By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
Boy, it would be fun if Al Gore changed his mind and ran for president -- fun for the voters, anyway. Imagine a candidate whose preelection book is devoted in large part to an attack on the media for waging war on reason.
Politicians, it is often said, never win by attacking the media. That's simply not true. Conservatives have been attacking the media for decades, to good effect from their point of view. Their intimidation sometimes worked -- go back to the coverage of the 2000 Florida recount if you want to see media bias. When intimidation fails, they declare inconvenient facts to be merely "liberal" opinions.
It's delightful to see the critique coming from the other side. Gore's book, "The Assault on Reason," to be released today, is about "the strangeness of our public discourse" as mediated through television. He thinks the Internet may revive the art of reasoned argument that has been lost in our obsessions with "Britney and KFed, and Lindsay and Paris and Nicole."
It's entertaining to talk to Gore these days because he's so clearly enjoying himself. (That's probably why he won't run for president.) During a 40-minute telephone interview yesterday, he did not speak as if there were focus-grouped sentences dancing around in his head. Nor did he worry about saying things that some consultant would fret about for weeks afterward.
For example, when Gore is asked if any of the Democrats running for president were changing the system he holds in such low esteem, he pulls no punches. "They're good people trapped in a bad system," he says, "and I think it's the system that needs to be changed and I don't see them changing it." The campaign dialogue so far, he says, has not been "very enriching or illuminating" in "either party." But, no, that doesn't mean he's going to run, though he never completely shuts the door. It's part of the fun he's having.
He ascribes the failure to have a full-throated debate on Iraq back in 2002 -- when he spoke out against the looming war, to much nasty jeering from the right -- to the administration's decision to politicize the issue before the midterm elections, but also to "meekness" and "timidity" in both "the legislative branch of government" and in "the press corps."
"A lot of people were afraid of being accused of being unpatriotic," he says. "One of the symptoms of this problem -- the diminishing role for reason, fact and logic -- is that what rushes in to fill the vacuum are extreme partisanship, ideology, fundamentalism and extreme nationalism."
If the Bush administration came to mind as you read those words, Gore wouldn't object. Historians who need a catalogue of what went wrong after, oh, Dec. 12, 2000, the day of a certain U.S. Supreme Court decision, will find it all in his book.
Gore, so gracious after that unfortunate court ruling, lets it rip against Bush on Iraq, civil liberties, global warming and much else. Gore writes of "something deeply troubling about President Bush's relationship to reason, his disdain for facts, and his lack of curiosity. . . ."
That sentiment will speak to the multitudes disgusted with the Bush presidency -- and draw vituperation from the same people who accused Gore of trying to "steal" the 2000 election simply because he wanted Florida's votes recounted.
Seven years later, the mood is quite different, partly because of the rise of a new Internet political community that Gore wants to protect from the designs of big companies. Say what you will, the blogs and other online gathering places do promote a culture of engagement rather than passivity. The raucous back-and-forth they encourage looks, at least sometimes, like real, live democratic politics.
But the larger change is that the very process Gore describes -- of propaganda taken as fact, of slogans taken as arguments, of repetition substituting for logic and, yes, of lies and half-truths taken as truth -- is now well-recognized. What worked against Gore during the recount and what worked for the administration in the run-up to the Iraq war doesn't work anymore. That is an advance for democracy and for reason.
Gore, to his credit, won't talk about Florida, but I will. Whatever flaws he has, Gore suffered through an extreme injustice with great dignity. His revenge is to have been right about a lot of things: right about the power of the Internet, right about global warming and right about Iraq.