So much has been written — some of it by me — about how poor Al Gore was all but forced to follow in his daddy the senator’s footsteps, eventually succumbing to pressure to take up his line of work, and take on his unfulfilled ambitions.
Yet now that the former vice president is without any question writing his own script, and can follow any path he likes, the one he’s chosen with the sale of his Current TV network to Qatar-funded Al Jazeera is not just hypocritical, but awfully familiar to those who remember what his father did after leaving public life.
Albert Gore Sr. lost his Tennessee Senate seat in 1970 for the noblest of reasons — standing up against the war in Vietnam, and for civil rights. Even then, Republicans apparently thought they had to cheat to best him; Watergate investigators later found Nixon operatives had illegally contributed to the race. He was also the victim of such vicious race-baiting that the man who defeated him later apologized for an ad meant to appeal to white George Wallace voters with the assurance that “Bill
Brock believes in the things we believe in.”
After Gore Sr. was defeated, though — and dramatically declared in his fiery concession speech that “The truth shall rise again!” — he went to work for the oil baron Armand Hammer, whose Occidental Petroleum broke into the big leagues after it started doing business in Libya in 1965 — on visas then-Senator Gore had helped his old pal obtain. (Hammer, too, was convicted of making illegal campaign contributions, to Gore’s old adversary Nixon, though he was eventually pardoned.)
Before any of that, however, in 1972, Gore Sr. went to work as chairman of Occidental’s coal subsidiary, Island Creek, which on his watch committed a slew of environmental violations, some involving strip mining — a practice young Congressman Al
To his credit, Gore Sr. was at least honest about cashing in: “Since I had been turned out to pasture,” he told the Washington Post in 1980, “I decided to go graze the tall grass.”
If all of this was inconvenient for his son the environmental crusader, as documented in a Gore biography by my husband, Washington Post reporter Bill Turque, well, it wasn’t as if Al Jr. bore personal responsibility for his father’s decisions.
Until he repeated them, that is.
At the historically painful conclusion of his own political career, he at least was free at last — of any ambitions imposed, and any scandals not of his making. Now he could follow his true passion and calling — the one that, even 8 years after writing the environmental manifesto “Earth in the Balance,” he rarely mentioned while running for president. Because, as his advisers told me at the time, polling showed that concern about the environment only ranked a laughable 13th place in the hierarchy of voter concerns.
After the Supreme Court turned him out to pasture, Gore did begin doing the kind of work that his friends had always thought suited him best; with his pointer and slide-show, he traveled the country teaching and preaching — and explaining the threat of global climate change.
He’s been well and rightly compensated for doing so — rewarded with an Oscar, a Grammy and a Nobel Prize — and while lecturing us on our carbon footprint, has also made a fortune in various investments. There’s nothing wrong with getting rich, mind you, or in turning a turkey like Current TV into a big payday; on the contrary, doing well by doing good is a nearly universal goal.
But now, of course, he and his partners have sold Current for $500 million to Al Jazeera, the state media company of Qatar, which has the largest per-capita carbon footprint of any country in the world, and is financed by the dirty fossil fuel business Gore so abhors.
How does raking in $100 million petrodollars, his reported share, fit with his life’s mission? In an interview last year, he said the goal of “reducing our dependence on expensive dirty oil” can really only be understood in light of the “main reason for doing this, which is to save the future of civilization.”
Though the deal’s been widely criticized on the right, most of my progressive friends have a more tolerant attitude towards the transaction: “After what happened to him,” in the recount of 2000, one remarked, “I’d forgive him almost anything.” A politically active environmentalist, too, was taking the news in stride: “I don’t think the community is too upset,” he said. “My personal sense is he got a good deal.”
No question about that. But given his many financial opportunities, why do something that so undercuts his message and credibility?
Gore said in a statement that the common goal of Current TV and Al Jazeera is “to give voice to those who are not typically heard; to speak truth to power; to provide independent and diverse points of view; and to tell the stories that no one else is telling.”
Translation? When put out to pasture, oh do graze in the tall grass — and don’t get too fussy about who signs the checks.
Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and anchors She the People. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.