IT'S THE 30TH ANNIVERSARY of Earth Day, and Vice-President Al Gore, looking sporty in his denim-on-denim casual wear, is cooling his heels in a backstage holding area on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., mingling with a VIP cast that includes Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol Browner, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, and Natural Resources Defense Council senior attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. It's supposed to be a celebration of all things good and green, but even Al Gore, the man with a cerebrum the size of two ozone holes, has to wait for his turn at the podium, where he'll be grabbing some prime-time exposure as the environmental movement's Most Valuable Player. That was the plan, anyway. But last night a little Cuban boy was snatched from his cousin's closet, and so the TV anchors are all chattering about someone else. That and the gray, drizzly weather threaten to rain on Al's parade and dampen the spirits of the 10,000-plus crowd of Ben & Jerry's bohemians and teenage girls who are currently screaming for Leonardo DiCaprio, Mother Earth's hot date for the day.
Standing in the wings, waiting for Gore's speech, I buttonhole RFK Jr. With everybody else swept up in Leomania, it seems a good time to get Kennedy—as much an activist as he is a party insider—talking about Gore's past, present, and future on the environmental front.
"This administration isn't going to be remembered for any large accomplishment," Kennedy says matter-of-factly of the eight-year Clinton-Gore reign in the Oval Office. "They were stuck fighting a rear-guard action since 1995." (He's referring to the infamous Gingrich-led takeover of Congress in November 1994, a GOP conquest so complete that it pushed proposed environmental laws—and most other legislation—to a new level of bipartisan warfare.) "I think Gore is going to make his own mark," Kennedy continues, envisioning a Gore White House come fall. "But he is not going to make his mark in history unless he does what he said in his book he is going to do."
Therein lies Al Gore's dilemma: Although he's perhaps the most environmental-minded elected official in American history, he can't get a break, even from many of his friends, who sound more like loyal opposition than true believers. He put his green dreams on the table in his book Earth in the Balance, first published just before he and Clinton were elected in 1992 (it was recently reissued, with an unapologetic new foreword, in conjunction with Earth Day 2000) and now the world is waiting to see if he will live up to his own high ambitions. Despite praise from the Sierra Club and other heavy hitters, Gore continues to face trust problems with hard-to-please green groups like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, which are still smarting over the Clinton administration's early stumbles on environmental legislation. Green Party candidate Ralph Nader is busy trying to poach Gore's eco-constituency in California, perhaps tipping the traditionally Democratic state's 54 crucial electoral votes to Bush. On the right, Governor George W. Bush and his surrogates are gearing up to attack Gore as a global-warming-crazed federal elitist who would let the economy tumble to save a turtle. It seems almost surreal, but the environment—arguably the issue Gore feels more strongly about, and knows more about, than any other—may end up hurting him rather than helping him come November.