I had a really neat treehouse when I was growing up on the farm," confided the Vice President of the United States to a group of giggling first-graders at a South Dakota campaign stop last March. The elementary school visit was part of the Gore presidential campaign's coming-out. "We are in the process of introducing ourself to America," the veep's aide told a reporter that day: "Who he is, and what he's all about. It's quite a story."
Indeed. And it's a story that's about to be republished in hardback. New York-based publisher Houghton Mifflin will re-release Al Gore's 1992 ecological manifesto Earth in the Balance on April 22. The book's second advent isn't an election-year PR move by the Gore campaign. This year marks the 30th anniversary of Earth Day, and Houghton Mifflin, perhaps sensing the marketing equivalent of stellar alignment, is dusting off and repackaging the environmentalist oeuvre of a man who could be the next president.
Republicans are delighted; Gore campaign strategists seem less so. That's because a fresh voter examination of Earth in the Balance could make Mr. Gore appear out of balance. Much of the book is marked by vintage Gore overstatement (famously typified when the vice president told CNN he "took the initiative in creating the Internet"). Predicting global ecological collapse, he repeatedly compares the misuse of Earth's resources to fascist butchery, then emphasizes that he meant what he wrote: "It is not merely in the service of analogy that I have referred so often to the struggles against Nazi and communist totalitarianism, because I believe that the emerging effort to save the environment is a continuation of these struggles." Mr. Gore writes that unless we embrace a new global-villagism that "requires a fuller understanding of our connection to all people today ... we will lose our ability to redeem the promise of freedom." Near the end of the book, he reveals an overwhelmingly Green prescription: "We must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization."
"I think they are all sitting in the fetal position over at the Gore campaign awaiting the release of this book," said Republican National Committee spokesman Chris Paulitz. "Earth in the Balance makes even the most left-thinking people cringe." Maybe not the left-most. But even many who favor Mr. Gore cringed in spurts when his rangy, 400-page tome was first published in 1992. For example, Time's Lance Morrow waxed generally adulatory but noted that "Gore here and there sounds as if his inner Ancient Mariner had lingered too long in adult-children seminars ... and humankind might 12-step the earth green again." An otherwise complimentary Business Week review tagged the book's second half a "magical mystery tour into Al Gore's soul" that "reels so much as to induce motion sickness." Even the liberal New Republic that year admitted that Mr. Gore's "environmental oratory is out of control."
On the eve of the book's reemergence, the Gore camp is keeping mum. Rip, a worker at Mr. Gore's Tennessee headquarters, told WORLD that the campaign press office is referring all Earth-related calls to Houghton Mifflin "since it was the publisher's decision to re-release the book." Later, Rip called back to refer WORLD to Melissa Ratcliff at the vice president's Washington press office.
What does Mr. Gore think about the republication of his book? WORLD asked Ms. Ratcliff.
"The book hasn't been released yet," she replied curtly. "If you'll call back when it is, I'll see what I can come up with."
So you have no comment at this time?
"No. No comment."
Conservatives are commenting plenty. On April 4th, Texas governor George W. Bush fired the campaign's first environmental salvo, revealing his plan to speed the rehabilitation of polluted industrial sites known as brownfields. Referring to Earth in the Balance, he then told reporters, "I think the vice president is probably going to have to explain what he meant by some of the things in his book."
In March, the Cato Institute released its own book challenging Mr. Gore's dark vision of the effects of global warming. Written by climatologists Patrick J. Michaels and Robert C. Balling Jr., The Satanic Gases argues that global warming leads to benign, if not beneficial, effects. The authors back their claims with more than 1,000 articles from peer-reviewed, scientific literature, and call Mr. Gore's apocalyptic view of global warming "nothing more than political theater."
According to the RNC, a phalanx of other conservative pundits stands ready to flood media outlets with editorials dissecting what Mr. Paulitz calls the vice president's "extremist environmental agenda." That agenda includes the complete elimination of the combustion engine by 2017 and "embarking on an all-out effort to use every policy and program, every law and institution, every treaty and alliance, every tactic and strategy, every plan and course of action-to use, in short, every means to halt the destruction of the environment and to preserve and nurture our ecological system." In Earth, Mr. Gore laments the "psychic pain" society feels as a result of its "disconnection from nature," a rift he believes occurred at the genesis of the scientific age. This disconnect, Mr. Gore writes, has resulted in a consumerist addiction that drives citizens of industrialized nations to overindulge in such things as shopping,
air-conditioning, and sport utility vehicles in a quest to "mask" their psychic pain.
While Mr. Gore's book does address important environmental concerns like water conservation and rain-forest depletion, the book also segues randomly into social analysis, with sometimes troubling results. On the family front, for example, the vice president slams the cultural standard in which fathers are the heads of their households, theorizing that patriarchal families emerged only after the dawn of science. This, he writes, caused children to "become confused about their own roles in a family system that was severely stressed by the demands of the dominant, all-powerful father" who "effectively became God's viceroy." In a chapter titled "Environmentalism of the Spirit," Mr. Gore writes that "the idea of social justice is inextricably linked in the Scriptures with ecology." As an example, he turns the Bible's first murder into an environmental tale: "The first instance of 'pollution' in the Bible occurs when Cain slays Abel and his blood falls on the ground, rendering it fallow."
Not exactly a Baptist interpretation of Genesis 4, yet Mr. Gore and his family attend New Missionary Baptist Church in Carthage, Tenn., according to his campaign bio. It's not the first time Mr. Gore's environmental views have seemed to conflict with his actions. In October, for example, Mr. Gore said he would ban all new offshore oil and gas drilling along the California and Florida coasts if elected. But he apparently doesn't mind U.S. drilling, as long as it occurs in somebody else's country. An indigenous Colombian people called the U'wa have since 1996 resisted drilling on their traditional lands by Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum Company. "We are willing to give our lives to defend Mother Earth from this project, which will ... destroy nature and upset the world's equilibrium," U'wa leaders said in a statement that made headlines four years ago. In 1998, Mr. Gore inherited nearly half a million dollars in Occidental stock when his father died. But, according to a report published in the political journal In These Times, Mr. Gore has refused to intervene on behalf of the U'wa who are still fighting Occidental, despite the tribe's apparent harmony with his environmental ideology. When queried, Mr. Gore's office did not dispute the accuracy of the report.
In the end it may be oil, rather than concern for the environment, that draws public attention to Earth in the Balance. In two national polls, only 2 percent of voters said the environment was a major issue for them in the 2000 election. By contrast, economic issues ranked high on the list. And skyrocketing gas prices, undergirded by OPEC-inflated oil prices, are already helping conservative commentators paint a target on Mr. Gore. "Mr. Gore laid the groundwork for high energy prices with his assault on the internal combustion engine in his book, Earth in the Balance ... and his relentless promotion of clamping down on use of fossil fuels," wrote 1996 vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp in a March 26 editorial. "The real danger in today's oil price spike is that it will provide cover for a new Gore administration to replace (OPEC) production controls with federal government taxes and regulations to keep the price of oil up." Mr. Kemp points out that the vice president backs the 1998 Kyoto Treaty, which would require America to scale back energy production to 1990 levels; in Earth, Mr. Gore wrote that he favored higher gas taxes. "Read Al's book," writes Mr. Kemp.
Believing that Earth reveals an ultra-Green Gore who sees the world through crisis-colored glasses, many Republicans are hoping everyone will read Al's book. But the GOP may be overestimating the caliber of their ammunition. Will the mainstream media downplay or counteract conservative attempts to point out Mr. Gore's philosophical excesses-excesses that could translate into public policy? If the 1992 media reaction is any indication, the answer could be yes-and no. While many reviewers clucked their tongues at Mr. Gore's overly passionate prose, major publications from The New York Times ("fresh and compelling") to The Boston Globe ("a genuinely prophetic book") still praised Earth in the Balance. But conservative columnists did have their say: Mr. Gore "trades in ideas, uncritically embracing extremisms," snapped George Will. ("Even spin doctors can't disguise Gore's eco-panic," wrote Joan Beck.) Early GOP criticism of Earth made more headlines than Earth itself.
Does Mr. Gore's book reveal him as a crisis-centric eco-avenger rooted in an Earth Mother metaphysic? Or did he merely overstep, as he did when he claimed in a speech last week that in 1971 his mother protested the Nashville City Club's men-only policy and "a few days later, this city club was opened to women and the charter was changed." (Actually, the club opened only its dining rooms to women-accompanied by male members-and did not go on to admit women as full club members until 14 years after Mrs. Gore's visit.) Or when he told South Dakota schoolchildren that he grew up on a farm "taking up hay all day long in the hot sun." (He did spend summers on the farm taking up hay, but grew up in Washington, D.C., the privileged son of a senator.)
In either case, having staked such a radical claim for Mr. Gore as an environmental champion, Earth in the Balance now creates for him a campaign dilemma: What he must say to harvest Green votes in important electoral states like California and New York may alienate industry-dependent, big-labor voters in states like Michigan and Pennsylvania. Even a former Tennessee farm boy might find that a tough row to hoe.