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Al Gore’s ecosphere of accomplishment

PITTSBURGH — Al Gore may be the luckiest man alive. And he may be working on the best obituary of his generation.

Why he’s so lucky: Sure, he was defeated for the presidency in a contested, overtime election decided by the Supreme Court, even though he won the popular vote. But he avoided having to deal with Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden and others in the international basket of deplorables; he wasn’t blamed for a historic economic downturn; and he didn’t have to rebuild New Orleans after a destructive hurricane.

Why that Gore obit will shimmer: He handled his defeat in the 2000 election with courage and grace and so won’t be listed in a parade of presidents that includes John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, Warren Harding, Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter — all testimony that winning the White House doesn’t ensure historical approbation. The Gore obit will note that he had a distinguished House and Senate career, was an influential vice president and lost the White House — but may have saved the planet. It’s better than any sentence in the obituary of Franklin Pierce, who failed in the presidency, was denied renomination by his own party, may have hastened the Civil War — and still got a college named after him.

Gore feels regret and remorse rather than relief about his election defeat, much the way Winston Churchill felt when he was unceremoniously defeated in July 1945 after steering Great Britain through the Blitz, D-Day and World War II victory in Europe. His wife suggested it was a blessing in disguise. Churchill’s response, expressed through tears: “Well, at the moment it is very well-disguised.”

“I am under no illusion that there is any position with as much potential of bringing about positive change than being president of the United States,” Gore said in a conversation in an anteroom of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, where he was the featured speaker at the Climate Reality Leadership Corps training — an event where the plastic coverings on the press passes were certified to be 100 percent biodegradable. “But since that was not in the cards, I’m lucky to have found a way to work for positive change. It’s a privilege to have work that justifies pouring every ounce of energy you have into it.”

Plus, he is not exactly operating in obscure exile. He has the Nobel Peace Prize that Nixon and Bill Clinton yearned for, the Academy Award Tom Cruise and Michelle Pfeiffer still do not possess. Gore arguably has the best second career since Ronald Reagan.

Not that he has completely foresworn the political world. The other day he decamped to New Jersey to support Philip D. Murphy, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, saluting him and his wife as people “who care about clean water and clean air, and cleaning up the climate.”

But now that he is in a different ecosphere — “still managing to try to make the world better,” in the words of David Morehouse, a onetime senior counselor to Gore and now president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Penguins — Gore himself seems different.

His cause is urgent, but in personal style he is not much in a hurry. He speaks more softly, and more slowly, than he did as an eager House lawmaker examining the chemical crisis at the Love Canal in Niagara Falls, and is more at ease than he was in his 1988 and 2000 presidential campaigns. Even the anger he expressed in a brief 2007 book, in which he excoriated Bush (“This administration simply does not seem to agree that the challenge of preserving democratic freedom cannot be met by surrendering core American values”) seems to have dissipated, though he allowed that that sentence might easily be applied to Donald J. Trump and his team.

Perhaps that is age (he’s now 69), or perspective, or a combination of the two mixed with recognition that the politics he knew is an art form that is antiquarian.

“The Congress I went into is no longer,” he said in that afternoon conversation. “It’s not just that the personnel has changed. The system and culture have changed. The influence of big money is much, much greater, and so much more toxic, and our democracy has been hacked, not just by the Russians but also by lobbyists and big contributors.”

Lobbyists and big contributors were not exactly unknown when Gore entered the House in 1977, getting elected in his home Tennessee district without ever having a fundraiser, though Gore spent $127 million in his 2000 campaign. But this is different. “Now,” he said, “members of Congress spend much more attention to contributors than to citizens.”

Gore is no stranger to election heartbreak. In 1970 — the year his 2000 rival, George W. Bush, witnessed his father lose a bitter Texas Senate race to Lloyd Bentsen — Gore watched his own father, a lion of the Senate, lose his re-election bid to Bill Brock. The elder Gore was one of only a few lawmakers from the Old Confederacy to refuse to sign the 1956 Southern Manifesto pledging resistance to racial integration.

The day after the election, the two Al Gores sat in a canoe on the Caney Fork River. The father was near despair, the son was deep in despair. It was, the younger Gore recalled in a conversation in 2000, the first time their roles were reversed, and in their shared anguish the father asked the son:

“What would you do if you had had 32 years of service to the people, given to the highest of your ability, always doing what you thought was right, and had then been unceremoniously turned out of office. What would you do?”

The son answered: “I’d take the 32 years, Dad.”

Today the younger Gore owns the farm that once was in the possession of his father and his mother, Pauline LaFon Gore, who had pushed her husband to oppose the Southern Manifesto and, later, the Vietnam War, where her son served. Gore still paddles that river, which runs through the family farm. The son has taken the 24 years he had in office in Washington, and added to them, and to his future obituary.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (, 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.

David Shribman

David Shribman

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