The Gorian Knot

The environment and Al Gore, not the same thing

Remember Al Gore, Press Pariah? The Al Gore derided as wooden and pompous and, worst of all, boring?

Well, Press Pariah, meet Captain Planet. While Saturday’s Live Earth concerts, as Curtis Brainard noted, got largely cynical reactions in the press, Gore—environmental advocate, Oscar winner, Geldofian concert coordinator—received treatment that generally ranged from subtle endorsement to all-out, Keats-on-uppers-style odes. Media coverage of Live Earth’s poster child suggested, oddly, that the only thing hotter than the world’s climate is Gore himself.

“On Saturday,” began Salon’s Live Earth analysis, “Al Gore simultaneously took over and saved the world.” See the article for more in this vein, but here’s the kicker: “Al Gore demonstrated nicely that the truth, however inconvenient, will eventually set you free.”

Sheesh. You keep waiting for the punch line, for the revelation that the cock-eyed hyperbole is a postmodern, self-referential joke. Instead, we get a description of Live Earth as both spanning the globe and spinning on Gore’s unlikely axis. No irony here (unless it’s so meta- or sub-textual as to be undetectable): the adulation is genuine.

The Salon piece, while more histrionic than most, isn’t alone. In its coverage of Live Earth, and of Gore’s environmentalism generally, the press has created a shorthand for his public moth-to-butterfly metamorphosis by way of the many frames and nicknames it’s given him: Gore the prophet. Gore the “culturally cool” icon. Gore the “coolest ex-vice president ever.” Gore the “heartbreak loser turned Oscar boasting Nobel hopeful globe trotting multimillionaire pop culture eminence.” (Yep, seriously. In The New York Times.) And the most common motif of all: Gore the rock star.

Wait—Al Gore, rock star? Really? The Al Gore whose preferred instruments are a MacBook Pro and PowerPoint slides? The Al Gore who’s happily married…to someone named Tipper?

The current “rock star” descriptions could, on the one hand, reflect a kind of narrative relativism: Gore, especially given his role in the Live Earth concerts, is much more rockin’ now than he was in the past. One might argue that all the rock star portrayals are simply comparative, that they adulate “Gore 3.0,” as Rolling Stone had it, simply because his beta version was so flawed. (And the press, like everyone else, is entitled to change its mind; Eliot’s “decisions and revisions” are not only the stuff of life, but also the stuff of journalism.)

On the other hand, implicit in this attitudinal transformation is the idea that Gore has undergone a fundamental shift in character somewhere in the course of his image revamp. It’s not a matter of what he did then versus what he does now; apparently, it’s a matter of who he was then versus who he is now. As The Huffington Post’s Richard Greene wrote last year, “Al Gore, left to his own devices, left only to his own very deep and honest passion, has had a spiritual and political transformation.”

Maybe. Gore does seem to have come into his own now that he’s relieved of the pressures of the campaign trail. Yet one’s character doesn’t change overnight, or even, in any real sense, over the course of a few years. And even if Gore’s somehow has, the adulation so many in the media are giving him is still extreme. The fawning press coverage and their subject, new-and-improved though he may be, simply don’t match up.

One explanation for the coverage turnabout: old-fashioned guilt. We—the press and everyone else—treated Gore-the-environmentalist like we treated the environment itself: when we weren’t ignoring him, we were taking him for granted. Now, as we confront the myriad unpleasant realities accompanying climate change, we are also sheepishly confronting the fact that we could have realized the extent of that damage—and begun to rectify it—much, much sooner. Politicians are scrambling to pass emissions legislation. Scientists are contemplating the uses of alternate energies with a zeal once reserved for curing diseases. Companies are churning out new environmental policies as quickly as they (still) do carbon gases.

The nostra culpa issued, we’re now looking to redress our wrongs. And one immediate, if tangential, way to make amends to the environment is first to make amends to its modern-day Cassandra—to the character who has been predicting our smog-obscured future all along from behind the wheel of his hybrid car.

So Gore’s press-christened nickname—“Goracle,” natch—speaks to more than copy editors’ love of a good pun. It speaks to a newfound respect for a man who, in spite of a political system that nearly demands positional oscillation, stuck to his ideological guns when it came to the environment. It speaks to a widespread belief that Gore was, as The New Republic declared, “right about everything, or at least everything that mattered: the war, global warming, the federal budget, the radicalism of the Bush presidency.”

It also speaks to Gore’s convenient embodiment of one of the pet figures of American mythology: the underdog who finds vindication in the end. Indeed, fundamental to this newest Gorian Myth is his identity as a dark horse, as a comeback kid, as Lincoln-meets-Rocky-meets-Seabiscuit—as every other from-adversity-to-the-stars character and cliché we Americans glorify as a reflection of our own collective genesis. (We especially tolerate—even facilitate—that framework in our politicians: Clinton saunters out of Monicagate and into the field of humanitarianism. Carter leaves a bumbling, unpopular presidency to become a champion of democratic election standards. Nixon opens the door to China even after his henchmen pry open the one at the Watergate.) We love giving our leaders a second chance. And we love hearing, through the press, how our modern-day Lazari are using the redemption we’ve bestowed upon them. Because in our politicians we see ourselves—and if they can get another shot, we figure, then maybe we can, too.

In that light, journalism’s newly burnished image of Gore—picked up, dusted off, boot-shorn—makes sense. It makes sense journalistically, too: just as news features aim to tell personalized, human stories even as they describe broad trends, causes, too, are most emotionally compelling when they come with a recognizable face to animate them. (Michael J. Fox and Parkinson’s disease. Darryl Hannah and veganism. Bob Barker and control of the pet population. Etc.) As readers, we take for granted this face-to-a-name coverage of issues; as members of the press, we treat it as journalistic convention. So Gore, really, is just another guy lending a human touch to an otherwise anonymous, if global, event. Nothing wrong with that, right?

But here’s the rub: in the press treatment he’s received of late, Gore is becoming as much a liability as an asset to the environment. When journalists wrap him in the wooly cloak of celebrity—when we emphasize his charisma over his message, for example, or expend valuable column inches describing his outfits or his hairstyle or how he eats his eggs—then we make Gore the issue, rather than the environment. We reduce the Live Earth concerts—which, regardless of the criticism they received, attracted an estimated 2 billion viewers worldwide—into a mere referendum on Gore. We enforce an uncomfortable correlation between Gore and the entire environmental movement, entwining cause and advocate in a shared fate of public perception. We simultaneously commodify and align Gore and his cause celebre—and, in so doing, imply a false equivalency between the two.

There’s the situation that affects every living inhabitant of the planet…and then there’s Al Gore. And he is the first to admit that the two propositions are completely, and fundamentally, unequal. “It’s not about me,” Gore told the AP’s Erik Schelzig on the day of the Live Earth concerts. “It’s about the message. I think everybody understands that.”

Yet despite Gore’s murkily defined role in the execution of Live Earth itself—he was alternately described as its “guide,” its “inspirer and backer,” its Deus-ex-machina figure who merely “set the concerts in motion,” and “clearly one of the main attractions for the worldwide concerts”—many articles treated him as the sole proprietor of the event. (The Salon piece, for example, was entitled “Al’s Big Day.”)

Furthermore, his “new charisma” notwithstanding, Gore is still, if not Clintonially divisive, then at least a political—and politicized—figure. Considering all those people who don’t happen to be fans of Al Gore the Politician, Al Gore the Rolling Stone Grizzly Man, or Al Gore the Condescending Pedant, the “hearts and minds” PR battle surrounding the environment becomes even more difficult to wage. The oft-decried connection between the environment and “liberalism” finds evidence, it seems, when the champion of the former is also denigrated by many as a champion of the latter. The essential truths of climate change—the peer-reviewed studies, the hard facts and cold data, and other (mostly) ideologically impermeable building blocks of opinion and action—become obscured in the shadow of their boot-and-blazer-clad icon. The press-powered AlGoreRhythm takes those data, chews them up, and spits them out. And what remain in the media for public consumption are articles like “Al Gore—He’s Hot.”

Gore has gotten our attention when it comes to the environmental crisis, and for that we owe him a debt of gratitude. As much good as he has done, though, the effort to halt global warming cannot afford to be bound up with any one person, however rockstar-ish or guru-esque or transformed he may be. The environmental movement’s continuity requires that it transcend politics; its success demands that it be considered universal and, in every sense, global.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.