It was a far-fetched scenario as recently as a year ago, but Al Gore is quietly making something of a political comeback. Moderate Democrats who despair that the early frontrunner for their party’s 2008 presidential nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, is likely unelectable, can’t help remembering that Gore won half a million more votes than George W. Bush in 2000. Meanwhile, the party’s base voters, appreciably more to the left than the country at large and angry at what they perceive to be Clinton’s drift to the center, are looking for someone other than her to carry the anti-Bush, antiwar banner.
Enter Gore. “Democrats, writes Ezra Klein in the April issue of the liberal American Prospect, are “taking a fresh look at a man they thought they knew” – a man, Klein adds, who seems to be trying “to reinvent himself.”
Gore is, of course, a master at the art of reinvention, having morphed over the years from a generally conservative, hawkish, anti-abortion congressman (whose wife led the fight to label records for the content of their lyrics) into a Howard Dean clone – someone who appears most comfortable when shouting anti-Republican invective in front of crowds of left-wing activists whose worldview is small enough to fit on a placard. (“Bush lied. People died.”)
While it’s true that successful politicians learn to adapt to changing times and expectations, the best of them manage to do so while retaining a set of core beliefs and at least a modicum of principle. With Gore, however, there’s such an obvious transparency to his ideological shifts that he might as well have the word “phony” tattooed onto his forehead.
Gore, wrote Reason magazine editor Nick Gillespie back in 1996, “may even be more contemptible than most [politicians] since he has proven himself willing to exploit personal tragedy for public gain.” Gillespie, referring to Gore’s shockingly disingenuous stand on tobacco, continued:
Remember his emotional, apparently heartfelt comments at the Democratic National Convention about his sister’s tobacco-related death? After choking up during the speech, Gore rode a tidal wave of new-found sympathy and respect…. But Gore was hardly being open or honest about his relationship to tobacco, and a fuller accounting of the matter makes it impossible to escape the conclusion that the vice president is little more than a shameless hypocrite who will stop at nothing to pull votes his way.
In his speech, Gore recounted how his sister Nancy had started smoking as a teenager and eventually died from lung cancer at age 45 in 1984. “Three thousand young people in America will start smoking tomorrow,” said Gore, who lauded President Clinton’s limits on cigarette advertising. “One thousand of them will die a death not unlike my sister’s. And that is why until I draw my last breath, I will pour my heart and soul into the cause of protecting our children from the dangers of smoking.”
Oddly, though, it took quite a while for this political fire to catch in Gore’s belly. While he helped sponsor 1983 legislation that led to new warning labels on tobacco products, until very recently he usually boasted of his tobacco connections. When he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988 – four years after his sister’s death – Gore bragged to a North Carolina audience, “Throughout most of my life, I raised tobacco. I want you to know that with my own hands, all of my life, I’ve sprayed it, I’ve chopped it, I’ve shredded it, spiked it, put it in the barn and stripped it, and sold it.”
That same year, Gore, then a senator from tobacco-rich Tennessee, wrote a letter to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette stating, “I do not believe the answer to curbing our nation’s tobacco use lies in banning tobacco advertising or in prohibiting tobacco use” – two policies he now backs vociferously.
There’s more: The day after his speech at [the 1996] Democratic convention, he admitted to receiving campaign donations from tobacco companies through 1990…. He also acknowledged that his family continued to grow tobacco on their farm and that he got paid for leasing additional property for tobacco production for years after his sister’s death.
And then there’s this breathtaking account of political exploitation from veteran columnist Roger Simon, who in his book on the 1988 presidential campaign, Road Show, described a visit by candidate Gore right before the New York Democratic primary to the neonatal intensive care unit of Interfaith Medical Center in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn:
We look around and see these babies, incredibly small, doll size, almost doll-like, until you see their little hearts beating against their chests or catch the wave of a tiny arm. All sorts of tubes and lines run out of them. Some are in little plastic boxes called Isolettes. Others are in specially warmed beds, hooked to respirators with tubes that snake into their mouths and down their throats….