Well-armed with all your great questions, I interviewed Al Gore over the weekend. After talking with him and reading his book, The Assault on Reason (which will debut at #1 in the New York Times on Sunday), it was clear that he is obsessed with two kinds of pollution -- the pollution of our planet, and the pollution of our politics and culture. In other words, the toxicity of the atmosphere and the toxicity of the public sphere.
While I completely agree with his passionate warnings about the dangers from these two pollutions, I believe there is a third: the pollution of our leaders' brains and hearts and souls that affects their spines when they know what is true, right, and in the best interests of the country but fail to stand up for it. After all, leadership has always been about seeing clearly while most around you have their vision clouded by the cultural toxicity Gore rails against.
"It's a problem that George Bush invaded Iraq," Gore told me. "It's a problem that he authorized warrantless mass eavesdropping on American citizens. It's a problem that he lifted the prohibition against torture. It's a problem that he censored hundreds of scientific reports on the climate crisis -- but it's a bigger problem that we've been so vulnerable to such crass manipulation and that there has been so little outcry or protest as American values have been discarded, one after another. And if we pretend that the magic solution for all these problems is simply to put a different person in the office of the president without attending to the cracks in the foundation of our democracy, then the same weaknesses that have been exploited by this White House will be exploited by others in the future."
Gore kept returning to this theme during our conversation: that it's not enough to just throw George Bush and the Republicans out, we need to address the root causes of the rot afflicting our politics. He highlighted some of the elements of the rot, particularly what has happened to our media culture, and the dominant influence of money:
"Money has replaced reason as the wellspring of power and influence in the American political system," Gore told me. "What was revolutionary about the United States of America was that individuals could use knowledge as the source of influence and power on a sustained basis for the first time since the agora [the center of Athenian democracy]... Now that money buys 30-second TV ads, lobbyists, computer banks, and Machiavellian political consultants, the wielding of power depends so much on money and so little on ideas that all of the organizations that Americans have formed to pursue progressive ideas to promote the public interest have been badly weakened."
That's why the Internet is so important to Gore. He sees it as a powerful countervailing force to these poisonous influences. "We need to reengage the America people in the process of democracy," he told me. "We have to convince them that their opinions do matter, that their wisdom is relevant, and that their political power can be used effectively. And the Internet is beginning to bring about some very positive changes in this area -- it's why it is so important that bloggers are now able to hold newspapers and politicians accountable in ways they couldn't even just a few years ago. The E=MC2 of American democracy is John Locke's formulation that all just power derives from the consent of the governed -- and that consent assumes an environment where there can be an open and accessible exchange of ideas."
So here is a modern political leader able not only to reference Locke, Einstein, and the Roman Empire, but to passionately and practically link their ideas to urgent policy decisions being made as we speak -- above all, decisions about Iraq.
While expressing "sympathy" and "compassion" for Democratic Congressional leaders faced with "fragile minorities," "members in politically marginal districts," and "an executive branch whose power has been greatly enhanced," Gore makes it clear that he would not have voted for the latest Iraq-funding-with-no-deadline measure. "I wish it hadn't passed," he adds.
That's where my point about the third kind of pollution -- the inner pollution -- comes into play. Clearly, human beings are not equally affected by pollution -- whether environmental or political. On the environmental front, we know that the better care we take of ourselves, and the stronger our immune systems are, the less vulnerable we are to the multiple poisons we are subjected to. In the same way, some people stand up to public toxicity better than others.
For example, what made Paul Wellstone, even though he was facing a tough re-election battle, immune to the toxic fears that led so many of his colleagues to vote for a war authorization resolution they knew was wrong? As Gore says, "We are all responsible for the decisions our country makes. We have a Congress. We have checks and balances." The fact that these checks and balances didn't work in 2002 -- and are still not fully working in 2007 -- is not just a function of a toxic system. It's also because not enough of our leaders have spiritual immune systems -- what we used to call character --strong enough to withstand the toxicity, including the fear mongering, of a bad system.
Describing our political leaders, Gore said, "We have good people caught up in a bad system." And that's true, but the bad system does not affect good people equally badly. Some of them manage to remain uncontaminated -- or recognize their contamination earlier than others -- and join the fight against the forces polluting their judgment and their courage.
Otherwise, why did Jack Murtha change course on the war in 2005 while Joe Lieberman still can't see through the toxic fog of lies and manipulation?
"Our founders," Gore told me, "had an incredibly sophisticated understanding of human nature. They believed that there is the potential for good and bad in all of us. They had a view very similar to the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King's guru, who put forth the idea that we all have the potential for good and bad and that the ways in which we relate to one another, and the conditions within which we live our lives, have a big impact on whether our vulnerabilities for bad or abusive behavior increase or decrease."
An Inconvenient Truth offers powerful insights into the degradation of our planet's eco-system, and The Assault on Reason offers a powerful indictment of the degradation of our political system. If Al Gore doesn't run for president, perhaps his next mission can be a book/movie about the need for each of us to undergo an inner detox that will get rid of all that stands in the way of us seeing clearly and acting courageously -- freeing up both the better angels of our nature and the leadership potential that's within all of us.
As I finished up our interview by asking him the obligatory question about running for president that so many of you charged me with asking (sorry, there was no new answer!), I was more convinced than ever that one of the reasons so many people are urging Gore to run is because they suspect that his recent journey -- including the devastating loss of the presidency -- have strengthened who he is at his core.
Gore is focused on the problems of environmental and cultural pollution, but perhaps his greatest strength as a leader comes from his hard-earned ability to withstand the pollution of the soul.