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May 9, 2006

Gore urges us to accept An Inconvenient Truth

Al Gore is a Diet Coke drinker. He was also running late, and as I waited in his suite at the Four Seasons to interview him last Thursday morning, his assistant had thoughtfully provided him with a bottle of Diet Coke and a glass of ice. But by the time he arrived—just 15 minutes after the start time, mind you—the ice had mostly melted, so she dumped out the contents of the glass and replaced them with fresh ice.

Ahh, the privileges of power.

Incredibly, that’s where Gore’s amenities began and ended. I found Gore to be very open and friendly, despite media representations of him to the contrary. (I’ll save you my theory on “Republican character assassination,” as a friend of mine informed me how ridiculous it sounds. I still think there’s something to it, however.)

What I thought was going to be a massive press conference consisted of me and only one other person (a student journalist from Columbia College). In the lobby prior to the interview, we brainstormed about what our “perfect question” would be, assuming that this would be the only one we would get to ask. Good thing I looked over my notes while I was on the El.

Gore was in town to promote his upcoming documentary An Inconvenient Truth, based on his lecture about personal and political responsibility in the face of global warming. The film is never less than fully engaging. Much of that is due to Gore’s surprising charisma. It also helps that director Davis Guggenheim opts to include personal anecdotes from Gore’s life. Gore considered the interviews about his past “very difficult,” but conceded that they helped to make a better film. When he delivers a lecture in person, he could “drop over dead” at any moment; the personal connection already exists. But “people connect to people,” not to political talking points in a film, so it was crucial that An Inconvenient Truth contain a narrative thread.

With that in mind, I asked Gore if he ever feels like he’s going through the motions as he delivers his lecture to yet another huge crowd. “That’s a good question,” he said thoughtfully, before explaining that each repetition is slightly different. He’ll switch around the order of the slides, or include a new fact from a site like RealClimate.org (which, coincidentally, is “on [his] home page”). Of course, commitment to the cause keeps him focused. “I’ve been trying to spread this message for the past 30 years,” Gore said emphatically, and it hit me that that’s longer than most of my friends have been alive. Some may continue to question the validity of global warming—in the face of rock-solid evidence—but Gore’s dedication to the cause is unassailable.

To my delight, Gore came across as extremely well read, and not just as a frequent visitor to blogs about the environment. (Ever the dutiful U of C student, I mentioned that our own Raymond T. Pierrehumbert is a frequent contributor to RealClimate.org, to which Gore replied, “Tell your professor that he’s doing a good job.”) Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business is a favorite of Gore’s, and I knew from the question-and-answer session after the previous night’s screening at AMC River East 21 that he is well versed in the works of Mark Twain and Upton Sinclair. But nothing could have prepared me for the cerebral turn our conversation was about to take.

The conversation veered in a radically different direction when my fellow journalist asked Gore about the state of democracy. In a world where a second-term president coins such malapropisms as “nucular,” Gore’s articulate nature is welcome (though I should note here that Gore rarely mentions the current administration, disparagingly or otherwise). We learned that Gore’s senior thesis was on the impact of television on the Constitution (who knew?), and it looked as if we had touched upon another favorite talking point. “[Our] conversation of democracy isn’t operating the way it should,” Gore insisted, before adding importantly that “Thomas Paine, in the television age, cannot break into the democracy.”

How our conversation got around to the author of Common Sense, I’ll never know—but having just finished a senior thesis of my own, I could appreciate Gore’s willingness to revisit the topic. Unfortunately, before I could ask him to elaborate, his assistant informed us that our designated 20-minute interview time was almost up. I shook the great man’s hand and wished him luck in Toronto, which is where the film was headed the following morning.

Damn, I didn’t get to ask him about The Day After Tomorrow.

Fortunately, if we get a hankering for more Gore, there are several ways to satisfy our craving. An Inconvenient Truth opens in theaters on June 2, and the day before, Gore’s new network, Current TV, debuts on Comcast’s channel 107. Current’s slogan is “the TV network created by the people who watch it”—apparently for the aspiring Thomas Paines out there (including a few at the U of C).

I’ve interviewed heroes of mine before, like sex columnist Dan Savage, and I must say that Gore was one of my warmest subjects. Occasionally, I couldn’t believe what was coming out of his mouth: the television rant, quoting Melissa Etheridge during the question-and-answer session, comparing his interviews in the film to a particularly painful bout in therapy. But in the end, his sincerity seemed revolutionary—thrilling, somehow. It was the perfect correlative to An Inconvenient Truth, which, after all, Gore considers “the ultimate action movie.” He just might be right.