Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Don't Do It Al

Over the last few years, I have come to regard Al Gore as a decent and intelligent man. I did not follow politics very closely until after 2000, and so I did not have an informed perspective on him when he was Vice President. Although I do not agree with a lot of his politics, I now think the government was better when he was a part of it.

His actions following his loss in 2000 suggest (to me - a deliberate optimist) a man that is determined to use the influence he has gained through his political career to make a meaningful positive difference in the world. I believe the work he is doing to motivate people to take action against global warming is admirable and the strategy he is employing is intelligent (though I wonder if he would appeal to a broader audience if he did not put a lightning rod, himself, front and center).

In addition, one of his newest ventures, Generation Investment Management, is pioneering an interesting approach to private sector investment management. Specifically, he is trying to demonstrate that companies that are more progressive environmentally and socially are superior long-term investment options. It is not clear how this endeavor will perform, but I admire his intent and the creativity of his approach. Only a person with his influence could launch something this innovative and risky. He could be making a lot more money doing something more traditional in the private sector, but here he is, driving towards a change he thinks is valuable to the nation.

Because of this, I believe that he has the potential to live a life that will qualify him as a "great" human being. To achieve this status though, probably means giving up that title in the history books. He must not run for President again.

I consider a person "great" if they temper their own ambition or self-interest when realizing that doing so will allow them to make a bigger impact for more people. It is certainly not the only definition of greatness, but I think it is one that we can all achieve. Al Gore has a chance to fit that definition.

It is entirely understandable that Gore would want to run again. But I think he has the potential to do more good for the world if he leaves politics in the past. If he returns as a candidate, every issue he has championed and every enterprise he has supported over the last 6 years will suddenly be viewed with renewed suspicion by a large share of people.

When I talk about his environmental work to others, I often get this response (and not just from self described conservatives): "he's running for President again, huh?". Not engagement on the issue, not even disagreement on the facts, just an assumption that he is motivated not by the urgency or potential impact of the issue, but by getting attention. Many people will no doubt always hold this view, but renouncing two successive presidential campaigns is bound to gain him credibility with political moderates and independents. And this credibility will only increase over the next couple decades of his productive professional life.

Furthermore, I actually think his potential to make a real difference is lessened in the Oval Office. A President has many constituencies to serve, a political party to lead, poll numbers to monitor, and countless issues to divide his or her time. A President must carefully watch what he says and who he says it to - even when he knows he is speaking the truth. For an issue like global warming, a quiet and gradual but very real crisis, this approach is unacceptable.

Consider the lack of progress Clinton and Gore were able to make on this issue during the 90's. They did not even try to pass Kyoto through the Senate (it was an obvious non-starter), nor did they enact or even push a significant alternative. However Gore, as a private but highly influential citizen, has managed to get the issue on the high priority list of tens of millions of people - the necessary first step for any tough but necessary public policy endeavor.

So, Al, you can keep trying to save the world, or you can run for President. Ironically, you may forfeit a prominent place in the history books if you pursue the former...but it is what a truly "great" human being would do.

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