Mention the name of Al Gore for President in 2008, and you'll have to duck from the hailstorm of responses, most of which are snickering ridicule.
Al Gore may not even be a candidate, as he himself has said -- at present. But one snickers at their own peril. Al Gore is a very different man than when the Democratic nominee in 2000, and anyone who hasn't noticed has not been looking closely, or at all. The jokes may fly, but while people are laughing, they will find that Al Gore has passed them by.
There are three reasons Al Gore gets dismissed: he's a loser, he's wooden and he says he invented the Internet.
Oh, life is so difficult when none of our assumptions are true.
The truth begins with one inescapable reality: even at his most-derided worst, Al Gore won the popular vote against George Bush.
That's what's known in debate clubs as an impossible fact to deny.
If Al Gore was the Democratic nominee (a huge "if"), there's no reason to think he would get any fewer votes than he did before. (Especially with no third-party candidate.) That's an awfully good starting point: that you previously won the popular vote for President of the United States. Even George W. Bush couldn't say that when he ran for re-election.
In 2000, George Bush was a potent candidate. He was seen as a uniter. Compassionate. His namesake father was a former President of the United States. And Al Gore still received more popular votes.
And at his boring worst, that's Al Gore's starting point. Winning the most votes.
Ah, yes, that boring thing. Grab a chair and catch up with reality.
On May 26, 2004, Gore delivered a speech at NYU that blasted the Iraq War, and even called for the resignations of those behind it. (This was two years before the current parade of generals.) It was so fiery that conservative pundits didn't know what to make of it until they could unite on their talking points.
"Gore's speech is the single craziest political performance of my lifetime..." -- New York Post columnist John Podhoretz
"He's really nuts." -- Fox News host Sean Hannity.
"It looks as if Al Gore has gone off his lithium again." -- Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer
Hardly the description of someone wooden. These are the sounds of conservative cowboys hiding the women-folk and circling the wagons at the terror of a free-speaking voice rising against them.
And what did Gore thunder?
"George W. Bush promised us a foreign policy with humility. Instead, he has brought us humiliation in the eyes of the world. He promised to 'restore honor and integrity to the White House.' Instead, he has brought deep dishonor to our country and built a durable reputation as the most dishonest president since Richard Nixon."
These are not the cold, diplomatic words of today's wary politician. This blistering outrage is what Gore's been saying now for years, far ahead of most other Democrats.
That leaves but the matter of Al Gore, inventor of the Internet. "During my service in the United States Congress," Gore said to Wolf Blitzer on CNN, "I took the initiative in creating the Internet."
That's it. And the men who are considered inventors of the Internet, Dr. Vinton Cerf and Dr. Robert Kahn, agree!
"...As the two people who designed the basic architecture and the core protocols that make the Internet work,," they wrote, "we would like to acknowledge VP Gore's contributions as a Congressman, Senator and as Vice President. No other elected official, to our knowledge, has made a greater contribution over a longer period of time."
Well, how about that?
Winner, impassioned, and he helped create the Internet. Go figure.
And now, Al Gore has been given a really big platform. Movie star.
A new documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," was one of the hits of the Sundance Film Festival. At heart, this is a filmed version of the richly-involving multimedia presentation Gore gives on global warning, but much more. It's a wonderfully-crafted look at Gore and his life traveling around the world, dragging his own luggage through airports.
Gore has given the presentation over 1,000 times by his estimate, and his passion is visceral, along with his knowledge and concern. What one sees is an engrossing event that is at times terrifying, always fascinating and occasionally hilarious. The film (for which Huffington Post contributor Laurie David is one of the producers) flies by. That's 100 minutes of watching Al Gore talk and being riveted. Admit it: those are two concepts you previously would never have dreamed of ever seeing in the same sentence. Unless perhaps if it continued -- "...to the floor with bolts."
And that's the point.
Whether or not Al Gore runs for President again; in fact, whether or not he should, make no mistake: there is substance here. And passion. And outspokenness. And now he's got an 80-foot high soapbox.