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Former Vice President Al Gore Releases Documentary on Global Warming

May 24, 2006 at 1:13 PM EDT

AL GORE, Former Vice President of the United States: And now, my friends, in a phrase I once addressed to others, it’s time for me to go.

GWEN IFILL: His 2000 presidential defeat was excruciating, razor-thin and hotly contested. For years afterward, Al Gore simply fell silent.

But step by cautious step, Gore — who introduces himself these days as the man who “used to be the next president of the United States” — has returned to the limelight, speaking out in 2004 against President Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq.

AL GORE: When you boil it all down to precisely what went wrong with the Bush Iraq policy, it’s actually fairly simple: He adopted an ideologically driven view of Iraq that was tragically at odds with reality.

GWEN IFILL: And launching new business ventures, including Current TV, an independent cable network aimed at young adult audiences. Now with the release of the film “An Inconvenient Truth,” the former vice president has found a new platform for one of his old passions: the threat posed by global warming.

AL GORE: We are facing a global environmental crisis.

GWEN IFILL: The film’s launch has landed Gore on red carpets, as well as on magazine covers, New York, Wired, Vanity Fair.

AL GORE: What a screen!

GWEN IFILL: With Al Gore in the role of exhorter-in-chief, the full-length feature film focuses on the science and the politics of global warming, and on Gore himself.

AL GORE: If you look at the 10 hottest years ever measured, they’ve all occurred in the last 14 years. And the hottest of all was 2005.

GWEN IFILL: Gore’s multimedia presentation, which he has toted around the world on his laptop, grabbed Hollywood’s attention last year, but it is not Gore’s first foray into the topic. His 1992 book “Earth in the Balance” was a best-seller.

AL GORE: If we listen carefully and clearly to what the scientific community of the entire world is saying — not just saying. They’re shouting it now. They’re saying, “Hey, wake up! We’re facing a planetary emergency here.”

And we’re not used to hearing phrases like that or encountering alarming messages like that, but we have to tear the mask away.

Labeling this a political issue is just another way of saying it’s insignificant. This is the most crucial challenge that any of us have ever faced, and it’s happening in our lifetimes.

GWEN IFILL: Some critics have called Gore alarmist, as in this ad released by the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington think-tank.

COMPETITIVE ENTERPRISE INSTITUTE ANNOUNCER: Carbon dioxide: They call it pollution. We call it life.

GWEN IFILL: But the critics have not slowed Al Gore’s big comeback. Appearing this morning on NBC’s “Today Show,” Katie Couric asked the inevitable question: What will Gore do in 2008?

AL GORE: I don’t intend to be a candidate ever again, and…

KATIE COURIC, Host, “Today Show”: Never, never, never?

AL GORE: Well, look, I have no plans to be a candidate and no intention of being a candidate. I’ve said that I’m not at the stage of my life where I’m going to say, “Never in the rest of my life will I ever think about such a thing.”

"An Inconvenient Truth"

GWEN IFILL: "An Inconvenient Truth" opens in select cities today.

For more on Al Gore, the man and the movie, I'm joined by Roy Neel, former chief of staff to the vice president and currently a senior adviser to Mr. Gore.

And John Heilemann, contributing editor at New York magazine. He authored the magazine's cover story on Mr. Gore.

John Heilemann, 11 years ago you wrote a story about Al Gore in which you said that "what any sensible person does in preparing for a sustained piece of oratory by Al Gore is to order a cup of coffee black." Has that changed?

JOHN HEILEMANN, New York Magazine: Yes, what a difference 11 years makes, Gwen. I mean, you know, I've seen this movie now three times. And I've been around the country with Gore watching him give 10 screenings of the film.

And the overwhelming reception to it is, first of all, that the science in the movie is very scary and very persuasive. And, secondly, that this is a new Gore, I mean, a Gore that we don't remember from the 2000 campaign.

He is funny, and loose, and passionate, and full of conviction, kind of utterly authentic. And that is leaving a lasting impression on everybody who sees it in the theaters, and I think that's going to continue.

GWEN IFILL: I'm old enough to remember when people talked about a new Nixon. Is there really such a thing as a new Gore? Most Americans don't remember a positive outcome from that last election.

JOHN HEILEMANN: Yes, well, I think that's right. I mean, certainly it's true that Al Gore did win the popular vote, as we sometimes forget six years ago, so there were millions of people who did vote for him. But I think even people who voted for him in 2000 did so in the knowledge that he was not the most compelling political candidate they'd ever seen.

Whether this Gore is a new Gore entirely, I don't think that's true. I mean, certainly the passion that's on display now about the environment is something that he's exhibited for many, many years.

But what's different is that he feels liberated, I think, from the kind of political calculations that a candidate for office, or at least an out-front candidate for office, is constantly weighed down by. And he's able to speak his mind. And as someone I quoted in the piece said, you know, he seems to have found his voice out there in the wilderness.

The global warming campaign

GWEN IFILL: Roy Neel, you have known Al Gore for decades, and you're still in touch with him, talking with him, working with him. What has he been doing since last America was paying attention?

ROY NEEL, Former Gore Chief of Staff: Well, he's been out there making this same presentation. He's been doing it somewhat quietly, but hundreds and hundreds of times, all across the world.

And this film that just came out today, "An Inconvenient Truth" -- and, by the way, the book that was also released today by the same title is really just a culmination of this new public interest in Al Gore's work on global warming.

GWEN IFILL: When "Earth in the Balance" was published in 1992, even though it was a popular success, it was also widely considered as a companion piece to his 1992 race. Is this in any way timed, this release of this movie, the hype, the magazine covers, the book, to Al Gore's re-emergence as a different kind of candidate?

ROY NEEL: Well, this is not a political campaign he's involved in; it's a campaign for America's attention to this issue.

And I'll remind you that he wrote this book in 1991 after he had opted out of the 1992 campaign. He threw himself passionately into that issue then after his son's accident.

And now I think there's a parallel: He has been working hard on this issue, almost without anyone noticing, other than the audiences that have seen this presentation.

So I don't know that we're seeing a new Al Gore. I mean, I think John's description is pretty good in that regard, but this is the same Al Gore with the same passion I've seen for more than 30 years, on the same issue of global warming, and I think we're now seeing, and I think the public is begin to see, that he's been right all the time about this.

GWEN IFILL: So this is not an Al Gore radicalized by his loss in 2004?

ROY NEEL: Oh, I don't think so at all. I think it has been liberating to be doing this without the same kinds of concerns or pressures from consultants or the same sort of electoral issues that come into a political campaign for elective office.

And I think that's one reason it's been received with such credibility over the last few months and as the people have been turning their attention to it and now that the movie is coming out.

GWEN IFILL: John Heilemann, if this is a different kind of campaign, has Al Gore gone Hollywood?

JOHN HEILEMANN: Well, it's interesting. I mean, Roy just said that Al Gore hasn't been radicalized by his loss, and I'm not sure that's exactly right.

I mean, certainly, putting aside the questions of style, Al Gore was historically kind of seen as a centrist, moderate Democrat. And certainly, since his defeat in 2000, he has emerged as a champion or as a hero to the left wing of the Democratic Party, starting with his opposition to the Iraq war much ahead of the rest of the Democratic Party, on the questions of warrantless wiretapping, on his criticisms of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

He has become a hero to people out in Hollywood, who certainly to be on the leftward edges of the Democratic Party; in San Francisco; in the green community; in the antiwar left; out in the liberal blogosphere.

These are now the constituencies that are most excited about the prospect of Gore's rehabilitation, his reemergence, and the prospect of him running again in 2008. And that is a very different kind of constituency than he had previously.

Is Al Gore over the 2000 election?

GWEN IFILL: John, you said you've seen this film three times. I've seen it once. What does this film do that eight years as vice president didn't accomplish?

JOHN HEILEMANN: Well, I mean, it certainly -- I think, you know, the timing of this movie is crucial and exquisite for, not just in the political context, but in terms of the issue.

I mean, I think, you know, having this movie come out a year after Hurricane Katrina -- which has really changed, I think, a lot of people's views and maybe people more aware of the importance of this issue -- it's very different from where we were even 15 years ago, where there wasn't the same kind of scientific consensus about global warming. And so Gore could not get as much traction with this issue, even as vice president, than he's able to get now.

GWEN IFILL: Roy Neel, he was vice president. You were his chief of staff. He had eight years in a pretty powerful position. I remember at the time he was described as the most powerful vice president in history. Of course, that was in the nostalgic pre-Cheney days.

But I wonder if people can't fairly ask why he didn't do what he's talking about now when he had the power?

ROY NEEL: Well, he did all he could do. And you have to remember that the times were very different then.

We had a whole different situation, in terms of public awareness of this issue. The Congress was way behind on this issue, and it was way down the list of public concerns.

Al Gore did a great deal to advance environmental issues within the Clinton-Gore administration. He went a long way in that regard.

He moved the country towards getting involved in the Kyoto treaty, and tragically the Bush administration stepped back from that and rejected it afterwards. I think his credentials and accomplishment as an environmental vice president were second-to-none ever.

And I would like to point out one other thing, though. You're suggesting that Al Gore has been radicalized. If you look at where he's been on these issues since the 2000 election, and the compelling speeches he's given on the Iraq war, on the Bush administration's illegal wiretapping, and so on, that's exactly where the country is right now.

He's not way out on the left on these issues; he's exactly where the majority of the people in this country are. And I think, with this initiative on global warming and his passion, and this film coming out at this time, I think we're going to see that he's been, not only prescient on these issues, but he continues to be visionary on them.

GWEN IFILL: John Heilemann, what about the charges that he is alarmist on these issues, that he is inaccurate in some of the details in the movie, that he is holier than thou?

JOHN HEILEMANN: Well, I mean, I think that you can't help but come away from the movie with a certain sense that Gore has kind of messianic streak about this, you know, that, "You must listen to me or else the world will end."

At the same time, I mean, the charges that he's alarmist, I mean, increasingly ring incredibly hollow about this. And I'm not a partisan in this battle, but the science on this has become incredibly, incredibly clear.

The ads that the Competitiveness Enterprise Institute have put out are literally, I mean, just a joke, and I don't think there's any serious scientist who wouldn't look at them and sort of crack up at the absurdity of the claims they're making.

I mean, I don't think that there's any question but that Gore is where the scientific consensus is in the academy on the threat that global warming poses or on the contributions that we, both as individuals and in the corporate world, have made to the problem.

GWEN IFILL: Roy Neel, is Al Gore over 2000?

ROY NEEL: I think so. He dove into this work on global warming, in building two successful businesses, and engaging in an awful lot of activities, and giving a number of compelling speeches.

He worked hard at it. It was a very, very difficult thing; it would be extremely painful for anyone. He got over it a lot faster than I did, I will tell you that.

Is he planning for 2008?

GWEN IFILL: So do you think he's thinking about 2008?

ROY NEEL: No, I don't. He's working so hard on this global warming initiative, he's doing nothing to put that together. What he said is exactly what I sense, is that he has no intention of mounting another political campaign.

And, certainly, what he's doing now is not the conventional way you go about running for president, and I don't think that it should be mistaken as such.

GWEN IFILL: What do you think, John Heilemann?

JOHN HEILEMANN: I think that that is true and not true. I mean, I think, first of all, it is not the conventional way you run for president, at least the way that people have run for president.

But, in fact, in this particular moment in American politics, it may be the best way to run for president, to appear to be not a politician, to be appear to be above politics and beyond politics. And that creates an aura, as I said before, of authenticity around him that makes him incredibly attractive.

The other thing that I think that Roy slightly underplays, I mean, is that Al Gore is hearing from everybody he knows that there are lots of people in the country who want him to run. I mean, from coast to coast, there are people who come up to him at screenings, who come up to him at public events, his old allies in Washington who, many of whom desperately want him to run, and who are hearing from people all across the Democratic spectrum that they would be open to the notion of him running.

So the notion that he is not aware of the surge in interest in him running, and particularly in light of the sense of kind of foreboding and disquiet that a lot of people in the party have about Hillary Clinton as the presumptive frontrunner, I think the notion that he's not thinking about it and is not, in fact, in some ways deeply torn by the notion, I just don't think that's right.

I think he is a man who thinks he should be president, would love to be president, but who hates the idea of having to go through the process of getting there.

GWEN IFILL: Well, I think that would apply to a lot of people. John Heilemann, Roy Neel, thank you both very much.

ROY NEEL: Thank you.