You think Al Gore is upset about global warming? You ought to hear him on American politics.
“The American political system is an utter catastrophe,” he said. “Our democracy has been hacked. The country is utterly and completely paralyzed. Hog-tied. And on a measure that will mean countless deaths in the future.”
“Why?” Gore asked. “The influence of money. The average member of the House and Senate has to spend five hours per day begging rich people for money. Begging rich interests for money!”
And those rich people and rich interests don’t give you money with no strings attached. No way. In return for their money, they want votes that will benefit them. “The piper is paid,” Gore said.
Gore served eight years in the House, eight years in the Senate, and eight years as vice president under Bill Clinton. When Gore ran for president in 2000, he beat George W. Bush by 543,895 popular votes, but the Supreme Court gave the presidency to Bush by a 5-4 vote that some (including me) considered nakedly political.
By the end of his 2000 presidential campaign, Gore had become an accomplished speaker and his old joke no longer seemed to apply: “Al Gore is so boring, his Secret Service code name is Al Gore,” he used to say to reliable laughter. (It was actually “Sundance”).
Gore was talked about as a potential presidential candidate for 2004 and 2008, but the release of the Oscar-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2006 and his winning (along with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for his efforts to “disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change” had made him an environmental rock star.
He spoke Monday at the Chicago Theological Seminary — a certified environmentally friendly building — to a large, mostly student audience in an event sponsored by the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics (where I am a fellow for the next three weeks until returning to Washington).
Gore’s hair is grayer and brushed back and his face is a little fleshier than when he was at his “fighting weight” in 2000. But he also has developed a passionate “country” speaking style — think Elmer Gantry without the duplicity — that is compelling.
“One reason our beloved United States of America has not yet grabbed hold of this crisis is that our politics are very badly broken,” Gore said. “There is no question we have seen the degrading of our country. The truth doesn’t matter the way it should.”
The reason, he said, is that “large carbon polluters have a business plan that is threatened by anyone saying, ‘You are using the atmosphere as an open sewer and, well, that has got to stop.’ ”
But it won’t stop, Gore said, unless people stop the polluters and that is not going to be easy. While some Republicans used to support anti-pollution measures, there is now “an enforced orthodoxy in the Republican Party” to oppose such measures, he claimed.
“It’s not complicated why they have been cowed,” Gore said. “They will face primary opponents financed by the Koch brothers and others even if they breathe the simplest truth about climate change.”
He went on: “Are there ways to compromise? Of course. But you can’t compromise a core principle like the future of civilization.”
But Gore ended in a hopeful note. Or at least a semi-hopeful note. “When the future is at risk, our politics must come to the rescue,” he told the students. “I want to recruit you! Just don’t listen and process.
“Do we have to do this? Yeah. Yeah, we do. The second question is, can we do this? Well, of course.”
Gore said that there were two possible questions that future generations can ask, but only one of them actually will be asked.
“If what scientists have warned us about is not interrupted — storms, droughts, hurricanes, the loss of hope — [future generations] will be justified in asking: ‘What were you thinking? Were you just watching “Dancing With the Stars?” ’” Gore said.
“But if you find yourself in the midst of renewal and feel your children’s lives will be better still, the young will ask: ‘How did you find the courage to do what you did?’ ”
Gore got an ovation in favor of courage.