The Great Green Hope

Article excerpt

He's the most knowledgeable environmentalist ever to reach such a high office. But is that enough?

Vice Presidents Albert Gore may be the first national leader for whom Saturday Night Live was a significant influence. In his book, Earth in the Balance, Gore supplements references to Aristotle and chaos theory with mentions of the comedy show's "Yard-a-pull," a device for launching garbage into the neighbor's yard. In his public displays of humor. Gore relies on a very modern sense of self-irony, milking his stuffed-shirt persona for laughs. (How do you tell Al Gore from a roomful of Secret Service agents? He's the stiff one.)

Another topic of vice presidential humor is Gore's well-known desire to be president. He likes to dwell on the brief delay in Bill Clinton's second inauguration. "For five minutes I was president of the United States," Gore declares. "It was an important time for me and my family, and, if I may be so bold, for the country . . . "

An eventual Gore presidency is perfectly plausible, if not as inevitable as it seemed immediately following last November's election. His pristine reputation has since been famished by revelations of questionable fund-raising practices, causing his popularity to plummet nearly 25 points over three months. Of course, he can still recover before November 7,2000,and many environmentalists fervently hope that he does. A typical view is expressed by the Sierra Club's political director, Dan Weiss. "Gore is the best we could ever hope for," he says. "It's hard to imagine a more pro-environment president ever being elected."

After all, he did write the book. Earth in the Balance, a 1992 best-seller (250,000 hardcover copies at last count), laid out the stark realities of deforestation. water pollution. overpopulation, and especially global warming. "I have come to believe that we must take bold and unequivocal action," the then-senator wrote. "We must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization."

You just don't hear stuff like that from Bill Clinton or presidential hopeful Dick Gephardt. Indeed, many environmentalists have endured the indignities and disappointments of the Clinton era happy in the belief that Gore's turn is next, that someone who shares our sense of urgency about healing the earth would soon have the power to turn his ideals into action.

But will he? Gore was unavailable for interview for this article, and isn't even saying at this early date whether he'll run. But we can judge what kind of president he might make by what kind of vice president he is, and what kind of legislator--and environmentalist--he's been in the past.

Before he become an environmentalist, Al Gore was a politician. His father, Albert Gore, Sr., represented Tennessee for 14 years in the House and 18 in the Senate, so you could say Al Jr. was born to the role. (Gerry Trudeau once satirized him in Doonesbury as "Albert, Prince of the Tennessee Valley.") Gore Sr. was a brash, outspoken populist, best known nationally for his opposition to the war in Vietnam. Despite his own antiwar views, Al Jr. served a tour of duty in Saigon as an Army re porter, largely because he knew it would be political death for his father if he avoided service. (Self-sacrificial loyalty is a constant in Gore's career.) In 1970, Al Sr.'s principled position cost him his seat anyway. After stints as a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean and a law student at Vanderbilt, Al Jr. followed his father, first to the House in 1976 and then to the Senate in 1984.

The young Gore's legislative record was slight; he was better at raising issues than seeing them through the process. In the Reagan era, he became an expert on nuclear disarmament, mastering the minutiae of throw weight and megatonnage, but never transforming his expertise into legislation.

Surprisingly, Gore's environmental voting record in Congress was less than stellar. …