Remember Al Gore?
2000 vs. 2020 (and 2022)
A few trendlines have collided recently that got me thinking of a former vice president, Al Gore. Remember him?
For one, there is the existential threat of our climate crisis. It’s been 16 years since Gore’s Academy Award-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” debuted. During that time, the truth he warned about — our planet's spiral toward a new climate reality, fueled by human activity and significantly less hospitable to human existence — has become only more inconvenient, urgent, and dire.
Drought in the western U.S. Severe heat waves across Europe. Unusually heavy flooding in Kentucky and elsewhere. Scientists say these kinds of dramatic weather patterns will become more frequent as climate change progresses. We hear about 100-year storms or even 1,000-year floods, terms that are meant to indicate rarity. But it is increasingly clear such events are no longer anomalous. A horrific tragedy is currently playing out in Pakistan, where immense flooding is causing widespread destruction and mass death.
The warming climate, as Gore warned us, will result in greater hardship and instability. It is a cruel injustice that the countries that contributed the least to greenhouse gas proliferation tend to be the poorest and will suffer the most.
On a more optimistic note, the recent climate bill passed by Congress represents exactly the kind of concrete action for which Gore has long advocated. Start somewhere. In the case of this legislation, that “somewhere” is quite significant, according to climate experts. Once you’ve started, keep going. Change the direction. Chart a new path forward toward carbon neutrality.
The climate is a grave and unending concern. It should dictate our policy choices and define our national security. Gore saw this clearly. His warnings will cry out from the history books to future generations. “Why were they not heeded?” they will ask in disbelief.
But it wasn’t only the climate that has had me thinking of Gore. There is also the matter of the clear and present dangers our institutions and democratic order are facing.
Donald Trump is still at it about the 2020 election (here in August 2022). He just issued a statement saying he was the “rightful winner” and at a minimum, someone (not exactly sure who) should “declare the 2020 Election irreparably compromised and have a new Election, immediately!”
Of course the former president is now under a serious investigation into his retention of highly classified documents (and what he might have done with them). One would have hoped that this grave matter would have Republican elected officials waiting at least to hear about findings before escalating divisive partisanship. But there was Trump’s one-time critic and current sycophant Senator Lindsay Graham, alluding to violence. “If there is a prosecution of Donald Trump for mishandling classified information after the Clinton debacle, there will be riots in the streets," he said. This is completely irresponsible and dangerous.
Against this backdrop, let us remember Al Gore and the 2000 presidential election. Gore won the popular vote, but of course that’s not how we choose our presidents. As for the Electoral College, it all came down to Florida, as anyone of memory age at the time certainly recalls. There was a lot of weirdness in that state — “butterfly ballots” and “hanging chads.” To make a long and sordid story short, ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court intervened. A majority of justices, all appointed by Republicans, stopped the vote count and effectively handed the election to George W. Bush.
It is hard to overstate how big an inflection point that was in American history. Unlike in 2020, when Trump lost decisively, Gore had legitimate claims. And also unlike 2020 (through today) when Trump is eager to blow up American democracy and even spark violence with his lies and refusal to act responsibly, Gore chose a path of reconciliation. His concession speech is one that should be studied for its graciousness and straightforward eloquence.
I have pulled some excerpts to provide examples of Gore’s words. Recognize how difficult they must have been for a man who had long harbored dreams of the presidency — and knew he might very well have earned it.
Gore addressed the finality of the rule of law:
“Now the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken. Let there be no doubt, while I strongly disagree with the court's decision, I accept it. I accept the finality of this outcome, which will be ratified next Monday in the Electoral College. And tonight, for the sake of our unity of the people and the strength of our democracy, I offer my concession.”
He called for common ground:
“This has been an extraordinary election. But in one of God's unforeseen paths, this belatedly broken impasse can point us all to a new common ground, for its very closeness can serve to remind us that we are one people with a shared history and a shared destiny.”
He argued for country over party:
“I know that many of my supporters are disappointed. I am, too. But our disappointment must be overcome by our love of country...While we yet hold and do not yield our opposing beliefs, there is a higher duty than the one we owe to political party. This is America, and we put country before party. We will stand together behind our new president.”
He ended with a recognition that our country must be bigger than our politics and any single individual:
“Now the political struggle is over and we turn again to the unending struggle for the common good of all Americans and for those multitudes around the world who look to us for leadership in the cause of freedom.
In the words of our great hymn, 'America, America': 'Let us crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea.'
And now, my friends, in a phrase I once addressed to others, it's time for me to go.”
Contrast this humility with the last president, who will never relinquish the spotlight. Contrast the passionate pleas for unity with January 6. Contrast Gore’s appeal to the sanctity of our institutions with the election lies sweeping Republican politics. Contrast how he led in a moment of potential crisis with the enablers and toadies who appease Trump’s destructive behavior. Contrast the appeal to reason with Sen. Graham’s wink at violence. Contrast how he tried to tamp down passion with those who use their perches in right-wing media to spew divisive hatred.
The Republicans rail against their political rivals for being out of control, violent, subverters of democracy. It is, in poker terms, the ultimate tell. What they complain the loudest about is often what they themselves are pushing. I have said it before: There are so many projectionists among the GOP that they might as well open a chain of movie theaters.
Looking back at what lawyers call the “fact pattern” of the 2000 election, we can see one that had all the hallmarks of bringing American democracy to its brink. But at that moment, Al Gore made the determination that to wreck our constitutional order by undermining the results of a very flawed process was not what leadership demanded.
He stood there, surely believing in his mind that he should have been president. He knew that a majority of American voters had agreed. Imagining “what could have been” must have been intensely difficult. Looking back at what happened in the presidency of George W. Bush, we can see how fateful that election was. But Al Gore knew that to preserve our constitutional system, there really was no other option. He accepted his fate, and so did his party.
As Trump still rages after an election that was not nearly as close, after he lost in the courts, after he spurred a violent insurrection, Gore’s example is all the more striking. The Republican officials who are playing along with this attack on American democracy are old enough to remember 2000. And they’re old enough to know better.
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