Presidential Timber

Will Al Gore's green vision lead him to the Oval Office? Knock on wood.

   
 
   

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.


 
   
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."


 
   
 
IF GORE HAD BEEN in his West Wing office on July 28, 1995, he would have heard the growl of 21 chainsaws just beyond the White House gates. The Sierra Club and other green groups were leading a mock salute to the Rescissions Bill, signed into law by Bill Clinton the day before—a piece of compromise legislation that included the infamous "salvage rider," which gave regional foresters the go-ahead to sell precious stands of old-growth trees to timber companies without public comment. Clinton had vetoed the bill once, and though Gore had implored him to veto it again, the president signed it the second time, in part because he was still testing the waters with the new GOP Congress.

"The salvage rider was the bottom," says the Sierra Club's Carl Pope. "That was the nadir."

The Clinton administration had started out with fervent support from the Group of Ten, which includes the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, and the World Wildlife Fund. And from the outset, Gore drove the White House's environmental agenda, snagging cabinet posts for like-minded colleagues such as Carol Browner, his former legislative director, who became head of the Environmental Protection Agency; and his old House and Senate colleague Tim Wirth, who was put in charge of environmental policy at the State Department. He also nudged along Bruce Babbitt's successful bid for Secretary of the Interior.

But in the administration's opening months, Gore helped green-light proposals to raise the rates ranchers pay to graze cattle on public rangeland, as well as mining fees. The provisions raised hackles throughout the Rocky Mountain states, and two Senate Democrats—Montana's Max Baucus and Colorado's Ben Nighthorse Campbell—led the opposition. The proposals were abruptly removed from the budget. Blow number one for Gore and the greens.

The vice-president was also trying to make environmental issues a priority in Clinton's first major economic package. If we're going to raise taxes to lower the deficit, Gore in effect proposed, let's do it in an innovative way that will help the environment. He began by attempting to sell Senate Democratic leaders on a "BTU tax," a levy assessed on energy consumption that would, in Gorespeak, "incentivize" businesses to stop using so much electricity and fuel. The Senate, not yet under GOP control, rejected the BTU approach as too bold and too complicated, and in October 1993 it instituted a 4.3 percent gasoline tax instead. Blow number two.

"The first two and a half years, the relationship was much more troublesome," Pope says of Clinton's and Gore's early attempts at reform. "They would toss things out there and then drop them." Inside the administration, appointees who left green groups to work for the White House were tongue-tied when they tried to explain such decisions to their old friends in the advocacy community. George Frampton, a former president of the Wilderness Society who is now the acting chairman of the President's Council on Environmental Quality, acknowledges that executive-branch decision-makers were in disarray: "The strategy was, at the first sign of hostile fire, take the flag down and bury it in the basement."

But nothing unites political allies like a common enemy, and in 1994 the American people gave the green groups and the administration a big one: the GOP-controlled Congress, led by Newt Gingrich and his Contract with America revolutionaries. Using public-opinion data compiled by his green allies, the vice-president was able to convince campaign strategist Dick Morris that the environment was an issue the White House could use against the GOP. Morris helped to come up with a mantra to remind voters of the favored government programs that Gingrich's Contract with America forces would harm, recalls Katie McGinty, a former Gore Senate staffer who was running the White House Office of Environmental Policy at the time but has since returned to private law practice. "Medicaid, Medicare, education, and the environment," McGinty recites. "It's still music to my ears."

According to Robert Kennedy Jr., Gore played a crucial role in keeping green leaders' spirits up and making environmental issues a key part of the White House counterattack. "He said, 'You have to hold firm. These issues are real, and they're going to come back. You have to stick with us on this.' He really rallied the troops."

By the end of summer 1995, the president confronted more appropriations bills in a succession of omnibus spending packages, many of which had deal-breaking environmental provisions buried within them. Three times, Clinton stared down the Republicans over bills he wouldn't sign, even though his refusal meant that no federal money would be available to pay civil servants. The government shutdowns in late 1995 and early 1996 were the result of over-our-dead-bodies green causes: the opening of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil-company drills and a government-wide review of all established environmental regulations to see if the costs outweighed the benefits. Clinton finally signed, but only after the devastating environmental contingencies were removed.

The unpopular government shutdowns, a burgeoning economy, and a Bob Dole campaign that was going nowhere ensured that, by September 1996, the Clinton-Gore comeback was nearly complete. That month, the president, egged on by Gore and other administration greens, enraged Utah Republicans by creating the vast Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. But the move played well with the electorate, and in November Clinton and Gore won a decisive victory and a second term.


 
   
 
GORE HAS TAKEN A LOT OF FLACK for his tireless crusade to warn Americans about the threat of global warming. On the stump in 1992, President George Bush mockingly dubbed him Ozone Man, and the Wall Street Journal's editorial page and other conservative voices were witheringly dismissive of his concerns during the first Clinton-Gore term. But over time Gore's position has moved into the mainstream, a fact of which he is proud. He devotes much of the new foreword of Earth in the Balance to charts and emerging data that essentially say I told you so. Yet there's still a certain sci-fi surrealism to hearing the vice-president of the United States talk about the environmental future with near-apocalyptic alarm, as I discover when I ask him about the threat of dramatic global climate change.

"In our time, the CO2 graph is just going right through the roof," he tells me, eyes widening as he leans forward in his chair. "For 400,000 years, as far back as we can measure, these CO2 and temperature levels have gone up and down in lockstep, and now we're pushing the world over the brink of a new reality—CO2 levels not seen in tens of millions of years. The magnitude of changes now in prospect are far larger on the warm side than the changes on the cold side that produced ice ages. The increasing frequency of violent weather events is in keeping with the volatility that scientists have told us to anticipate with global warming. Stronger storms, melting ice, rising sea levels."

As staffers and lobbyists know, such disquisitions are an occupational hazard of coming in contact with a brainiac. "It's always a challenge to brief him," says George Frampton. "He's the only elected official I've met who can go two or three steps ahead of you on something you think you know a lot about."

Gore knew going in that Clinton, a prodigious wonk, could match him chart-for-chart. As the administration took office in early 1993, the vice-president fought for and won a much-prized weekly luncheon slot with his new boss and worked hard to keep it on the commander-in-chief's schedule for seven years. In each meeting, Gore attests (and others confirm), the vice-president would brief Clinton on an important environmental issue.

In December 1997, the president sent Gore to lead the U.S. delegation to the Global Climate Change conference in Kyoto, Japan. Going to Kyoto was risky for the future presidential candidate: Big-city mayors and big businesses were already squawking about an EPA push for tougher air pollution standards, and there was dissension in the White House over whether the U.S. should even participate in the conference. Gore took a chance and returned from Kyoto having signed a stronger commitment—a 7 percent reduction of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels—than the Clinton administration had originally conceived. "It was the most courageous and important thing that Al Gore has ever done," NRDC's Director of Programs Greg Wetstone told a reporter not long after the Kyoto summit. Congress, however, considered the proposal dead on arrival and refused to hold powerful industries to stricter air pollution standards. Gore has repeatedly vowed to make Senate ratification of the Kyoto agreement a key goal if he is elected.

Though the vice-president can cite a long list of environmental accomplishments over the last eight years, some critics charge that the list is short on substance. "The Clinton-Gore administration simply hasn't been an environmental administration," says Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth, a group that endorsed Bill Bradley during the primaries. "For the most part they've been an environmental rhetoric administration. When we look at key areas like ozone layer protection, trade agreements, Clean Water Act protection, fuel economy standards, and mountaintop-removal coal mining, the Clinton-Gore administration's record is poor at best." Others rap Gore as a politician who will take on easy battles—as in 1997, when he and Clinton pledged $50 million to clean up Lake Tahoe—and let harder ones fall by the wayside. Moderates, however, tend to give Gore credit for helping to hold off GOP assaults on existing environmental laws in the mid-1990s. "It was like performing brain surgery in the middle of a hurricane," says Sierra Club political director Daniel J. Weiss. Even Blackwelder has at least a few kind words: "To be fair, the administration has enacted key land protection measures and helped to safeguard our national monuments and national parks."

Most important, Gore won over a major convert to the green cause: Bill Clinton. The legacy-conscious Clinton has pushed Congress in the last four years to protect 81 million federally managed acres against intrusion from chainsaws and bulldozers. That's spitting distance from Jimmy Carter's record of protecting 100 million acres, which he accomplished through a sweeping lockup of Alaskan forest, mountain, and tundra. According to Frampton, after years of lunchtime learning, Clinton now mentions the global warming crisis in every meeting with a foreign head of state and cites it along with education and race relations as one of the three things he wants to work on for the rest of his life. And that's because of Al Gore.


 
   
GORE TRACES HIS GREEN roots back to when his father, three-term Democratic Senator Albert S. Gore of Tennessee, made him work as a summer hand on the family farm in Carthage, east of Nashville. When Al was in his early teens, his mother, Pauline, now 87, read and was deeply affected by Silent Spring, Rachel Carson's 1962 book on pesticides and their devastating effect on birds and the larger ecosystem. Gore remembers impassioned discussions on the subject around the dinner table.

When Gore took his predestined place in Harvard's Class of '69, he soon came under the tutelage of oceanography professor Roger Revelle, a pioneer in global-warming theory who had begun collecting carbon-dioxide data from atop Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano in 1957. (In the 1980s, at the first congressional hearing on global warming, young Representative Gore invited Revelle to be the lead-off witness.) In his early twenties, Gore briefly morphed into a longhaired, motorcycle-riding pot smoker, but five days after graduating from Harvard he enlisted in the U.S. Army. He married his high-school sweetheart, Tipper Aitcheson, before he landed in Vietnam as an Army journalist in early 1971. When he returned five months later, he set out to earn a master's degree at Vanderbilt University's Divinity School while working as a reporter at the Nashville Tennessean—but not before a taste of the open road.

"When he first came back from Vietnam," Tipper Gore says, "we went all around the country, camping out of the trunk, going from national park to national park." They drove an old Chevy Impala, packed a Coleman stove, a lantern, and a tent; and camped their way across Michigan, Wisconsin, South Dakota, the Pacific Northwest, California, and then back across the Southwest to Tennessee. Thus began 30-plus years of outdoor excursions, later with four kids in tow: swimming in a creek on the family farm;rafting 225 miles down the Colorado River the summer of 1994. Last August Gore and his 17-year-old son, Albert, summited Washington's 14,410-foot Mount Rainier, along with several nervous Secret Service agents and mountain guides who watched as the Gores trudged through hail and lightning.

Throughout his 15-year career in the House and Senate, Gore made the environment one of his leading causes, and he made it the key theme of his unsuccessful campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988. The loss was a searing one for Gore, who had hoped voters were ready for a talking head who spoke green. A year later, Gore's son, Albert, then six, was hit and critically wounded by a car outside a Baltimore baseball stadium. While his son recovered, Gore rethought his priorities, and one result was Earth in the Balance. (Some men get through a midlife crisis with an extravagant car purchase; Gore issued extravagant policy directives.)

Today, Gore stands by the bold claims he made in the book—holding Detroit to its promise to develop cleaner engines, proselytizing population control, arguing for sustainable development guided by "A Global Marshall Plan," and making a Kennedyesque call for a "Mission to Planet Earth." This is the very stuff Governor Bush will almost certainly rip out of the pages of Earth in the Balance to mock and criticize come fall, but whether Gore's green cri de coeur helps or hurts him is for the voters to decide.


 
   
 
FOR NOW, IT'S DOUBTFUL the environment will become a make-or-break campaign issue for either candidate. For very different reasons, both Gore and Bush may not want to take off the gloves and batter their opponent too vehemently on environmental issues, choosing instead to focus on topics like prescription-drug benefits for the elderly, education, downsizing the government, and the economy. But keeping his environmental passions on a short leash must be frustrating for Gore, in part because doing so reinforces a widespread negative perception: that he's too stiff and calculating, too much the politician and not enough of a leader.

Out on Tipper's patio, one of the few times the vice-president seems to bridle comes during a discussion of the recent protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle and the World Bank in Washington. "I think the vast majority of the demonstrators have behaved very responsibly," he says cautiously, "and they've helped to focus attention on issues that might otherwise not receive the same degree of public attention." But then I point out that many of those protesters brand him a practitioner of "the politics of incrementalism," a man trapped by the small-step-by-small-step form of governance he decries in Earth in the Balance.

"This administration, in part because of my urging and advocacy, has been the most active in protecting the environment of any administration in history, with the possible exception of Teddy Roosevelt," Gore fires back. "We have protected the Everglades and Yellowstone and the California desert. We have toughened the standards for clean air and for clean water. We have moved boldly on recycling, on global warming with the Kyoto Agreement. We've created this partnership with the automobile industry to create a new generation of vehicles. The list is a very long one, and I think that record really speaks for itself."

The problem: The record does speak for itself, but measured against Gore's own environmental goals, the accomplishments still seem like increments. After fighting rear-guard actions for eight years, and after all the further compromises he may need to make in order to win his current boss's job, will Al Gore finally become a fearless environmental risk-taker? Do Americans even want to follow such a leader down a rocky road to difficult solutions?

The ironies multiply. The day the new edition of Earth in the Balance is published finds candidate Gore on his way to a campaign stop in Detroit in a large motorcade led by a patrol car and a Secret Service Chevy Suburban. Gore rides in the back of his own gas-guzzling armored Cadillac Fleetwood limo. "I've cut down on the size of my motorcades quite a bit," Gore says with resignation. "But so long as we face the terrorist threat that we do, they insist upon the heavy armored vehicles. They don't come in solar form."  

Ned Martel is the chief political correspondent for Voter.com and a former senior editor at George.


 
More Adventure

Holiday Subscription Sale! Save 79% and Get a Free Gift!

Subscribe
Pinterest Icon