In addition to the classes at Fisk and MTSU, Gore also hosts a weekly seminar at Harvard where a group of professors talk about one of his favorite subjects, globalization. Sometimes they talk about global warming; sometimes they talk about gender; this coming week, Gore says, as he drives, they will be talking about "the role of information technology in defining a span of, uh, felt collective identity."
"I don't have the language to describe what I'm trying to describe," Gore says, "but I will at the session." What he means is: He and his academic friends will be considering how the development of language, speech, written and now electronic communication has affected how people view themselves and their community. OtherGore is at the wheel now, explaining how, through a genetic mutation, human beings became able to speak, which affected their view of community; then they learned to write, then print, then there were popular editions of the Bible, and what followed, Gore says, as though this would be apparent to anyone, was "the Protestant Reformation, and then the Counter-Reformation and the wars associated with it, [which] really led to the creation of nation-states, and the Treaty of Westphalia . . ."
OtherGore goes on and on. It is transfixing; this aggressively intelligent man, a man who seeks to hold all of human history in his head, is also a man who, during the 2000 campaign, lurched back and forth on such relatively simple issues as what colors to wear and where to headquarter his campaign.
Then OtherGore disappears. Pulling into his next stop, the small college town of Mount Vernon, Gore notices a motorcycle that has apparently shown up to lead him onto the campus of Cornell College. "Behold the tattered remnants of the imperial retinue," Gore says, half-joking, half, it seems, genuinely bitter.
Now PoliticalGore is getting out, walking across campus, shaking hands, taking the podium in the student union, saying to a group of Democratic college students, "Hi, I'm Al Gore, I used to be the next president of the United States." He does the whole shtick, making fun of himself, getting in little digs at Bush, and, as he does often, in campaign stops, asking the audience to remember how they felt when the Supreme Court stopped the vote in 2000. "Not what you thought--how you felt," Gore says. As the audience shouts out things like "angry!" and "cheated!" Gore urges them to hang on to that emotion, and let it fuel the campaign.
"Anytime somebody tells you that their vote doesn't count," he says to the crowd, "tell them to come talk to me."
And what does Gore remember, when he tries to summon how he felt in December 2000? Well, there was the disappointment, he says, sitting now in the Nashville house. At the same time, "winning the popular vote gave it a different character and feel." Made it feel somewhat better. How much better? "Well, it's better than not winning the popular vote," he says. Then: "But it is small consolation, because there is no brass ring that goes along with it."
According to Gore, the experience has had an upside, though; it has given permanent resident status to the Gore his friends like, the Gore who is relaxed and funny and anecdotal. To him, that's the glory that has been let out. "I think that over the years I've become an awful lot more comfortable with letting my hair down and being myself," he asserts. "I think that I've grown in some unexpected ways as a result of the searing nature of the experience. I think that any experience like that is an opportunity to learn. It's unfortunately true that the painful experiences in life give you more of a chance for growth than the others." He pauses. "The old Kris Kristofferson lyric kind of sums it up for me: Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."
There is another pause, and then OtherGore cannot resist adding: "Better known in association with Janis Joplin."
A comment like that just raises the question of how much Gore really has changed. If Gore is going to connect with the American people in another race, advisers know, he needs to curb his tendency to come across as pedantic. He needs to communicate not what he thinks, but how he feels. He needs to make people love him. He also needs to slay whatever it is, inside himself, that makes him cautious in public, closed; whatever it is that makes him fold up in front of a television camera, or get stiff and inauthentic in front of a crowd. That
simple tag--"stiff"--has done Gore incalculable damage. He insists that those days are over: "Any impulse that I might have had in the past to tighten up for fear that I would make a mistake or, you know, give the wrong impression, that's long since been beaten out of me. Now, of course, that impulse may return for a surprise return engagement at any time."
"I'm kidding!" he says. "I'm kidding!"
But is he? It's true, earlier this year Gore made a point of saying, at a fundraising event in Memphis, that he is a changed man. If he had it to do over again, he said, he wouldn't listen to polls or political consultants. He'd just pour out "my heart." But Gore has said this sort of thing before. It seems to be a regular urge of his, pouring out his heart. Years ago, in his environmental treatise Earth in the Balance, he wrote about how, reconsidering his life in his forties. "I have become very impatient with my own tendency to put a finger to the political winds and proceed cautiously."
The caution has not disappeared. It took Gore months to decide whether to sit for this interview. Granted, he did do so, and during it he was patient and good-
humored. Though it may have sounded, in the Memphis speech, as though he blames political consultants for his loss, he asserts that this is not the case.
"I take full responsibility for not being able to get more votes than I did," he says, with conviction. "I give full credit to the
people who helped me in the campaign . . . I think the people helping me out did a great job, and I'll take the responsibility for not getting enough to put it beyond controversy."
Is that a serenity that has come with time?
"Yes," he acknowledges, laughing.
And early on, did he seek to blame
others? Clinton? His own staff? The Supreme Court? He laughs again. "Winston Churchill said, 'Americans generally do the right thing, after first exhausting all the available alternatives.' I think there was probably a little of that in me, too."
So there has been introspection. But how much? During all the intellectual exploration he has done in the past year and a half, has Gore gotten in touch with who he is, as a politician and leader? Has Other-Gore turned the full focus of his intellect on PoliticalGore? Not so far. In an op-ed piece in the New York Times, earlier this year, Gore defended his populist campaign against Democratic critics, arguing that his 2000 message was the right one. To date, he has never sat down and done a rigorous analysis of the way he conducted his campaign; indeed, it's striking how many of his friends and advisers have never discussed the election with him. He has talked about Tennessee, the loss of it ("He was deeply, deeply hurt by that; that's no secret," says Roy Neel), but he has never gathered his advisers and systematically reconsidered his campaign strategy or himself as a leader. He will do so, he says, if he decides to once more throw himself into a campaign. "If I run again, I will certainly do it in a very different way," he says, asserting that he'll spend more time giving "thoughtful speeches" to small groups, trying to speak to people directly. But a formal introspection will clearly not be part of the process of deciding whether to run. The decision, after all, is only weeks away.
But surely, surely, Al Gore thinks about the election of 2000 every day. Surely he lives with it as much as he lives with his own family members. Surely this man, who ran for president for the first time before the age of 40, who waited in the wings so long as vice president, who was raised by his parents to aim for the highest office, surely every day, in some way, he thinks about what happened. And what might have happened. Has there ever been one day, since December 13, 2000, when Al Gore has not at some point reflected on that election?
"Sure," says Gore, instantly. "Oh yeah. Absolutely. Are you kidding? There have been plenty of days that I haven't thought about it. Life is good. And filled with opportunity and excitement and fun, and people I love. I'm genuinely excited about all the new opportunities that I have to explore whether I run again for election, or not."
It is impossible, once again, to know whether he is serious. He seems to believe he is.
Liza Mundy is a Magazine staff writer. She will be fielding questions and comments about this article at 1 p.m. Monday on www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company