In American politics, how our leaders look at their world is usually a mystery. We know they must be ambitious, else why would they run. We know they mostly must like attention, else why would they put up with continual scrutiny. But it is hard to know much more.
Certainly, campaigns tell us little of how they think about themselves, or about us. Combine every sound bite you have ever heard, and the result is not much more than filler while you wait for your favorite programs. All the things we were told about Bill Clinton couldn't, and didn't, prepare us for Monica Lewinsky because what we heard wasn't, in the end, very helpful about explaining him. In short, we are told a great deal about our politicians but we rarely learn very much about them.
Once in awhile, however, a leader or candidate says or does something that catches the eye and is more revealing than may be intended. Al Gore, I think, provides a case in point. As officeholder and candidate, he makes it hard to figure him out. Is he a stiff and starched policy wonk or a folksy Tennessean in earth-toned clothes and cowboy boots, a strict moralist who pointedly chooses an orthodox Jew as his running mate or a free spirit who places his adulterous boss right up there with Washington and Jefferson as one of our greatest Presidents?
Gore is consistent in one respect, however, and this is where the exposure begins. He seems desperate to be taken seriously. This is understandable in someone who has lived so long in the shadows of others first his father, then Bill Clinton and it helps explain his need to place himself at the center of events, whether something important like the inventing of the Internet or ridiculous like the modeling of the besotted lover in Love Story. Gore's reach for import dare one say, for gravitas achieves its zenith, however, in places like his book Earth in the Balance and "in depth" interviews like one recounted recently by Nicholas Lemann in The New Yorker. In trying to impress, however, Gore sometimes allows us to see more of him than might be politic.
Speaking in his own voice, Gore demonstrates that he is more like his boss than may be at first apparent. Both, for a start, see the world as an unveiling of themselves. For Clinton, of course, everything is always "all about Bill." Gore may not be quite so self-absorbed, but he leans in the same direction. For him, it is more a case that everything is always "modeled on Al." In his book, we find that the world outside himself, the public world, is simply a greater version of his inner concerns, and vice-versa.
To reckon with the outer world, then, look to your innards, and if the public world is in crisis, that just reflects your own private crisis. As he puts it about the problem of environmental degradation, "the search for truths about this ungodly crisis and the search for truths about myself have been the same search all along." If the crisis were not ungodly, of course, it would be presumptuous to think it about himself.
For Gore, then, exploring himself is the key to everything. This is an old and honored idea "know thyself" Plato teaches but Gore takes it a step farther and concludes that you can only know yourself, which means that standards or fixity outside yourself are beyond reach (just as in the fund raising scandal there were no "controlling legal entities"). In this, at least, Al Gore loses his centrism and rejoins standard liberalism.
Compare, for example, his words with those of Thomas Hobbes, one of liberalism's founders. For Gore, "what I know about human nature is rooted first and foremost in my own life experience...I'm making assumptions about the way you approach life that inevitably begin from the experiences that I have had. And I daresay you're doing the same with me." For Hobbes, "read thy self...(and) thereby read and know, what are the thoughts and passions of all other men upon the like occasions."
This kind of reductionism is not a problem in itself. In a leader, however, it is unsettling. If all we can know is based on experience of ourselves no nature as a guide, no providence then all our standards and rules become self-imposed. Essentially, everything in such a world becomes arbitrary, which helps explain how easy Gore finds it to change roles in his run for office.
As critics of Hobbes have argued for a long time, however, legitimating arbitrariness is a recipe for tyranny. Al Gore is no tyrant and I am confident that he does not want to be one. But this is not altogether comforting given that he thinks in a way that ultimately justifies tyranny.