Carroll County Times
Carroll County

Melinda Henneberger: Al Gore following his daddy's path

So much has been written - some of it by me - about how poor Al Gore was all but forced to follow in his daddy the senator's footsteps, eventually succumbing to pressure to take up his line of work, and take on his unfulfilled ambitions.

Yet now that the former vice president is without any question writing his own script, and can follow any path he likes, the one he's chosen with the sale of his Current TV network to Qatar-funded al-Jazeera is not just hypocritical but awfully familiar to those who remember what his father did after leaving public life.

Albert Gore Sr. lost his Senate seat from Tennessee in 1970 for the noblest of reasons - standing up against the war in Vietnam, and for civil rights. Even then, Republicans apparently thought they had to cheat to best him; Watergate investigators later found Nixon operatives had illegally contributed to the race. He was also the victim of such vicious race-baiting that the man who defeated him later apologized for an ad meant to appeal to white George Wallace voters with the assurance that "Bill Brock believes in the things we believe in."

After Gore Sr. was defeated, though - and dramatically declared in his fiery concession speech that "The truth shall rise again!'' - he went to work for the oil baron Armand Hammer, whose Occidental Petroleum broke into the big leagues after it started doing business in Libya in 1965 - on visas then-Sen. Gore had helped his old pal obtain. (Hammer, too, was later convicted of making illegal campaign contributions, to Gore's old adversary Nixon, though he was eventually pardoned.)

Before any of that, however, in 1972, Gore Sr. went to work as chairman of Occidental's coal subsidiary, Island Creek, which on his watch committed a slew of environmental violations, some involving strip mining - a practice that young congressman Al campaigned against.

To his credit, Gore Sr. was at least honest about cashing in: "Since I had been turned out to pasture,'' he told The Washington Post in 1980, "I decided to go graze the tall grass."

If all of this was inconvenient for his son the environmental crusader, as documented in a Gore biography by my husband, Post reporter Bill Turque, well, it wasn't as if Al Jr. bore personal responsibility for his father's decisions.

Until he repeated them, that is.

At the historically painful conclusion of his own political career, he at least was free at last - of any ambitions imposed and any scandals not of his making. Now he could follow his true passion and calling - the one that, even eight years after writing the environmental manifesto "Earth in the Balance,'' he rarely mentioned while running for president. That was because, as his advisers told me at the time, polling showed that concern about the environment only ranked a laughable 13th place in the hierarchy of voter concerns.

After the Supreme Court turned him out to pasture, Gore did begin doing the kind of work that his friends had always thought suited him best; with his pointer and slide show, he traveled the country teaching and preaching - and explaining the threat of global climate change.

He's been well and rightly compensated for doing so - rewarded with an Oscar, a Grammy and a Nobel Prize, among other things - and while lecturing us on our carbon footprint, has also made a fortune in various investments.

There's nothing wrong with getting rich, mind you, or in turning a turkey like Current TV into a big payday; on the contrary, doing well by doing good is pretty much a universal goal.

But now, of course, he and his partners have sold Current for $500 million to al-Jazeera, the state media company of Qatar, which has the largest per capita carbon footprint of any country in the world, and is financed by the dirty fossil-fuel business Gore so abhors.

And just how does raking in $100 million petrodollars, Gore's reported share, mesh with his life's mission? In an interview last year, Gore said the importance of "reducing our dependence on expensive, dirty oil" can really only be understood in light of the "main reason for doing this, which is to save the future of civilization."

Although the deal's been widely criticized on the right, most of my progressive friends have a more tolerant, or even admiring, reaction: "After what happened to him,'' in the recount of 2000, one friend told me, "I'd forgive him almost anything." Another, a politically active environmentalist, was even more positive: "I don't think the community is too upset,'' he said. "My personal sense is he got a good deal.''

There's no question about that. But given his many financial opportunities, why do something that so undercuts his message and credibility?

He said in a statement that the common goal of Current TV and al-Jazeera is "to give voice to those who are not typically heard; to speak truth to power; to provide independent and diverse points of view; and to tell the stories that no one else is telling."

Translation? When put out to pasture, oh do graze in the tall grass - and don't get too fussy about who signs the checks.