epic disaster, in part because the war’s architects, whom we now know were warned about the risks, didn’t want to hear about them. Yet Congress seems powerless to stop it. How did it all go so wrong?

Future historians will shake their heads over how easily America was misled into war. The warning signs, the indications that we had a rogue administration determined to use 9/11 as an excuse for war, were there, for those willing to see them, right from the beginning — even before Mr. Bush began explicitly pushing for war with Iraq.

In fact, the very first time Mr. Bush declared a war on terror that “will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated,” people should have realized that he was going to use the terrorist attack to justify anything and everything.

What kind of "unseemly eagerness"? There's this telling observation from Bush's announcement of the Iraq invasion. Actually, it's from footage shot immediately before Bush's speech, which was broadcast via the BBC when the network's live feed was accidentally turned on.

If you stayed up late enough to watch the announcement of the start of the war in Iraq, you might have caught a glimpse of something very unsettling. In an apparent error, the BBC aired coverage of pre-speech preparations, live from the satellite feed coming from the Oval Office.

The footage was the most disturbing thing on television in some time. There was US President George W Bush, being prepped for his televised declaration of war. It was not the combing of his hair, the only aspect of the coverage reported by any American media outlet (the Washington Post in this case), which was cause for embarrassment; everyone expects that. Rather, it was the demeanour — I would say antics — of the president himself.

Bush, the so-called leader of the free world, was sitting behind his desk going over his speech, as we would expect. But then it got weird. I felt like I was looking behind the curtain, and it was uglier than I ever imagined.

Like some class clown trying to get attention from the back of the room, he started mugging for his handlers. His eyes darted back and forth impishly as he cracked faces at others around him. He pumped a fist and self-consciously muttered, "feel good," which was interestingly sanitised into the more mature and assertive, "I'm feeling good" by the same Washington Post.

He was goofing around, and there's only one way to interpret that kind of behaviour just seconds before announcing war on Iraq: the man is an idiot.

If he is an idiot (and there's an argument to be made that whether he's an idiot or not, he's at least smart enough to know that it pays for him to look like one) then he's our idiot, and one whose antics were happy to ignore, since he'll be gone soon and we can forget what his continuing presence in the White House says about us.

Why? Why was Clinton, who was never as unpopular as Bush, impeached for lying about sex, while Bush faces no sanction for the far more serious offense of lying about war?

The main reason is obvious: The Democrats think it's bad politics. Bush is dying politically and taking the GOP down with him, and impeachment is risky. It could, so the cautious Beltway wisdom has it, provoke a backlash, especially while the war is still going on. Why should the Democrats gamble on hitting the political jackpot when they're likely to walk away from the table big winners anyway?

… But there's a deeper reason why the popular impeachment movement has never taken off — and it has to do not with Bush but with the American people. Bush's warmongering spoke to something deep in our national psyche. The emotional force behind America's support for the Iraq war, the molten core of an angry, resentful patriotism, is still too hot for Congress, the media and even many Americans who oppose the war, to confront directly. It's a national myth. It's John Wayne. To impeach Bush would force us to directly confront our national core of violent self-righteousness — come to terms with it, understand it and reject it. And we're not ready to do that.

The truth is that Bush's high crimes and misdemeanors, far from being too small, are too great. What has saved Bush is the fact that his lies were, literally, a matter of life and death. They were about war. And they were sanctified by 9/11. Bush tapped into a deep American strain of fearful, reflexive bellicosity, which Congress and the media went along with for a long time and which has remained largely unexamined to this day. Congress, the media and most of the American people have yet to turn decisively against Bush because to do so would be to turn against some part of themselves. This doesn't mean we support Bush, simply that at some dim, half-conscious level we're too confused — not least by our own complicity — to work up the cold, final anger we'd need to go through impeachment.

So, it's easier to keep George W. Bush in the White House for the same reason that it's hard to swallow the truth in Gore's book. We'd rather not face the truth about ourselves. We'd rather pretend that our choices are and were simple. Witness this exchange on The View, between Joy Behar and Elizabeth Hasselbeck as Behar reads off Gore's list of Bush's shortcomings, and note Hasselbeck's only response to the mention of "the seven minutes."

Now watch the seven minutes they're discussing here.

And here's another perspective.

Note the range of possible reactions Hasselbeck manages to wrap her brain around: either sit for seven minutes reading a children's story while the country is under attack or "panic" and "freak out the children." Note that there's no in between. No capacity to consider a range of responses. Because it simply wasn't possible for Bush, upon receiving the news, to calmly excuse himself from the classroom and tell the kids he had to step out to "take care of some presidential stuff." . (I'm sure the teacher would have excused him if he'd raised his hand.)

No, there were only two ways of responding at that moment, and only one way to think of that moment.

OK. Everyone who's not Elisabeth Hasselbeck, look at that video again. Look at that blank, trance-like stare and tell me behind it is a consciousness waging between "panicking the children" or responding to a national crisis. I shouldn't pick on Hasselbeck. She's not the only American incapable of perceiving nuances or shades of grey between possibilities. You can start with a president who says to the world "yer either fer us or agin' us," but Gore is on to something when he suggests that any thought which can't fit into a 30-second sound byte or television spot is unlikely to filter into the national consciousness. After all we now live in a culture where books are as likely to be burned as read.

Tom Wayne has amassed thousands of books in a warehouse during the 10 years he has run his used book store, Prospero's Books.

His collection ranges from best sellers, such as Tom Clancy's "The Hunt for Red October" and Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities," to obscure titles, like a bound report from the Fourth Pan-American Conference held in Buenos Aires in 1910. But when he wanted to thin out the collection, he found he couldn't even give away books to libraries or thrift shops; they said they were full.

So on Sunday, Wayne began burning his books in protest of what he sees as society's diminishing support for the printed word.

"This is the funeral pyre for thought in America today," Wayne told spectators outside his bookstore as he lit the first batch of books.

… Wayne said he has seen fewer customers in recent years as people more often get their information from television or the Internet. He pointed to a 2002 study by the National Endowment for the Arts, that found that less than half of adult respondents reported reading for pleasure, down from almost 57 percent in 1982.

Kansas City has seen the number of used bookstores decline in recent years, and there are few independent bookstores left in town, said Will Leathem, a co-owner of Prospero's Books.

"There are segments of this city where you go to an estate sale and find five TVs and three books," Leathem said.

Gore, the environmentalist, would almost certainly recommend Wayne recycle his books, for the sake of saving trees and not fouling the air with smoke. But he'd probably shake his head along with Leathem over his point about estate sales.

But Gore's problem, according to the Post reviewer is that he comes off too well read.

The Assault on Reason is, like much of what Gore has said over the years, essentially truthful. It is also the apparent product of a man desperate to display his erudition at every possible moment, appropriate or not. Virtually every major figure in the history of political theory turns in a cameo appearance, often making the same point someone else just made. Within the space of a few pages, we are treated to the wisdom of Louis Brandeis, Thomas Jefferson, Edmund Burke, John Donne, the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas and the Roman rhetorician Lactantius. One begins to wish that Bartlett's Quotations had gone out of print.

Our reviewer can take heart in the likelihood that at least one copy of Bartlett's may have been roasted on Tom Wayne's bonfire. That's probably more comforting than the thought that Gore might have actually known those quotes, and didn't need to look them up. Much better that we have a president who — as I've noted beforedidn't know the Shiites from the Sunnis on the eve of the Iraq invasion so enthusiastically supported by the Post.

And that's why we probably deserve a president like George W. Bush, and why we don't deserve a president like Al Gore, however much I wish we had one.

So, Al, make another movie, right another book, or whatever. I can guarantee you'll do more good in those endeavors than you'd be allowed to do as president anyway.

Besides, we already have the president we deserve. Most of us do, anyway.

2 Comments

  1. If Edwards craps out, I think Gore will jump in.

  2. I am a Democrat. When I look at Clinton, Obama and Edwards, I don’t
    find all the qualities in any one of them that are going to be needed in
    the next administration. Nor do I with any other Democratic or
    Republican candidate.

    Our next president will be left with a very messy war to deal with, an
    enormous deficit (if you count what has been spent in Iraq), a mandate
    to turn our country toward carbon neutrality, low standing in the
    international community, and many other pressing issues such as
    healthcare, education, security and immigration. Much of what needs to
    be done will be very unpopular. With our voting population split, we
    need to assure that one party controls the White House and the Congress
    to effect the necessary changes.

    Only one person has the skills to attempt such a monumental undertaking
    and is presently in a position to step in to the race on a moment’s
    notice. Experience, standing, a communicator, an effective campaigner,
    completely vetted, and tested in the trenches — Al Gore is our man.

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