Al Gore: The Edge of Reason

Review: THE ASSAULT ON REASON     by Al Gore, Penguin Press, $25.95, 320 pages

Al Gore may be the most frustrated man in America. In 2000, the former senator and vice president won the popular vote, but he lost the must-win state of Florida by a margin so narrow and so contested that the U.S. Supreme Court had to step in. It gave us a lesson in the difference between higher justice and procedural justice, and in why the latter is sometimes the best we can hope for.

He lost the Sunshine State for many reasons, but three stand out.

First, the Clinton Justice Department had seized young Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez at gunpoint in Miami over Easter weekend that year and forcibly repatriated him to his homeland. There was a huge shift in the expat Cuban vote away from Mr. Gore, even though he had opposed the action and publicly (though timidly) spoken out against it.

Second, Jeb Bush was then the governor of the state. He did a bang-up job getting out the vote for his older brother. As the son of a former senator himself, the vice president couldn't complain about that nepotistic leg-up too loudly, and it must have grated.

Third, many voters found Mr. Gore's manner as off-putting as conservatives found his politics. He won the first presidential debate on points but lost it on sighs.

Before the second debate, an aide forced him to watch the vicious “Saturday Night Live” parody of the event. The aide warned him that the pomposity and the disdain that impersonator Darrell Hammond projected was the impression that many undecided voters had taken away from the match-up.

Frustration heaped on top of frustration. Mr. Gore might have had a good shot at the White House in 2004 — who better to beat President Bush than the man who received more votes last time? — except that September 11 happened.

The attacks and America's response ruined all kinds of plans. The 2002 gains by Republicans convinced many Democrats, including the former vice president, that the president was an electoral juggernaut. Best to let somebody else take the hit.

“The Assault on Reason” is another entry into the Bush-bashing genre from the perspective of someone who was only a few dangling chads away from being in the position to fashion America's response to that awful day. Even if you aren't enamored of Mr. Bush's response to September 11 (as this reviewer is not), Mr. Gore's second-guessing is both self-serving and, in its own way, deeply troubling.

Self-serving: Mr. Gore was an Iraq hawk, one of only 10 Democrats to vote in favor of the first Gulf War. He complained bitterly that the first President Bush didn't march into Baghdad and supported legislation aimed at rooting out Saddam Hussein. He maintains both that he was right then, to champion overthrow, and right now, to complain about the second Bush administration removing and executing the Iraqi strongman.

Troubling: Mr. Gore rehashes many examples of how Republicans used the serious threat of terrorism to expand government powers, often in ways that were unrelated to actually preventing terrorism. What would he have done?

“At this fateful juncture in our history, it is vital that we see clearly who — and what — our enemies are and how we intend to deal with them,” he writes. Rather than identifying those enemies, he launches into a predictable anti-Bush/Cheney rant. A less charitable critic would say that he was identifying them as the enemies.

While Mr. Gore acknowledges that “old threats” trouble our “global community,” he's much more concerned with “new forces arising,” including the “global environmental crisis,” the “looming water crisis,” “drugs and corruption,” and “new pandemics like HIV/AIDS.”

Sure, terrorism is an irritant, Mr. Gore grants. But what really matters, he writes in a bit of run-on melodrama that has to be quoted to be believed, “is that we find one of those precious few moments in all of human history when we have a chance to cause the change we wish to see in the world — by seeking a common agreement to openly recognize a powerful new truth that has been growing just beneath the surface of every human heart: It is time to change the nature of the way we live together on this planet.”