Gore once again ahead of curve

The Baltimore Sun

Al Gore came a long way to talk about global warming with his former congressional colleagues, but the distance was more psychic than physical. He had to cover a lot of personal ground in order to arrive in Washington last week as a certifiable celebrity and Oscar-winning star of the documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

As I watched Mr. Gore testify before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, that fateful winter six years ago - when Mr. Gore had to concede the presidential race and then certify George W. Bush's election from the floor of the Senate - seemed like six decades ago.

Mr. Gore's bete noire is the committee's ranking Republican, James M. Inhofe. In his interrogation of Mr. Gore, the Oklahoma senator, who has called man-made global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people," looked like a dullard trying to explain a poorly executed science project.

Mr. Inhofe's low politics aside, should we trust Mr. Gore's judgment about climate change?

Forget for a moment that Mr. Gore has been studying this issue closely for more than two decades. The reason to heed Mr. Gore's warnings is his record of recognizing problems and devising solutions before others do.

In the 2000 campaign, Mr. Gore was ridiculed incessantly for purportedly claiming he invented the Internet. What he took credit for was leading Congress toward the Internet as young representative.

"During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet," he said.

A conceited boast? Not according to another congressman, who served alongside Mr. Gore in the late 1970s and early 1980s when his Tennessee counterpart was obsessing about some futuristic "I-way."

"In all fairness, it's something Gore had worked on a long time," said former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich two months before the 2000 election. "Gore is not the father of the Internet, but in all fairness, Gore is the person who, in the Congress, most systematically worked to make sure that we got to an Internet."

OK, so Mr. Gore played a key role in a technological advance that transformed mass communication and commerce - no biggie. Besides, the nation faces far more serious issues, such as the Iraq war.

Here's what the former vice president said in a speech to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco a few weeks before Congress voted in October 2002 to give President Bush the authority to invade Iraq:

"I am deeply concerned that the course of action that we are presently embarking upon with respect to Iraq has the potential to seriously damage our ability to win the war against terrorism and to weaken our ability to lead the world in this new century."

He added: "Great nations persevere and then prevail. They do not jump from one unfinished task to another. We should remain focused on the war against terrorism."

Recall that Mr. Gore's warnings came at a time when it was still quite fashionable to bash him as the front half of an embittered "Sore-Loserman" ticket.

It took guts to oppose the invasion then, especially as the president's approval rating was triple Mr. Gore's (65 percent to 19 percent).

Plenty of Democrats, including New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, are piling on President Bush now that his war approval is half what it was four years ago. Mr. Gore showed the courage to speak out when it mattered, even though progressive voices like his were shouted down by those "serious" neoconservatives.

So here we go again, with the usual suspects scoffing at Mr. Gore's claims about global warming. Wrong again, they sneer.

But the reason Mr. Gore has so often been dismissed in the past is that he was able to see what more cautious, myopic politicians could not.

Some fans have even taken to calling the former vice president the "Goracle."

That's a bit much, but how dare Mr. Inhofe dismiss him as a "Chicken Little"? A mumbling coward too afraid to acknowledge a huge problem staring the nation in the face is something far worse: a big chicken.

Mr. Inhofe's right about one thing: Hoaxes can be perpetrated on American voters. How else to explain a reactionary apologist for the petroleum industry winning three terms in the Senate?

Thomas F. Schaller is an associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and author of "Whistling Past Dixie." His e-mail is schaller67@hotmail.com. His column appears Wednesdays in The Sun.

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