Returning as the ‘Goracle’
The doors swung open and he made his entrance with cameras clicking, the wooden politician denied the presidency and derided as “Ozone Man” was coming home to the Capitol. But this time they called him a movie star and likened him to a prophet.
Al Gore left Washington seven years ago bowed by the 2000 presidential election and a little disgraced in the eyes of his party -- couldn’t he at least have won his home state?
But he returned Wednesday reincarnated: the subject of an Academy Award-winning film, a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, a 58-year-old guy who, slightly grayed and a little puffy, can share a stage with Leonardo DiCaprio and still manage to be the center of attention.
The onetime congressman, senator and vice president was back, this time to testify about global warming. The Oscar for “An Inconvenient Truth” -- the documentary about his traveling slide show on the ravages of climate change -- doesn’t even belong to him; it’s the director’s. But it has pushed Gore into another orbit in Washington’s universe. People started lining up as early as 7 a.m. to get a glimpse of him.
“This is the most dangerous crisis we have ever faced,” Gore told a joint meeting of two House panels in an impassioned appeal for bold action. (He later repeated his case on the Senate side.) “This problem is burning a hole in the top of the world.... We need to turn the thermostat back down before that melts.”
Gore, who arrived in a new hybrid Mercury, sat beside a stack of brown boxes filled with 516,000 messages -- collected over the last few days on AlGore.com -- urging “real action.”
“There is a sense of hope in the country that this United States Congress will rise to the occasion and present meaningful solutions to this crisis,” he said. “Congress is a repository of hopes and dreams of people all across this Earth.”
As the morning hearing convened on the House side, the repository of hopes and dreams spent several minutes bickering about where the committee members should sit and how much time they had to speak.
They appeared to divide pretty much along party lines. Democrats hailed the “Goracle,” who saw this coming 30 years ago, and Republicans dismissed him as an alarmist.
Among Gore’s ideas: a pollution tax, an immediate freeze on carbon dioxide emissions with sharp reductions in future years, stricter vehicle miles-per-gallon rules, a moratorium on construction of highly polluting coal-fired power plants, a strong global climate-change treaty and the creation of a federally operated “carbon-neutral” mortgage association that would serve as incentive for building energy-efficient homes.
“I listen to you sometimes in wonderment,” said Rep. J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), predicting that Gore’s proposals would cost “tens of thousands of jobs and more empty factories.”
Rep. Ralph M. Hall (R-Texas) complained of an “all-out assault” on energy sources that are crucial to economic and national security.
In the confrontational camaraderie for which Washington is famous, Hall and Gore happily reminisced about the time they went to a meeting on Hall’s boat, then Hall accused Gore of “flirting with the death of the energy industry.”
Gore acknowledged his proposals faced serious obstacles.
In calling for a pollution tax, he said, “I fully understand this is considered politically impossible, but part of our challenge is to expand the limits of what’s possible.” He urged his former colleagues to “walk through that fire.”
The day will come, he said, when future generations either ask, “Did they think it was perfectly all right to keep dumping 70 million tons every single day of global-warming pollution into this Earth’s atmosphere?” or “How did they find the uncommon moral courage to rise above politics?”
Gore spoke mostly without notes and seemed more comfortable in his skin than when he was as a presidential candidate, even with a clot of photographers squatting in front of him. A notorious policy wonk, he touched on subjects such as light bulbs and the Arctic ice cap, which, he said, is melting even faster than previously thought and could “completely disappear in as little as 34 years.”
“If it goes, it won’t come back in any time scale relevant to the human condition,” he warned as his wife, Tipper, nodded in agreement behind him.
Members of both parties, who generally poke at their BlackBerrys during long committee hearings, appeared to pay attention.
The exchanges were sometimes confrontational, especially at the Senate hearing, where Gore dueled with one of the chief congressional skeptics on global warming, Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.).
“It seems that everything is blamed on global warming,” Inhofe said. “Last summer we had a heat wave and everyone said, ‘Oh, that’s proof it’s global warming.’ Then we had a mild December. ‘Oh, that’s proof that global warming is taking place.’ ... How come you guys never seem to notice it when it gets cold?”
But Gore held firm, noting that a manatee showed up off Memphis last summer.
“First time ever,” he said. “It got too hot in southern Florida. I’m not making this up. Another one showed up off of Cape Cod, first time ever. Nature is on the run.”
Later, Gore invited Inhofe to breakfast to discuss the issue “without the cameras, without the lights.”
Much as he did in “An Inconvenient Truth,” Gore reduced the science to simple metaphors.
When asked whether the United States should be taking drastic action when China and India were greater polluters, Gore explained that the U.S. accounted for 23% of carbon emissions and “like a bucket with a hole in it, you can still use the bucket, but it’s a lot more efficient if the hole is plugged.”
Outside the House hearing room where Gore spoke, a crowd waited for him to emerge. Three high school girls from New Jersey snapped his picture for their school newspaper, saying that he looked taller, older and more confident than they expected.
Gore left through a side door, missing an impromptu ditty by what sounded like a Dixieland band and members of the antiwar group Code Pink, attired in boas and assorted hats. He was nonetheless mobbed by photographers and squeezed into an elevator to escape.
“Run for president!” somebody hollered, just as the doors closed.
At the end of the day, after Gore finished his testimony before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the chairwoman, called Gore a “role model for us all.”
Gore thanked her and asked, “Now, you don’t give out any kind of statue or anything?”