By Joe Campbell
October 16th, 2007
If history at its best can be seen as the recollection and recreation of past events unvarnished by propaganda, emotion, and the focus of the present; of the best and worst, and most often, the muddled in between of human events, human endeavors, and natural forces, then James Fallows’ take on Al Gore seems to be on the right track. Fallows writes:
Gore can be pompous, lecturing, pedantic, and all the rest. But [just as] in retrospect the criticisms of [Martin Luther King, Jr.] look very small, and — without equating the stature of the two men — I think something similar will be true regarding Gore. Like him or not, he has turned his efforts to an important cause, under historical and political circumstances that would have tempted many people to drown themselves in drink or move to Bhutan.
For the moment, let us imagine the role of some historian a generation hence. The major biographies of our age have already been written and re-written by our peers, our children and children’s children. The comic-tragedy of Dubya that ended in the tragedy of a war; the comic-tragedy of Bill Clinton, who wasted his presidency on trivialities; the dark force of Cheney whose sudden personality shift between 2000 and 2002 still remains a mystery, but whose insider skill and cachet with the president led him to amass more power than most presidents; and of course, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleeza Rice, Rudy Guiliani, Hillary Clinton, Colin Powell, Tommy Franks, David Petreaus, Nancy Pelosi, and John McCain. All these men and women who exercised power from 1998 to 2008 will have been written about. But someone will remember to write about a man who almost was president; who was the most powerful vice president in history (only to be dwarfed in power by his successor); who, after losing his lifelong ambition in the most excruciating fashion possible, slowly, gradually, gained a second chance at his life and dedicated it to stopping what he saw as the world’s most pressing challenge.
The Inches We Need
Bobby Kennedy once said that:
Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.
Al Gore proved in 2000 that he did not have the first greatness that Kennedy spoke of; greatness is only separated from failure by luck, providence, or destiny. As with any time I try to understand the meaning of something significant, I am reduced to invoking sport. In a ballgame, the difference between greatness and a fleeting memory is only a matter of inches. Who would remember Carlton Fisk’s walk off home run – which I was not even alive for, but vividly recall – if it hadn’t been for a few inches. In the photo, you can see him wishing, pushing the ball, already far beyond his control, fair with his hands. And in the miracle of that moment, Fisk’s home run became a legend, one of the most dramatic moments in sports history.
Many imbue success with a kind of moral quality, seeing in a successful person more will-power, more determination, more grit, more perseverance, more discipline. They do not acknowledge the controlling factor of luck that time and again makes these moral qualities superfluous. Carlton Fisk’s moment of triumph, carrying his team to victory, made him immortal and great. He changed the course of history and allowed the Boston fans one more day to hope. But a million minute factors contributed to this moment and any one could have rendered it forgettable, typical, a failure. There is no moral quality to success. A swing a quarter of a second sooner or later, a strong breeze, an imperfection in the baseball, anything that made the ball move a few inches to the left would have made this moment instantly forgettable. History would gone on, oblivious. These seconds, these moments, these triumphs that barely were: they are what separate those with the greatness to bend history from those who try their best.Al Gore’s swing in 2000 was a bit too early, a bit too late, and for him, things certainly did not end fairly.
Al Pacino in the single moment that redeemed the decent picture Any Given Sunday gave a soliloquy:
Pacino captures the beauty of sports and of history, properly understood. A battle of wills, a competition in which every inch matters because winning and losing are only inches apart. What Pacino ignores, what every actor in history ignores is that even the most outstanding success is largely the result of luck. That is why you can find the morality of sports not in success but in the process, in the way the game is played: the discipline needed to attain the skills needed to compete; the determination and perseverance in the face of adversity; the will-power and focus; the camaraderie and community of a team; the dignity in the face of setbacks and successes; the respect for one’s opponent. A great ball player is one who has been given the opportunity and through luck, skill, and character is able to take advantage of it. A good ball player is one who has skill and character. You can study the great men and women who have changed history and the many men and women who have failed. There are those who choose to do great but terrible things – who, once attaining power, destroy societies, murder, lie, steal. There are those who choose to do great things for others – but who in their great ambition, they always destroy something. In studying these men and women you will find no golden formula for success; the only necessary condition is to be willing to take advantage of an opportunity that presents itself, but even that is only occasionally sufficient.
Al Gore failed, but he put himself out there, to win or lose, to compete. He paid his dues over the years, accumulating a wealth of experience. He faced failures and successes, again and again. He ran a good but flawed campaign and lost in a mess of butterfly ballots and pregnant chads.
Al Gore, Failure
If we were to judge Al Gore by the standards of an earlier era, he would look better. In an era before television and the 24/7 media cycle he so hates began to dominate our culture and politics, Al Gore would be more readily seen as the man of substance, conviction, and morals he is. He has shown good judgment throughout his career, both personally and politically. Maybe he demonstrated poor judgment in letting a political consultant dress him in earth tones, and by kissing Tipper a bit too enthusiastically for everyone to see. As important as those seemed at the time, today, these lapses in judgment seem paltry compared to the worst of Bush, for example, calling his Secretary of Defense “RumStud”, unnecessary wars, etcetera and so on.
But most important is what Al Gore did after his loss. He was a man. He was a good man. He did not give up on making a difference in the world. He fought for what he believed in. He maintained his good sense despite his colossal failure that was a lifetime in the making. He has done more than any other living person to put climate change back on the global policy agenda, and all of this from a man who failed when history most needed him, who could not bend history even a bit at his most opportune time. Al Gore failed to become a great man; what Gore proved though, was that he was something better and more rare – a good man who, being passed over by history, still chose to make what difference he could.
As an historian of the future, we can look at Al Gore as a good man on whom God or fate chose not to bestow the blessing or curse of greatness. But he was – and is – a good man.
History as a Morality Tale
As a concluding thought, I would turn to Reinhold Niebuhr:
Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime,
Therefore, we are saved by hope.
Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history;
Therefore, we are saved by faith.
Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone.
Therefore, we are saved by love.
No virtuous act is quite a virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as from our own;
Therefore, we are saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.