Al Gore: Modern Politics' Movie Star

For the organizers of Al Gore's one and only gig in Northern California promoting his new book, it was a little like that children's classic, "A Fish Out of Water," in which a boy overfeeds his goldfish and it grows and grows, outswelling its bowl, then a vase, then a bathtub.

Authors tour the country constantly, hawking their books. You see the fliers in bookshop windows. At night, in a space cleared for the purpose, you see that spectacle: three or four rows of folding chairs arranged to face the podium where a hopeful figure poses, looking so alone, scanning the empty seats while pretending not to. Bookstore owners have told me that attendance at author events has dwindled lately. Some stores around the San Francisco Bay Area, long hailed as America's second-biggest reading hub, have stopped hosting readings altogether.

Even so, planners at Book Passage -- an independent store in tiny Marin County -- expected a decent turnout for Gore. Ambitiously, they decided to charge for tickets to Wednesday night's event and co-sponsor it with Dominican University, a small, nearby Catholic school, and stage it in its 850-seat auditorium. A few weeks in advance, the forthcoming lecture was announced rather quietly on Book Passage's website and on a Dominican site. Within two days, the auditorium was sold out. The waiting list was hundreds long. Stunned, the planners chose yet another venue, the sprawling 2,000-seat Marin Civic Center. Tickets went back on sale. Two days later, the Civic Center was sold out too -- at forty bucks a pop, for what was scheduled to be a 20-minute talk. Again, the waiting list extended over the horizon.

Movie-star proportions, clearly. But Al Gore is modern politics' movie star, not in the metaphorical sense.

Like parts of Los Angeles, Marin County is one of those places whose residents would rather die than admit that they're awestruck by celebrity. It's the sort of semirural, estate-dotted sward to which rockstars and rebels-who-got-rich retire, and according to Forbes, it includes one of the five most expensive zip codes in the country.

And it turned out in droves for Gore.

The title of his new book, "The Assault on Reason" (Penguin Press, 2007, $25.95) is really just another way of phrasing the title of his previous book, "An Inconvenient Truth" (Rodale Books, 2006, $21.95), which accompanies the film of the same name which, of course, vaulted Gore to literal movie-stardom. Though "The Assault on Reason" is meant to allude to lies told by lying governmental liars about everything from uranium enrichment to wiretaps to emergency preparedness and "An Inconvenient Truth" concerns climate change. Both titles rail against violence done to some clear, intrinsic, real-world factuality, which -- as Gore said on Wednesday evening, patting his black-suited chest, "resonates in the human heart."

He would speak feelingly that night about "ripples" marring the media that "make the surface distorted" so that "the clarity of vision is ruined." One clear thing, he would tell the crowd, is "the 99 percent certainty that we're facing the greatest threat" imaginable in climate change. "Yet our leaders are dilly-dallying" about it. "How dare they?" he demanded, to thunderous applause.

But that was later.

I took public transit from San Francisco to the Marin Civic Center not by choice but by necessity, as I neither drive nor own a car (which I guess, since I could, since I actually have a license, is a choice). For others it would have been a choice, even a novelty. Braving the clamor and buying a ticket to see the world's most outspoken climate-awareness advocate, you might muse about the best way to reach and depart the lecture hall. You just might. In that same fist-to-forehead way you might rethink hosting an AA meeting at a bar, or hanging paper Halloween skulls at a funeral, which this kind of was. If you believe Gore -- who that night would describe evidence of impending ecological doom as being "so clear, it's so massive, it's so obvious" -- then the prospect of joining those rush-hour throngs behind the wheel might be -- well, even more embarrassing than looking starstruck.

For the record, from San Francisco's Transbay Terminal, the 80 Golden Gate Transit bus crosses the city, then the Golden Gate Bridge into Marin, where at the downtown San Rafael transit center, bus No. 45 climbs suburban streets and a wide, wooded scimitar of hill-road, stopping at the Civic Center.

Just so you'll know. Like, for next time? Because there was no one else on that big silvery No. 45 when it reached the Civic Center but me.

I rolled my eyes at eager lecture-goers rushing toward the hall clad in leather jackets and carrying leather bags. One woman even had a snakeskin clutch. You've gotta pick your battles in this world.

The ovations began the moment Gore strode onstage. Soft lighting in the auditorium caught the tweeds, the silks, the suede, the pearls and gold and jade and lovely shoes and creamy complexions and frosted hair. Tanned pinkish-brown, the author had just arrived from Beverly Hills, where he'd kicked off his book tour at the Wilshire Theatre the night before. His palms pressed together and half-bows, as he thanked the crowd, might have been namastes -- that traditional Indian gesture of reverence.

"I can feel that," he said. "There are days when I need that."

Wags in the crowd held up placards saying PLEASE RUN. (For president, that is.)

"Millions of people, and I'm one of them, have the uneasy feeling that something's gone wrong in the United States," the ex-vice president said, spurring applause. "Why was our beloved country so shockingly vulnerable to such crass manipulation?" Guy knows how to work a stage. Deploring the Dark Ages' illiteracy that we can no longer use as an excuse for incurious ignorance, he invoked Mahatma Gandhi and African proverbs and Kurt Vonnegut and Thomas Paine, whose 1776 pamphlet Common Sense Gore dubbed the "Harry Potter of the 18th century." He quoted George Washington forbidding his troops to torture Hessian captives. He said that the world changed forever when literacy spread and "people found that they could use knowledge as a source of influence" -- and that the first printed book was the Gutenberg Bible, though some might argue and say it was a copy of the Diamond Sutra published in China in 868.

The exponential spread of knowledge led populations out of superstition and into discussions about human rights, he said, which in turn led to America: "We take it for granted that our country operates, at least in theory, on the basis of the rule of reason" and "on our capacity to reason together." But that was before TV and the Bush administration. "Why is it," Gore roared, "that facts, truth, knowledge and reason play such a minor role in the functioning of our democracy?"

He has his suspicions. The flow of information, and the manner in which it is displayed, are controlled by oligarchs who, as Gore writes in "The Assault on Reason," possess "less interest than any previous administration in sharing the truth" with us. The problem, he asserts, and the reason we are veering ever closer toward history's steepest cliff, is the leadership's insatiable "impulse to power." Thumping his heart again, Gore told the crowd that this lust, albeit lethal, is neither madness nor even evil but a mere "sign of humanity."

Now the funny thing about philosophical edicts, or should we say the funny thing about philosophical edicts now, is that figures at opposite ends of the political spectrum can say the exact same thing at virtually the same time. They can say it in the exact same way and even mean it in the exact same way. Al Gore might have no more vocal antagonist on earth these days than conservative talk show host Michael Savage, who regularly denounces climate change as a false crisis caused not by humans but by natural shifts that have always happened every few millennia. Yet Savage also rails regularly against George W. Bush. Calling Bush the worst president in history, paraphrasing a quote from British historian Lord Acton, Savage loves to shout into the mic: "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." He and Gore could shake hands and exchange hearty smiles over this point. Coincidentally, Savage lives in Marin County, a few miles from where the lecture was held. The pair could raise glasses together and call it a day.

And that's what's so weird about these electrified times. Gore can intone with "99 percent certainty that we're facing the greatest threat" ... and that the threat in question is climate change. Yet Savage and his ilk would complete that sentence with something else entirely: terrorism, most likely, or immigration. Gore can ask, "Why was our beloved country so shockingly vulnerable to such crass manipulation?" Savage and his ilk would start that sentence with the same nine words, then end it with: "a terrorist attack?"

It's like a game of Mad Libs. To each side, each version is glaringly true, with that soul-wracking resonance that makes Gore gaze intently into an audience and thump his heart. Some parts of both versions even totally overlap. But Gore's imprecations that we begin "the hard work of rebuilding a conversation of democracy," drawing on a cosmic "truthforce" that will help us "see together what the best choices are," are -- to borrow a word that he used over and over that evening -- troubling. Because history has so splintered and subdivided us that the truth and reason he hails in principle can in practice be as individual as -- well, your eyes and mine. Postmodernism has labored away for impassioned decades convincing Americans that nothing is objective, that nothing is ultimately, absolutely true.

Which makes me want to laugh and cry when Gore assails "our failure to see clearly." I want to see what he sees. Or some of it. Or do I? Truth decay, as it is called, dissolves our trust in each other. In anything.

Afterwards, attendees streamed through the doors, most of them bearing autographed books, some waving yellow signs printed with "Run, Al Run." Because of the font, and because only the first letter of each word was upper-case, the signs could be misread at first glance as "Run AI Run" -- AI being "American Idol" fans' standard acronym for that show, and Wednesday night's episode being the season finale. At that moment, or somewhere between right then and the transit center, 29.5 million Americans would see whether they had elected twentysomething argyle-sweatered beatboxer Blake of the pert bottom and do-me eyes or 17-year-old devout-Christian plus-size pageant queen Jordin. Because to 29.5 million Americans, that was truth.

It was time to catch the last bus back.

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