You'd think Al Gore was running for office.
In recent weeks, the man who won the popular vote for the presidency in 2000 - only to vanish into political exile after the Supreme Court decided in favor of George W. Bush - has been everywhere, splashed onto magazine covers, interviewed on television and profiled in newspaper articles, the kind of exposure politicians usually only dream about. He even was the toast of the Cannes Film Festival.
Gore's re-emergence is being propelled by the documentary film An Inconvenient Truth, in which Gore lays out the dire implications of global warming, a drum he has been beating for more than two decades. The film opened in Baltimore this weekend.
When asked, Gore is careful to deny any further political aspirations and insists on returning to the topic of climate change. Regardless, the reams of articles about the film lead almost invariably to the 2008 presidential race, some of them rife with speculation that Gore might be the only person able to stop Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's seemingly inexorable ride to the Democratic Party's nomination.
Gore is suddenly the Democrats' rising star, if the articles are to be believed. He has appeared lately on several magazine covers, including New York, The Week, Wired and Vanity Fair, the latter alongside fellow high-profile environmentalists George Clooney, Julia Roberts and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
Maureen Dowd wrote in The New York Times that Gore is "being hailed as the new Comeback Kid," a moniker first given to Bill Clinton in the "bimbo eruption" days of his 1992 presidential campaign. [mcr: I would say, "first given to Bill Clinton" at that time; it was applied repeatedly during his presidency as he bounced back after various stumbles ]More seriously, The New Yorker said Gore is "the living reminder of all that might not have happened in the last six years."
In a four-part series of stories titled "Making Sense of Global Warming," USA Today wrote June 2 that the former vice president's blending of Hollywood tactics with Washington savvy "could pave the way [mcr: the way? ]for a second Gore campaign for the White House" (although it would, in fact, be his third).
On its May 29 cover, New York magazine called Gore "The Un-Hillary" and described the "Gore boomlet" as being "driven by a sense of foreboding about Hillary" and his emergence, since Sept. 11, as "one of the Bush's administration's most full-throated critics."
After years of being viewed by the Washington establishment "with a mix of scorn and pity," John Heilemann wrote, Gore "no longer seems an entirely tragic figure but a faintly heroic one."
Also on May 29, Newsweek's Howard Fineman took up a similar theme with his opinion that Gore "has a certain aura of nobility about him these days - a mixture of rue, acceptance and lofty goals that makes him seem almost, well, endearing."
In journalistic terms, Al Gore's public resurrection is a classic "bandwagon" story, the kind that numerous media outlets, whether because of competitive zeal or simply a pack mentality, run almost simultaneously.
"There's often an echo chamber in the news," said Deborah Potter, a former correspondent for CBS News and CNN who directs the NewsLab, a nonprofit organization that promotes quality in local television news. "Some stories take on a life of their own and ricochet through the media. The hazard of that is that it begins to diminish original thought."
In Gore's case, the widespread coverage has been aided by a confluence of events, including President Bush's abysmal approval ratings, various scandals in the Republican Party leadership, the unrelenting chaos in Iraq and the media's apparent need to produce a positive profile in a miserable political environment.
"Gore is so old news that he's become new," said Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a nonpartisan media research organization in Washington, D.C. "Once you've dismissed somebody, you can start talking about his comeback. We don't know whether Gore is running or not, but you can be sure journalists will talk about it. Politics and speculation are the mother's milk of national news."
Meanwhile, the right is gearing up to pop Gore's bubble. The College Republican National Committee's Web site is urging followers to "freeze out cataclysmic environmental scare tactics" and "raise awareness on the falsities of the global warming phenomenon."
Duly inspired, the University of Oklahoma College Republicans gave out free snow cones to students for an event they called "Global Cooling Day."
Dan Gainor, a spokesman for the Media Research Center, a conservative watchdog group, calls the media's apparent infatuation with Gore "ridiculous."
"The day that almost any conservative got this kind of treatment, I'd be stunned," Gainor said. "He'd have to die first. It's just so over the top."
In the four weeks preceding May 23, he said, Gore's name cropped up 23 times on ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN, with just 10 of those mentions specifically about global warming.
"The other 13, oh my God, they were all over the place" in terms of "excuses" for putting Gore on the air, Gainor said. He was particularly irked that NBC's Today show, as part of its farewell to Katie Couric, had invited Gore to salute her and showed an old clip of her interviewing then-Vice President Gore in the White House.
"They had him dancing in the West Wing with Katie Couric!" said Gainor, who quoted with amazement Couric's description of Gore on the May 24 show as "funny, vulnerable, disarming, self-effacing."
Six days earlier, Good Morning America used Gore's role in the contested 2000 election to illustrate the closeness of votes for contestants on American Idol, and showed a clip of Gore, filmed during the notorious recounts, saying, "I believe this is a time [lwi: a time works for me: ] [mcr: "a time" or just "time"? ]to count every vote."
And there was Gore's recent appearance on Saturday Night Live, in which, posing as the president in the Oval Office, he self-deprecatingly claimed to have actually stopped global warming.
"It's part of this whole, 'we're going to put Al Gore out there in every way, shape or form,'" Gainor said. "It's group-think. It's a media lovefest. They're celebrating his work and career as actor, author, dancer and comedian."
Gainor, a former journalist who worked at The Washington Times and at Baltimore's now-extinct News-American, said he had seen An Inconvenient Truth and found it "incredibly self-promotional" on Gore's part.
"The inconvenient truth here is that it's not just a movie about global warming," Gainor said. "It's a movie worshiping Al Gore. And he's no Orson Welles."
Gore's suddenly reinvigorated public persona has, inevitably, sparked sniping between opposing political camps. In the right-leaning New York Post, film critic Kyle Smith credited Gore with "avoiding the usual vein-popping diatribes" in the movie and said he "comes across as learned, calm and folksy." But then Smith called much of what Gore says "absurd."
"Look carefully at Gore's charts and you'll see that the worst horrors take place in the future of his imagination," Smith wrote. Later in the review, he called Gore "a dangerous evangelist for whom all roads lead to his sole, holy revelation."
In response, David Roberts, a staff writer at Seattle-based Grist magazine, wrote in an online posting Tuesday that Smith's review "virtually defies mockery"
Setting the film's merits aside, the insistence by most commentators on delving into Gore's political prospects is a pointless diversion, some media critics said.
"It's kind of ironic that the appeal of Al Gore as presented in these stories is that here's a guy who really cares about an issue, but rather than talk about the issue they're talking about the guy," said Jim Naureckas, the editor of Extra!, a bi-monthly magazine published by the watchdog organization Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.
"The political press corps seems to have a limited range of interests," Naureckas said. "Who's up-who's down is much more fascinating that what people are proposing to do."
Washington Post columnist David S. Broder made a similar point in a May 25 column in which he reported on a speech two days earlier by Senator Clinton at the National Press Club.
"For the better part of an hour, the senator from New York held forth in a disquisition on energy policy that was as overwhelming in its detail as it was ambitious in its reach," Broder wrote.
"But the buzz in the room was not about her speech - or her striking appearance in a lemon-yellow pantsuit - but about the lengthy analysis of the state of her marriage to Bill Clinton that was on the front page of that morning's New York Times."
The Times story was a clear signal, Broder wrote, "that the drama of the Clintons' personal life would be a hot topic if she runs for president."
By the same token, the Gore phenomenon is "politics as a popularity contest, rather than in how it will affect the public," said Naureckas, the Extra! editor. "The idea that Manhattan might be under water in 100 years is much less interesting than whether Gore will run for the presidency in 2008," Naureckas said.
But the notion of Gore's film serving as a launch for a new, if undeclared, race for the White House was an easy extrapolation to make. On Good Morning America, ABC News correspondent Claire Shipman said May 23 that, on the face of it, Gore and global warming were "not two subjects you'd expect to add up to the buzziest film since the last Michael Moore flick."
And yet, she said, "here's Al being celebrated in Cannes, doing the celebrity thing at an L.A. opening, power-walking a green carpet in Washington, as rumors of another presidential run swirl."
Terry Michael, executive director of the Washington Center for Politics & Journalism, which teaches future political reporters about politics, did not put much stock in Gore's denials.
"Because Al Gore is so clearly a potential presidential candidate, the story tells itself," said Michael, a former reporter and political press secretary. "He doesn't have to do much beyond acting coy, and the press loves idle, navel-gazing speculation about the next leader of the free world."