The most important speech of Al Gore's post–non-presidency was neither well-covered nor particularly dramatic. He delivered it against a plain blue curtain, and when he finished, the applause rippled but never roared. None in attendance, however, would have dared call it boring.
The address was the keynote for the We Media conference, held at the Associated Press headquarters in New York last October and attended by an audience that included both old media luminaries and new media innovators. In attendance were Tom Curley, president of the AP, Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News, and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, all leading lights of a media establishment that, five years earlier, had deputized itself judge, jury, and executioner for Gore's 2000 presidential campaign, spinning each day's events to portray the stolid, capable vice president as a wild exaggerator, ideological chameleon, and total, unforgivable bore.
They must have been wondering what changed. Over the next 48 minutes, Gore laced into the state of the media, lamenting the "systematic decay of the public forum," and echoing Walter Lippmann's belief that the propaganda emanating from the press corps was rendering America's "dogma of democracy" void. Journalism, Gore said, had grown "dysfunctional," and now "fails to inform the people."
The speech wasn't just an isolated blast aimed at wresting some headlines or settling some scores. Gore has long been quietly obsessed with excising the media from the politician-public relationship. That's been the unifying aim of all his seemingly disconnected ventures since returning to the public eye: a determination to evade, and eventually end, the media's stranglehold on political communication. Yet few seem to have noticed this campaign, with most observers too caught up in Gore's old storylines to recognize his new efforts.
So when he taught a class at Columbia's School of Journalism, the conventional wisdom held that Al Gore was becoming the boring professor he was always meant to be. When he began distributing his speeches through MoveOn.org, the pundits intoned that he was merely proving himself the wild-eyed liberal they'd always suspected he was. When he started the Gen-Y oriented Current TV, the commentators snickered at his pathetic attempts to become cool. And when he endorsed Howard Dean for president, political watchers quickly associated Dean's downfall with Gore's reverse-Midas touch, laughing as Al lost another one.
Taken together, these moves, and Gore's coming film on the global warming crisis — "An Inconvenient Truth," to be released in May — point to a new narrative: Gore as warrior against the gatekeepers of the press. As it has turned out, Al Gore as presented by Al Gore is infinitely more electric and attractive than the anodyne stiff the media popularized and the voters remembered.
Since his loss, Gore has undergone a resurrection of sorts, shrugging off the consultants and the caution that hampered him during the campaign and — aided by new distribution technologies — evolving into perhaps the most articulate, animated, and forceful critic of the Bush administration. And now, with Democrats taking a fresh look at a man they thought they knew and speculation mounting around his ambitions in 2008, it seems that the man much mocked for inventing the Internet is in fact using the direct communication it enables to reinvent himself.
The standard holding pattern for leading politicians who awaken one morning to find themselves suddenly out of a job is to take the helm at a major company or maybe join a couple of corporate boards. They often choose major multinationals like Halliburton or shadowy investment consortiums like The Carlyle Group. Gore's chosen berths were a bit different. The "inventor of the Internet" decided to join the powwows of its popularizers, becoming a senior adviser to Google and a member of Apple's board of directors, arguably the two most innovative companies on the tech landscape. It seemed an almost overly symbolic rejection of his monochromatic reputation: the candidate of earth tones joining two companies with famously multihued logos.
But it wasn't. In fact, little could've been more natural for Gore, one of Congress' earliest and most committed computer nerds. Though his misreported comments on the Internet's lineage were unfortunate for his campaign, Gore, in fact, was a prime mover in its early days — if not its father, then definitely the rich uncle who sent it to college, using his seat on the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee to ensure the fledgling technology had the financial wherewithal to make something of itself. Vinton Cerf and Bob Kahn, the two men most often given credit for birthing the Web (due to their development of the crucial TCP/IP protocols), were so appalled by the media's distortion of Gore's comments that they jointly penned a defense, writing that "no other elected official … has made a greater contribution over a longer period of time" than Gore.