EDITOR’S NOTE: Former vice president Al Gore delivered troubling remarks to a MoveOn PAC audience in New York earlier this week. His unhinged style came as no surprise to Rick Brookhiser, who noticed Gore’s weird thinking back in 1999 in “Weird Al,” an article that appeared in National Review’s November 22, 1999, issue and is reprinted here.
There’s a new, looser Al Gore. He left his assigned stool during his first debate with Bill Bradley at Dartmouth, to walk the stage, like Bill Clinton, and he invited questions from the audience before the show began. On the stump, he gestures broadly, spreading out his arms instead of holding them pinioned at his sides, elbows in, and jerking them up and down like pistons. When he smooches small children, he actually picks them up. (When a kid in New Hampshire started squalling at this close encounter, he murmured reassuringly, “I’m not too scary.”)
But there has always been a new, looser Al Gore. His aides, and aides-in-waiting like Martin Peretz, have been assuring us, against the evidence of our senses, that he is a regular guy and a barrel of laughs since he first began running for president, in the 1988 election cycle. The new Al Gore is not only old, but an old fraud. The spontaneity he trots out to show his looseness is learned; you can almost read the messages streaming across the internal prompter: LEAVE THE STOOL…SPREAD THE ARMS…HOLD THE CHILD.
If Al Gore now is the Al Gore we have always known, we should ask what his enduring characteristics are, and what they might mean. Specifically, why is he so weird?
Consider a few obvious traits.
Gore is intelligent. Not as intelligent as James Madison or John C. Calhoun, maybe. But he went to Harvard and worked while he was there (unlike George W. Bush at Yale). He is generally believed to have written the book he signed, his 1992 ecological manifesto, Earth in the Balance, a feat that places him in lonely eminence among modern politicians, along with Pat Buchanan.
He is stiff as a railroad tie. Recently there have been a number of politicians with odd body language–Gerald Ford, George Bush–but Gore is uniquely dense and inert. His debate with Dan Quayle in 1992 was a typical performance. When making debater’s points he swung his upper body heavily towards Quayle, like a de-mothballed gun turret. His face, whether speaking or listening, had the glazed look of a gaffed fish. When he tries to be more animated, the effect is painful, reminiscent of the Monster in Young Frankenstein singing “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”
Gore’s physical rigidity is periodically enlivened by rhetorical frenzies. Louis Menand wrote in a New Yorker profile that Gore has, as a public speaker, “only two dials on the console: speed and volume. To convey gravity, he slows down; to convey urgency, he gets louder.” He can bellow like Jesse Jackson or Louis Farrakhan, but unlike them, there is no crescendo: The triple forte simply pops out of nowhere. Just as the only forensic trick he knows is raising his voice, the only literary trick he knows is raising the temperature. In Earth in the Balance, he invoked Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Kristallnacht, and Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” to describe modern man’s mistreatment of the environment. “Ironically,” wrote Gore, “Ethiopia, the first victim of modern totalitarian expansion, has also been an early victim of . . . our assault on the natural world.” The famine victims of the mid-1980s “are, in a real sense, victims of our dysfunctional civilization’s expansionist tendencies.” Gore is as preoccupied with Nazism as Pat Buchanan: Buchanan defends those he believes were wrongly accused of war crimes; Gore accuses consumers and polluters of committing the moral equivalent of war crimes.
The ’90s have been a decade of shameless self-exposure in every arena, from daytime TV to the White House. But Gore was one of the leaders in exploiting private sorrows for political gain; if we don’t remember, it’s only because Bill Clinton does it so much more effectively. Gore made a ghoulish riff out of his son’s near-fatal car accident at the 1992 Democratic convention in New York (the son was sitting in the audience, so the cameras could cut back and forth from Gore to his subject). Four years later at the Chicago convention Gore exhumed a sister who had died of lung cancer to decorate a sermon on the lethal effects of smoking. What is noteworthy about Gore’s family snapshots is that they involve death; when Bill Clinton enraptured journalists with tales of standing up to his drunkard stepfather, the stepfather, in the time frame of his telling, was alive and kicking.
Are these random traits, drawn from the duffel bag we call the self, or do they hang together?
Gore has identified the episode of his son’s accident as the turning point of his life. Though he exploited it in 1992, it moved him powerfully (whether that makes his exploitation better or worse is another question). The accident, he wrote in Earth in the Balance, made him “impatient with the status quo, with conventional wisdom, with the lazy assumption that we can always muddle through.” It caused him to rethink not just environmental policy, but the spiritual and intellectual foundations of the modern world. (Gore blames Descartes and Francis Bacon for a mind-body split in Western man that leads to alienation from both emotion and nature–see Adam Wolfson’s “Apocalypse Gore” in the March 8, 1999, issue of this magazine.) Gore began writing Earth in the Balance in the hospital where his son was recovering, and he describes the accident in the introduction. The act of putting the story down on paper, he haltingly told Michael Kelly, then with the New York Times, was “one of the most intense and painful and moving experiences I ever had”: “I could not control the emotion. It was, it was. I mean, you know. I mean, I was just sobbing as I was putting it, as the words were finally falling out of me.”
Any parent would be moved by such a brush with death. But each parent would be moved in his own way. Winston Churchill would react differently from Kurt Cobain. How did it strike Al Gore?
This is the Earth in the Balance version. The crash happened in April 1989 when, as Gore tells us, he had lost his first presidential run and just turned 40. Leaving a baseball game, he saw a car strike his 6-year-old boy (his youngest child and only son), who sailed through the air and scraped along the pavement. Gore ran to him and “called his name, but he was motionless, limp and still, without breath or pulse. His eyes were open with the nothingness stare of death, and we prayed, the two of us . . . with only my voice.” Gore’s son struggled to hold on to consciousness, two passing nurses gave him first aid, and teams of doctors saved his life and, over months, restored him to health.
Three coincidences stand out, two of them flagged by Gore: The accident happened at a crucial time in his life (after turning 40) and in his career (after losing a presidential race): propitious moments for revelations. The big coincidence is the name Gore called out to his child. Gore’s injured son is also Al–Albert Gore III. Albert Gore Sr. is, of course, Gore’s father and predecessor in the Senate. (The first senator and his son were known as Big Al and Little Al.) Gore is the middle of three Als: The man looking at his injured son grew up defined, by others and by himself, as a son.
In the version he told at the 1992 convention, Gore added an important
detail: He saw his “reflection in the empty stare of a boy waiting for his second breath of life.” The literal meaning is unclear: Maybe Gore saw an actual reflection of his face in his son’s eyes; maybe he saw the general family resemblance. The emotional meaning is clear enough: In the almost-dead Al Gore III, Al Gore Jr. saw himself.
I am not trying to make a long-range diagnosis, only trying to read a man’s own words, which he defines as important, as we would a poem or a novel. What the words tell me is that Al Gore is depressed. He is depressed because he feels dead. That is what depression is: death to hope, to energy, to vitality. An awful event made Gore’s state of mind vivid, but Gore brought his own depression to the event.
To read Earth in the Balance with a view to what it tells us about its author, apart from whatever it may tell us about the earth or Western culture, is to confirm the impression. In the key philosophical chapter, “Dysfunctional Civilization,” Gore writes that “[f]eelings represent the essential link between mind and body or…between our intellect and the physical world. …Modern civilization assumes a profound separation between the two.” But Al Gore, speaker and campaigner, has been enacting just such a separation for years. “The unnatural task of a disembodied mind is to somehow ignore the intense psychic pain that comes from the constant nagging awareness of what is missing: the experience of living in one’s body as a fully integrated physical and mental being.” But who in modern politics is less integrated, physically and mentally, than Gore? Whose powerful mind is more disembodied? “But the cleavage between mind and body, intellect and nature, has created a kind of psychic pain at the very root of the modern mind…”
Enough. Earth in the Balance purports to analyze our civilization. Leave aside the question of how well it does that; it certainly seems to describe its author. The book is subtitled Ecology and the Human Spirit; it might also be subtitled Al Gore Out of Balance.
How did Gore get this way? That is something his biographers will have to tell us. What matters to us now are the explanations and solutions he offers for our problem, and how they flow from his problem. In “Dysfunctional Civilization” Gore reaches for the addiction model, that favorite of Therapy Lite. Twelve-step programs have helped millions, but they have also created an arsenal of terms that Americans fatuously misapply to anything and everything. As a description of consumerism (Gore’s meaning: We buy more than we need or want, to distract us from our ruptured world), the addiction model is questionable; as a description of depression (my interpretation of his meaning), it is worthless.
More to the point, Gore has adopted a strategy he ascribes to our dysfunctional civilization: One of the best ways of “ignoring psychic pain is to distract oneself from it, to do something so pleasurable or intense or otherwise absorbing that the pain is forgotten.” Hence all his wild shouting, his whipped-up rhetoric, his phony wars against Nazi producers and Stalinist consumers. Gore rages and blusters to give himself the illusion that he is alive. I rant, therefore I am.
Gore could, accidentally, be on to something about the environment or recent Western philosophy. C. S. Lewis, in The Abolition of Man, gave a similar, if subtler, critique of triumphalist scientism. But C. S. Lewis is not running for president. And Lewis did not assail his opponents in such messianic terms. The tone and vocabulary Gore uses to address his pet issue show a perturbed spirit, which bodes ill for his judgment should he become president. We want politicians to address problems because the problems are serious, not to prove to themselves that the problems are not too scary.
There have been presidents with screws loose before, and not all of them have been bad. The classic case is the melancholy Lincoln (though any man of sensibility would have been made melancholy by the Civil War’s casualty rate). Benjamin Franklin called tempestuous John Adams “always an honest man, often a wise one, but sometimes in some things absolutely out of his senses.” John Kennedy’s drug use and satyriasis seem not to have wrecked his administration.
Then there have been the weird bad presidents. Woodrow Wilson’s mad grandiosity wrecked the post-World War I world, and won him the dubious honor of being the only president to be studied by Sigmund Freud. Nixon’s paranoid suspicion helped his enemies bring him down. Bill Clinton’s arrested development created almost a sede vacante in the office.
President Gore would not bear his sufferings in silence. The issue onto which he has displaced his personal concerns has given rise to a burgeoning field of international law, and has major economic ramifications. He should not be encouraged to clip our sovereignty or pick our pockets in order to repair himself.