Four years ago, Al Gore the candidate was variously portrayed as wooden, dull, robot-like, insincere, and lacking in passion.

Maybe Gore listened, because this time around, although not running for office himself, he’s come out breathing fire, establishing himself quickly as the Democrat to go to for a scathing point-by-point disembowelment of the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq. His reward: The same press that once critiqued him as a stiff now expresses dismay that he’s come alive.

It’s been nearly two months since Gore delivered a full-throated critique of the Bush administration’s handling of the war in Iraq to an audience at New York University. Overnight, the former Vice President was propelled to the political front lines and front pages, with conservatives and liberals alike looking askance at his show of fire and passion.

“That looked like Gore channeling Howard Dean in Iowa,” wrote Time’s Margaret Carlson. “It’s not a good performance.”

The media is to blame for the subsequent drubbing Gore took, writes Brenda Bell in the current Texas Observer:

Two things were striking about the reaction to Gore’s speech. First, [the press reaction] was driven by spin (Was Gore nuts? Was he helping Kerry or hurting him?) instead of substance. There was little mention of the particulars of the sweeping indictment of the Bush administration’s “incompetence” and its compromise of democracy at home and the United States’ moral authority abroad.

Second, for all the fixation on tone, it was clear that none of the pundits actually witnessed much of Gore’s [presentation]. The NYU speech, sponsored by MoveOn.org, resembled for the most part a professorial lecture, delivered with more restraint than obvious passion. The sound bites came in the middle, in a rhetorical crescendo familiar to anyone who’s ever heard a stemwinding politician, or a Southern Baptist preacher. Gore didn’t sound crazy — unless righteous indignation is now a form of insanity.

In the country of William Jennings Bryan and Bob LaFollette, of Hubert Humphrey and Paul Wellstone — a nation with a colorful tradition of vigorous populist speechmaking — when did a raised voice on the stump become so … discomfiting? And why weren’t the Democrats picking up the talking points of Gore’s speech and running with them? Almost alone on the op-ed pages, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert talked about what Gore actually said: “It has always been easy to make fun of Al Gore. But if there’s any truth to the thunderous criticism he’s turned loose on the Bush administration this week, it’s time to dispense with the jokes and listen seriously to what the man is saying.”

That didn’t happen. Within a few news cycles, the Gore message was gone, and by the second week of June, it was buried deeper than Ronald Reagan.

Ten days later, Bell watched Gore rally Washington State Democrats with a variation of his New York speech.

A good fire-breathing stump speech roils the blood, and it was easy to forget Gore isn’t running for anything. The delegates rose to their feet time and again, applauding and cheering, forcing him to shout above the din. He was preaching to the choir, of course. And it’s exhilarating to see anyone on top of his game. But who would have thought it would be this particular man, at this time? At the midpoint of the year 2004, what are we to make of the rebirth of the Politician Formerly Known As Al Gore?

The media has never been fond of Al Gore, writes Bell, and he’s suffered the consequences ever since. “All during 2000, the issue of sincerity dogged Gore like toilet paper stuck to his shoe,” writes Bell.

The white tissue’s still there, she adds. “Everywhere in the media, the discussion of what Gore actually said was supplanted by why he might have said it.” Yet, says Bell, the press is missing a big story here — Al Gore has “become the most articulate voice of the opposition party, wielding rhetoric like a sword.”

“How about this?” asks Bell. “Maybe Gore actually means what he says, no more and no less. In the world we’re living in now, that’s a novel thought.”

For journalists who take it for granted that motive never corresponds to message, it’s a thought just too novel to comprehend.

Susan Q. Stranahan

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.