If you want to scare people, you need a bogeyman.
For the assortment of politicians, lobbyists, provocateurs and media personalities who are trying to convince us we shouldn’t do anything about climate change, that bogeyman is Al Gore.
Maybe, the former vice president’s manner draws this kind of thing upon him. An Inconvenient Truth was a startling comeback for the losing presidential candidate. You can’t get much higher kudos than an Academy Award and the Nobel Peace Prize.
But Gore's kind of geeky for a pop-culture icon. He’s stiff and stentorian -- at least in his public image, not the first guy you’d want to drink a beer with. He’s the opposite of the smooth “Teflon” politicians -- Reagan, Clinton, Obama -- whose charisma causes sticky questions to slide off of their backs with no damage.
That Teflon makes a handy shield, and Gore could have used a bit of it. Sticky questions, and even untrue anecdotes, always seemed to glom onto him. Remember “I invented the Internet”? Gore supposedly boasted of that feat. Actually, he never said that.
But political adversaries and talk-radio hosts repeated the falsehood so often that it came to be largely accepted as fact. After all, a big officious guy who seems to carefully parse every statement he makes is easy to cast as grownup Eddie Haskell.
Today, many of the same folks who pushed the invented-the-Internet canard are holding up Gore as the poster child of global warming alarmists. Their basic storyline is that the former vice president is only pushing the climate change “myth” because he’s investing in companies that will benefit from restrictions on carbon dioxide. They also throw in that he’s a hypocrite because he uses carbon -- by merely breathing.
The climate-denial blogosphere has kept that talk at a low boil, since An Inconvenient Truth hit movie screens in 2006. Now, with Congress considering major climate change legislation, the talk is getting overheated.
In April, a congresswoman from Gore’s home state tried to get him to admit that he would profit from global warming. Gore proved himself more adept at handling the stage than Rep. Marsha Blackman.
I don’t see how anyone can argue that he’s not walking the walk on reducing his own carbon-footprint: “My home is Gold LEED certified (by the U.S. Green Building Council) powered with a geothermal system for heating and air conditioning and 33-solar photovoltaic panels. We purchase electricity from the green power programs offered by our utility (which obtains the “green” electricity from wind and solar sources rather than fossil fuels). We use the most energy efficient windows, appliances and other products for lighting and insulation. We also participate in a program to become carbon neutral. We drive hybrid-electric vehicles and fly commercially whenever it is possible.”
The financial issues are more complicated. Some critics find it suspicious that Gore has managed to grow his fortune from $2 million when he left public office in 2000 to a reported $100 million by the middle of the decade. As reported elsewhere, much of that increase was largely helped by investments in Google, where he served on the board just as the company was gaining dominance, and by his co-founding of Current TV, the wildly successful user-generated cable documentary channel. (You may have heard of Current in the news; two of their journalists were recently sentenced to 12 years of hard labor in North Korea.)
Surely, connections helped Gore in business -- former vice presidents do tend to be well connected -- but those two well-timed investments also indicate that the guy’s made some pretty good bets.
At any rate, neither Google nor Current TV could be classified as “climate change” investments. “Virtually all that I have earned has come from companies in the media and information technology sector,” he texted MNN. “Moreover, my wife and I have made substantial donations to support the Alliance for Climate Protection [a group he helped found], and its work to address the climate crisis. We have also made substantial contributions to The Climate Project [another group he co-founded], which also addresses the climate crisis. I also support my personal staff, the majority of whom spend most or all of their time on global warming.”
I’ve posted Gore’s full responses here.
Despite the detail, one short sentence is likely to make his critics feel they still have an opening. “Now that I am in private life,” he said, “my family finances are private.”
In other words, you can’t peek at the documents that may (or may not) put this brouhaha to rest for good. I can already hear Bill O’Reilly: “See. See. He’s got something to hide, I tell you!”
Think about it, though. Isn’t it bit of a double standard to try to hold Gore to the disclosure that he was being held to when he was a public office holder? If environmental advocates ought to reveal where their money is being put, what about the anti-environmental crowd?
Wait a second: There’s a lot more quick and certain profit in the oil and coal sector if carbon caps aren’t approved by Congress. Where is the money coming from to fund all those climate-change skeptics? They haven’t revealed their personal finances. For that matter, what are the private finances and investments of the media personalities who question global warming? Do they stand gain?
The logic of that argument doesn’t matter. Gore is still the skeptics’ bogeyman. Not a day goes by without a column, blog or cable news segment that casually takes a stab at him, often for his supposed profiteering.
My favorite recent example was an “exclusive” on Fox’s O’Reilly Factor. It was breathlessly promoted all day. “Apparently, Al Gore is becoming extremely wealthy with all the global warming stuff,” O’Reilly said in teasing the segment early in his show.
Viewers are likely to remember the words of the tease, but will they remember that the story didn’t back those words up? It turned out to be, really … nothing: A reporter simply was recycling a previous O’Reilly Factor opinion essay that had recycled a brief, unsourced newspaper editorial that had recycled the years-old information that Gore is wealthier now than when he left office.
Gore labored for years with the reputation that he was too much of a stiff to be a good politician. Now he has emerged in many Americans’ minds as the guy who can be trusted because he is a bit geeky. That narrative of this supposedly unloved guy journeying back from a torturous personal disappointment on behalf of an important cause would be powerful enough to build up good will even if there was reason to believe he was profiteering. The vilification doesn’t stick anymore. Finally, the guy has Teflon.
As if to prove that, last week, the former vice president passed a milestone as a pop-culture icon: He joined Britney Spears and Ashton Kutcher as one of the few celebrities with more than a million Twitter followers. It seems the bogeyman isn’t scaring everyone away.