When Al Gore sits at the desk in his corner office on 17th Street,he can see, just a couple of blocks southeast, the West Wing of theWhite House. No, he didn't sit at this desk while writing TheAssault on Reason, his angry, insightful new book, now number oneon The New York Times best-seller list. Easy though it may be toenvision the former vice president furiously tapping out hisanti-Bush jeremiad while staring daggers at the Oval Office, Gorenotes that, in fact, he rarely uses this space, which houses hisfirm, Generation Investment Management.
When I arrive on a recent Wednesday morning, Gore hands me a signedcopy of his book and settles into a cushioned chair. In person,Gore has a commanding, even intimidating, presence uncommon amongpoliticians. Yes, he's physically large; but he's also a littledistant, which makes him seem more authoritative. A few nightsearlier, I had watched Charlie Rose interview Gore at the 92ndStreet Y in New York, and, during a few exchanges, Gore turned thetables on him, pointedly asking Rose to clarify a ramblingstatement, which the host then struggled to explain. Similarly,several times during a recent TV interview with Diane Sawyer, Goregently ridiculed her for asking about the 2008 horserace or hisweight, rather than the substance of his book. "Listen to yourquestions," he admonished at one point. Gore believes he has writtena serious book, and he is in no mood to suffer fools. The nightbefore our meeting, I had a nightmare about the interview.
Imagine that, for years, you had been right about everything, or atleast everything that mattered: the war, global warming, thefederal budget, the radicalism of the Bush presidency. You, too,might search for a unified theory to explain why it took so longfor so many Americans to come to conclusions that had seemedobvious to you. That's what inspired The Assault on Reason. It'sGore's explanation for why the catastrophe of the Bush years tookplace.
Gore thinks in terms of systems. He isn't content merely to describea problem, but rather tries to understand the underlying structuresthat enable it. This was true of his early forays into ecology, hisreinventing government effort in the Clinton years, and hisstrategic thinking on arms control and foreign policy generally.It's even true of his investment firm, which his partner, DavidBlood, recently described as taking a "systems view" when seekingcompanies for its portfolio.
Lately, Gore has also taken a systems view of the Bush years. Thestory of the structural dysfunction behind the last six-and-a-halfyears begins, according to Gore, with a brief history of therelationship between the press and democracy. "Democracy is aconversation," Gore tells me, crossing his legs and speaking inmeasured, perfect paragraphs. "And the way any conversation unfoldshas implications for what kind of conversation it is, what resultsor conclusions are reached, how they are reached. Americandemocracy was intended to be a robust and vigorous multi-wayconversation that individuals could join freely without anysignificant barriers."
"The First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of speech, freedom ofthe press, freedom to petition the government, freedom ofassembly," he continues, "were all aimed at protecting the freedomand integrity of that conversation that our Founders felt was atthe heart of representative democracy. To an extent that was notappreciated at the time, that conversation was based on aparticular kind of expression, the printed word."
But things went awry with the decline of print. "Just as theprinting press, " Gore says, "had overturned the medievalinformation monopoly that supported feudalism, a half-century agothe printing press itself was replaced as the dominant medium byelectronic broadcasting in the particular form of television--over the air, over cable, over satellite. ... To take one example,in the last elections in the contested races, candidates in bothparties spent an average of eighty percent of their campaign budgetnot on the Internet or pamphlets or magazine ads but onthirty-second television ads. That's what works now, and the way itworks is troubling. It's not a multi-way conversation or even atwo- way conversation. It is often a manipulative exerciseutilizing the tools of persuasion that were developed byadvertisers of commercial products in conjunction withpsychologists and researchers who plumb the inner workings of ourthought process in order to devise ways to deemphasize logic andfacts and reason."
I suggest to Gore that I'm surprised by the pessimism of the bookand the emphasis he places on the effects of television at the verymoment when interactive media may be on the cusp of replacing TV asthe dominant means of communication. He motions for me to pass himmy copy of the book, and he flips to the last chapter. "I want toread you this sentence," Gore says. "'I feel more confident thanever before that democracy will prevail and that the Americanpeople are rising to the challenge of reinvigorating selfgovernment. '" There's more: "'Broadband interconnection issupporting decentralized processes that reinvigorate democracy. Wecan see it happening before our eyes. As a society we are gettingsmarter. Network democracy is taking hold.'"
When I shift the conversation to the Democratic Party, Gore isalmost as withering as he was when discussing Bush. "Both partiesfailed the country," he says, speaking of the run-up to the war."But the Democratic Party did not distinguish itself, to say theleast." Once again, though, Gore presents his critique in terms ofa broken system, rather than bad actors. "I do not point fingers atindividual senators or members of Congress or party leaders fortheir failure to speak up," he says. "I focus in this book on thestructural changes that made it more likely than not that theycould get away with being silent." He cites the pressure to spendtime raising money and other factors that have led to the declineof real debate in the Senate and, again, the related problem ofvoters being isolated from a robust national conversation.
When I ask what he thinks of the current debate among Democraticpresidential aspirants, Gore interrupts me.
"Is there one?" he asks sarcastically.
"Is there not?" I reply.
"What is it?"
"That's why I'm trying to figure out--"
"If you find out, let me know."
But, again, he pulls back from what is obviously a slap at theDemocrats running for president. "I don't want to be critical ofthe candidates. That's not my intention," he says. "I don't thinkthe modern campaign process facilitates a genuine exchange ofideas. It's multiple overlapping games of gotcha, and who can readthe polls and the focus groups most skillfully and discern some newmanipulative option that can be quickly parlayed into a couple ofpercentage points in the next poll and parlay that into greaterfund-raising totals by the end of the next reporting period." It'salmost as if he feels sorry for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obamaand the others, as if they are hamsters locked in the cage of abroken political process, a cage that Gore is all too familiar withand does not seem to miss.
But will he reenter the cage nonetheless? The great challenge thatGore will face if he chooses to run for president is how to makethe wrenching transition from outside critic of the politicalsystem to inside participant. Obama, another systems analyst with apowerful indictment of politics, has been trying to make a similarconversion and has achieved mixed results. I tried to get Gore todiscuss how he might do things differently this time. He resistedthe question but did offer this: "If I were a candidate, I wouldseek to engage people in a robust exchange of ideas on all thesequestions and find ways to use the new tools effectively." In asense, that's what he's already doing.
By Ryan Lizza; For a full transcript of Ryan Lizza's interview withGore, go to tnr.com.