Every politician--at least every politician worth voting for--harbors something embarrassing in his past, something that raises questions about his suitability for the presidency. For Texas Gov. George W. Bush, that something is the suspected, and not denied, use of cocaine or some other illegal drug, probably more than 20 years ago. For Vice President Al Gore, the something is Earth in the Balance, his apocalyptic 1992 book on the environment.
Assume, for argument's sake, that Bush is a former cocaine user. Which is the greater disqualification for the presidency: having snorted cocaine or having written Earth in the Balance? A difficult question. No, seriously. Think about it.
For Bush, the problems would be two: felony and hypocrisy. People seem mostly willing to forgive an ancient and apparently harmless felony, if one was indeed committed. But the public's forgiveness merely compounds the hypocrisy problem. Bush, in 1997, signed the Texas law authorizing judges to send people to jail for possessing less than a gram of cocaine. Assuming Bush used cocaine, how can he ask the public to put him in the White House when he is putting people like himself in prison? How can the public forgive him while being so unforgiving with others?
Gore's case is even more intricate and interesting. I did my best to approach Earth in the Balance with an open mind. I assumed I would be unsympathetic to the book's main ideas, but I also assumed that Gore's partisan critics had characterized the book unfairly. In the first half or so, and in the conclusion, both assumptions proved correct.
The first part of the book is a catalog of environmental depredations: everything from global warming to erosion, extinction, and garbage. Like many environmentalists, Gore typically treats the worst case as the likeliest case, and he never meets a problem that isn't a ``crisis.'' But he packs in plenty of interesting material, and there is a case to be made for erring on the side of caution.
People have derided his view that righting humankind's relationship with the earth is a spiritual quest, but I found it more disarming than alarming. For Gore, people's abuse of the environment is both a symptom and a cause of modern civilization's dispiriting alienation from the natural world. ``No wonder we are lost and confused,'' he says. ``No wonder so many people feel their lives are wasted.'' He exaggerates, but there is something in what he says. Otherwise, the national parks would not be bursting with visitors longing for the sight of something other than asphalt.
His policy recommendations, which he lists at the end of the book, turn out to be ambitious and a little over the top, such as his call for a grand network of international environmental treaties and a broad ``Strategic Environment Initiative.'' But some of them, such as his call for a revenue- neutral tax on carbon dioxide emissions, point in interesting, if impolitic, directions.
True, Gore regards a Japanese ministry's ``100 Year Plan'' to save the global environment as laudable rather than funny. Also true, he naively quotes a treacly environmental credo that was purportedly spoken by Chief Seattle in 1855, but that was, in fact, written by a scriptwriter named Ted Perry in 1971. Oh, well.
But then there's the long middle of the book, and it is a surprise. I thought I was prepared, but I wasn't. To begin with, Gore is hysterical. The environmental crisis is not merely a problem, it is an enemy. The adversary, moreover, is ``nothing less than the current logic of world civilization,'' whose assault on the planet is morally equivalent to Hitler, the Holocaust, slavery, and Communism. ``Consumptionism'' and totalitarianism are both ``examples of alienation and technology run amok,'' and both require the same sort of all-or-nothing struggle. ``Either we move toward the light or we move toward the darkness.'' From now on, therefore, ``we must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization.'' Every policy, institution, law, and alliance must be directed to that end. Marginal adjustments and moderate improvements ``are all forms of appeasement.''
The extremism is troubling, even shocking, but it would be excusable as overheated rhetoric if not for Gore's attitude toward his own hysteria. The truth, he says in a characteristic locution, is ``almost unbearably obvious.'' Why, then, are so many people unconvinced? Those who deny the obvious are cowardly or corrupt, ``seeking to camouflage timidity or protect their vested interest in the status quo.'' Or they are addicts--of consumptionism--in a state of pathological denial.
Fundamentalism, in its broadest sense, is the inability to take seriously the possibility that you might be wrong. Gore's book is a casebook example. It elevates hysteria to a virtue and regards doubt as a disease.
Of no help is Gore's intellectual style. Parts of Earth in the Balance are hashes of New Age cliches (Gaia, the Goddess, Indians' higher spiritual plane, the ``psychic pain'' underlying modern civilization), and Gore's method throughout is to think not deductively but in similes, comparing everything to everything. (That's why classical economics is like antisemitism.) The result is that much of the book comes off as simply screwy, the work of a dilettante who has dangerously overestimated his intellectual competence.
Given that the author is the Vice President of the United States and the leading Democratic candidate for President, one quite reasonable reaction is to run into the street waving the book and howling with fear. But that might be hasty.
Gore can mount a defense that, at its core, is much like Bush's defense of youthful misdeeds: ``That was a long time ago. I've matured, and my record in government proves it.'' Gore, as Vice President, has been a mainstream environmentalist, which is probably what most Democrats want. Activist greens say that he has provided, as one recent Boston Globe headline said, ``more passion than action.'' The man who said in 1992 that saving the planet brooked no compromise has been compromising ever since.
Whether this point--that Gore the Vice President betrayed what Gore the Senator insisted were his deepest principles--cuts for Gore or against him isn't entirely clear. Personally, I admire a politician who knows how to rise gracefully above principle. But a further problem remains. We can be pretty sure that Bush is finished with cocaine, if he used it. But are we sure Gore is finished with eco-radicalism?
Somehow, observing him, we do not feel altogether confident. Gore still seems magnetically drawn to environmental scares. As Gregg Easterbrook noted recently in The New Republic, the Vice President rushed to embrace the supposed threat of ``endocrine disruptors,'' which now appears to be a mirage. If Gore is still even half the man he was when he wrote Earth in the Balance, then the prospect of a Gore presidency seems unsettling. Not because of what Gore says, or even what he does, but because of the sort of person he is. Hysterics don't belong in the Oval Office, or anywhere near it.
Fair enough. But even that is not the whole story. There is not much positive to be said of snorting cocaine. But a word or two can be said on behalf of writing hysterically. Here is a politician who, as a (somewhat) younger man, became infatuated with a cause and, as the committed so often do, became overwrought. Yet here is also a politician who was thinking of something other, and nobler, than his political career. Here, too, is a politician who tried to think through the grand issues of human civilization. He even pondered Aristotle!
Surely it is inconceivable that George W. Bush would ever even try to write such a book. If authoring a hysterical but committed and intellectually ambitious book disqualifies you for the presidency--well, what sort of country is this?
In the end, when you put Earth in the Balance in the balance and weigh it against, say, cocaine use, I think you conclude that the call is close. Each candidate's youthful embarrassment is a disconcertingly accurate telltale of what one suspects are his lingering faults today. One man seems almost morbidly earnest, the other perhaps too relaxed about life; one seems smug in his beliefs, the other seems to lack a hard ideological core; one seems sanctimonious, the other hypocritical.
Who says American politics doesn't offer real choices? Me, I suppose I might go with a hypocrite rather than a hysteric, because I think that the most successful Presidents are the ones who, like the Roosevelts and JFK and Reagan, project a sense of fun in politics and of native optimism in life. But, again, the call is close.
In any event, one call is not close. If Bush's undenied drug use merits discussion as a character issue, then so does Gore's undeniable book. A more revealing autobiography was never written.