THE ASSAULT ON REASON
By Al Gore
Penguin Press, 308 pages, $32.50
We thought that Al Gore, the almost-president of the United States, had moved on. He's a writer now, and an award-winning film entrepreneur, and a business executive, too. Politics was in the past, and he was better for it. That's what he indicated, and that's what we believed.
But now appears The Assault on Reason, a slim volume inside a spare, elegant cover that might prompt a casual bookstore browser to think that the former vice-president had written a thoughtful critique on modern life, maybe some thoughts on how emotion had replaced reason in social discourse, maybe an essay on how we had become unmoored from our Enlightenment heritage.
Gore's a Harvard man, and a deep thinker - he once convened a Washington evening dinner party to discuss the role of the metaphor in American life - and maybe he had composed an important, permanent contribution to the literature of the way we live today.
There is, in truth, some of all that here, inside the elegant book jacket. There are some thoughtful reflections on the world television has made, and how conversation and civic discourse have been devalued, and what implications the Internet might have for the way society is structured and how it operates. But Gore has one abiding message: The Bush administration is a disgrace; a crime against American traditions; the symbol of the triumph of all that is cheap, shallow and selfish; a shabby effort to exploit fear, to project American exceptionalism and power, and to curtail the very freedoms that the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq are intended to protect.
Now this is not a particularly new argument, though the ferocity with which Gore expresses it is unusual in him (he's ordinarily a very measured man, slow to anger) and indeed unusual in establishment public debate. President Bush has his critics, and he has his haters, but even in the most partisan corners of Congress the case against Bush is made in less ferocious language. This is really something. To wit (one example among many dozen): "This administration simply does not seem to agree that the challenge of preserving democratic freedom cannot be met by surrendering core American values. Incredibly, this administration has attempted to compromise the most precious rights that America has stood for all over the world for more than two hundred years: due process, equal treatment under the law, the dignity of the individual, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, freedom from promiscuous government surveillance."
Gore can be a passionate man, to be sure. That passion has been on full display in his crusade against global warming, and in the past he showed it in his determination to fight against the chemical contamination of neighbourhoods riddled with toxic dump sites and in his evangelistic view of the Internet and of the technological revolution. He was exceedingly articulate in all of these undertakings, and yet, in a hard partisan role, where his job was to demonize his opponents and to personalize his attacks, he always seemed awkward, uncomfortable, as if such an attack were at base unbecoming, somehow beneath him. He was a warrior, but a warrior for causes, not a warrior against his opponents.
But this book is something quite different. This is a frontal attack on President Bush and his Republican allies, and it is personal, it is relentless, it is angry, it is bitter. In more than a quarter-century of Gore watching I have never seen him in this black a mood, in this pugilistic a manner.
And yet he takes pains to ground his argument in reason, to dress up his attack in the clothes of erudition. Sometimes, in an effort to avoid getting carried away with his rhetoric, he gets carried away with self-conscious intellectualism. In the 27 pages that make up Chapter 3 alone, he quotes Alexander Hamilton, Samuel Johnson (twice), Thomas Jefferson (five times), Plutarch, Machiavelli, Adam Smith (twice), John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, John Kenneth Galbraith and George Orwell. You want to scream: For God's sake, stop!
I do not know whether Gore is contemplating a presidential run; this might be the year when a late entrant, fired with passion and armed with experience, could sweep away Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton and ride his anger to the Democratic presidential nomination and then into the White House. And if that is what he is planning, he has laid the groundwork well with this volume. In an era when presidential candidates write warm and fuzzy books about themselves, Gore has written a fiery accusatory screed against his rivals. At least that sets him apart.
A few words more about what he has to say. A lot of it is the standard case against Bush, made as often in Canada as in the United States: Bush is a simplistic thinker, he's a foreign-policy unilateralist, he's the captive of business industries, he was determined to blame Sept. 11 on Iraq, he misled his people and his allies about weapons of mass destruction, he's repressing civil liberties, he's jeopardized the fragile balance of powers in the American political system.
But in fairness, there is more than that, most of which you can find, expressed just as eloquently, in other sections of The Globe and Mail this very Saturday. Gore has some insights about how the nature of political debate has changed, especially the role of television. "The replacement of an easily accessible, print-based marketplace of ideas with a restricted-access, television-based realm has led to a radical transformation of the nature and operation of the marketplace of the ideas in the United States." Not your standard fare in a political manifesto.
And this, a more complicated thought than you usually encounter in books like these: "Many Americans are realizing the folly of borrowing huge amounts of money from China to buy huge amounts of oil from the Persian Gulf and to make huge amounts of pollution that destroy the planet's climate." Well put.
I'm not sure precisely why Gore wrote this book, and maybe the answer simply is to set out the case against Bush. Gore didn't win the 2000 election. Perhaps he thinks that in this book he can win the larger debate with George W. Bush. Perhaps he thinks this might catapult him to the nomination in 2008. But he has proved one thing. He has showed that Al Gore, the cool candidate of the blue states, has it in him to be red hot.
David M. Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.