|GORE TAKES THE PODIUM as the squeals for Leo subside, and he begins his classic environmental speech, a commanding and urgent yet somehow less-than-electrifying call to arms. He wants to combat global warming and suburban sprawl; to protect our forests, our rivers, and our public lands; and to push for cleaner fuels and better air quality. He wants to make the next ten years the Environment Decade, during which conservation values will walk hand-in-hand with economic prosperity. The fate of the Earth itself—you guessed it—hangs in the balance. "Save it we can, and save it we must," he intones, "for this is the great responsibility of our generation."
A little over an hour later, the vice-president has repaired to the balcony of his wife Tipper's suite in the Old Executive Office Building, within shouting distance of the Oval Office, to sit for our interview. Up close, Al Gore is an impressively fit and forceful presence. His blue eyes are always on the alert, but a few orthodontic irregularities in his bottom teeth make his face seem friendlier, less Clark Kentish. He keeps in shape by jogging and working out with an Ab Roller in his small Air Force Two cabin; today, as he often does, he wears black cowboy boots that let him loom a good two inches higher than his six-foot-one frame could otherwise manage.
Gore leans back and rests one booted foot on his thigh, the Washington Monument floating in the distance behind him. So, what would America look like if Al Gore were running things?
"We'd have cleaner air and cleaner water," he proclaims, if not loudly, then urgently. "We would have a brighter future, not threatened by the specter of global warming. We would have a better chance to solve the other global environmental problems that we face, the loss of endangered species, destruction of the rainforest, poisoning of the oceans, and loss of ocean fishery. The list—there's a long one. But if we solve the underlying problem of how to promote economic development and growth while reducing pollution and the destruction of the environment, then the rest of it will follow."
Gore's slight southern drawl pulls each word along in interviews, as he slows down his speech for scribbling reporters. But now he's revving into campaign mode and the ideas start to tumble out. To wit: We can't correct our own domestic pollution mistakes and be done with the task. Gore wants a global mandate. "In developing countries, with growing populations and crowded cities, the air pollution and water pollution burdens are far worse than what we experience," he says, shaking his head ruefully. "Their governments are eager to gain access to a new generation of technologies that will allow improvements in the standard of living for their people, while actually reducing the burden of pollution."
How then does he intend to get the notoriously skittish American public to accept environmental reform that could potentially throw the booming economy off kilter? "I am completely convinced that there is huge economic opportunity for the United States," he says, "if we can get out in front of this emerging giant market for renewable energy, new technologies that allow reduced pollution while increasing living standards." In essence, clean up your filthy industrial act, make green initiatives a hot growth sector, and the good times will keep rolling.
Gore knows that his sometimes controversial environmental stances over the last eight years will become a campaign issue, and he launches a preemptive strike on environmentally do-nothing House and Senate Republicans, whom he's eager to see booted from the majority this fall. "We have fought hard," he insists, anticipating the why-hasn't-more-happened cry, "but the position in Congress is very strong right now. And that's why I want to make this an issue in the presidential election campaign, to ask people for a mandate to urge Congress to move forward." When I ask whether he believes that antienvironmental legislators are finding common cause with Governor Bush, Gore replies emphatically, "There's no question. No question." A moment later he adds, "The environment used to be a bipartisan issue. It's relatively new to have almost the entire Republican Party adopt an aggressive antienvironmentalist stance, even though the rank-and-file Republican voters don't feel that way."
Although his new foreword to Earth in the Balance cites Houston as having the worst air pollution in the nation, Gore was happy to sit back and let environmental leaders take potshots at Bush this spring— leaders like Deb Callahan, president of the League of Conservation Voters, an alliance that includes more than 40 environmental groupsand which recently endorsed Gore; and Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, which ran an ad slamming Bush for Texas's air pollution problems. In the run-up to the Democratic convention, in mid-August, Gore will try to stay positive and court the Erin Brockovich vote with proposals for laws to keep tap water clean so your kids won't get sick, to reduce air pollution to relieve your child's asthma, etc. But Gore spokesman Chris Lehane says that the vice-president will more aggressively use Bush's environmental record against him in the campaign rough and tumble this fall. "There's a stark difference between him and the governor, which we haven't been reticent about pointing out in the past and will continue to do so in the future," Lehane says. "Real questions are raised about the stewardship or lack of stewardship on the environment in Texas. Just follow the smoking campaign contributions and you'll know why."