By Dana Milbank
Thursday, March 22, 2007
Al Gore, star of an Academy Award-winning film, was in town for a double feature on Capitol Hill yesterday. But instead of giving another screening of "An Inconvenient Truth," the former vice president found himself playing the Clarence Darrow character in "Inherit the Wind."
"You're not just off a little -- you're totally wrong," Joe Barton (Tex.), the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told the former vice president at a hearing on global warming yesterday morning.
"One scientist is quoted as saying, 'This is shrill alarmism,' " said Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.). The reviews only grew more savage when Gore crossed over to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in the afternoon for a second hearing. "You've been so extreme in some of your expressions that you're losing some of your own people," announced Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), the committee's ranking Republican and the man who has called man-made global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people."
Inhofe informed Gore that scientists are "radically at odds with your claims." Displaying a photograph of icicles in Buffalo, Inhofe demanded: "How come you guys never seem to notice it when it gets cold? . . . Where is global warming when you really need it?"
Evening was approaching when the ordeal ended and the movie star turned to the committee chairman, Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). "You don't give out any kind of statue or anything?" he inquired.
It was, in many ways, a 21st-century version of the Scopes trial. Only this time, Gore, like William Jennings Bryan a failed Democratic presidential nominee, was playing Darrow, champion of scientific thought. Inhofe was playing the Bryan character, defending his beliefs against the encroachments of foes such as the National Academy of Sciences, the United Nations and the Oscar-hoisting former vice president.
There was opening-night enthusiasm as hundreds lined up to see Gore make his first appearance in the Rayburn House office building. The demand for seats led staffers to set up two overflow rooms. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, by contrast, attracted barely a glance as she arrived for another hearing moments before Gore's appearance.
Gore entered the room with wife Tipper clutching his hand and cowboy boots gripping his feet. His face was puffier, his body thicker and his hair grayer, but he retained his inner wonk. "The concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere up here on Capitol Hill," he announced, "is already 383 parts per million."
He also displayed the passion that made his documentary a hit in Hollywood. "What we're facing now is a crisis that is by far the most serious that we've ever faced," he declared. His eyes narrowing to slits, he proposed a series of questions future generations might ask about the current inaction on greenhouse gases. "What in God's name were they doing?" he asked. "What was wrong with them? Were they too blinded and numbed by the busyness of political life or daily life to take a deep breath and look at the reality of what we're facing?"
Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) called Gore a "prophet" -- and his Democratic colleagues treated him as such. Gore got a hearty ovation when he visited the House floor during a lunchtime vote.
Republicans found all the fuss rather distasteful. A sour Dennis Hastert (Ill.), the former House speaker, called him "a personality and now a movie star."
"Rin Tin Tin was a movie star," Gore demurred. "I just have a slide show."
Barton informed Gore that some of his ideas "are just flawed." Under Gore's plan, Barton said, "we can have no new industry, no new cars and trucks on the streets, and apparently no new people."
But this was no match for Gore. "The planet has a fever," he lectured Barton. "If your baby has a fever, you go to the doctor. If the doctor says you need to intervene here, you don't say, 'Well, I read a science fiction novel that tells me it's not a problem.' If the crib's on fire, you don't speculate that the baby is flame-retardant. You take action."
The audience laughed. Barton started reading the newspaper, then discovered he wasn't getting much support even from his own side. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) admitted he paid to see "An Inconvenient Truth." Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), implicitly rebuking flat-Earth colleagues, said: "It's possible to be a conservative without appearing to be an idiot." Barton flashed a grin of annoyance.
Over on the Senate side, Inhofe was determined to avoid a fate like Barton's. Given just 12 minutes to question Gore, Inhofe warned him that "I want the same ad-lib time that you have." When Gore didn't answer his questions succinctly enough, Inhofe ordered: "I'm going to ask you to respond for the record in writing."
"Well," said Gore, "if I choose to respond to you verbally here, I hope that'll be okay, too."
"If it's a very brief response," Inhofe directed, then declared that Gore could not answer any questions until Inhofe had finished his allotted time.
Boxer broke in. "You're not making the rules," she said, raising the gavel. "You used to when you had this." The hall filled with applause.
Gore, given ample time to rebut Inhofe, had no shortage of material. "One of the leading scientific experts said the consensus supporting this view on global warming is as strong as anything in science -- with the possible exception of gravity," he said.
The audience laughed. Boxer smiled. Inhofe did not. He left the show early.