WHEN Al Gore lost the presidency in a disputed election, it hurt -- more than he ever was willing to show, more perhaps than he could show. He told his friends and supporters that it was "liberating" to be out of politics. Privately, he expressed his feelings sparingly: "It was a difficult blow ... "
It was his wife, Tipper, who suggested a palliative. Dig out the old slide show, she told him, and get back on the road. It was the one thing he always felt passionate about: his solo crusade as an eco-Cassandra -- started long before he entered politics -- to warn about the growing dangers of global warming.
Gore's quest is the subject of a new documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," which opens here on May 24. His almost-professorial plea to save the planet finds him center stage once again. The straightforward but quietly devastating film is a long way from Michael Moore, and the issue it raises isn't in the forefront of the public's concerns, but many expect it to have a significant effect on the public consciousness.
Meanwhile, some of Hollywood's top politicos have been lobbying him privately to run for president in 2008, raising the tantalizing possibility of a Clinton-Gore showdown. For the record Gore, 58, says he's not interested -- at least not at the moment.
Regardless of whether he enters the race, or closes the door to politics forever, the former vice president has clearly found an issue that gives him purpose like no other. Audiences may well walk out of theaters not only compelled to do something about the environment but impressed by a Gore they've rarely seen. Onstage, and in the documentary, he displays a side of himself that never came across during his presidential race: affable, funny, passionate and -- at times -- vulnerable.
"It's hard to describe it in a way that doesn't sound excessive, but the issue of global warming is something that's always with me," he said recently over breakfast at the Regency Hotel in New York City. "You feel like you are entrusted with a very important message that you have to deliver."
Dressed in a sport jacket and a pressed shirt, he appeared relaxed at a corner table at the hotel restaurant. His day was packed with appearances and meetings in New York, before he headed down to Washington, D.C., with Tipper for an evening screening.
For months, Gore barely has had time to rest. He drinks Diet Coke -- constantly. At breakfast, he ordered three refills. All his friends know about this habit. At the screening in D.C., they chuckled out loud at the sight of him on-screen, typing on his omnipresent Apple laptop and sipping the soft drink.
He talks easily about the film, but discussing the bitterly contested 2000 election is still hard. (While his family and staff were morose after the race, Gore tried to stay upbeat. "He was the one keeping us all steady," said longtime aide Mike Feldman.)
"I may write about it someday, but I'm not ready to yet," Gore said. "It was difficult. It was difficult....You just have to make the best of it. It did help me to focus on what was most important to carry me forward and right away this surfaced for me very powerfully."
Through adversity, Gore's supporters say, perhaps he has found his calling. The documentary will make people look at him "in a different light," said longtime Democratic political strategist Bill Carrick. "Here's someone who has been through it, has come out the other side and just wants to tell people what's on his mind without worrying about what's acceptable to a whole bunch of focus groups," Carrick said.
"That sort of freedom he has in the current situation really makes him quite attractive. I don't think he's plotting a campaign right now. None of this, in my view, seems contrived. It's just what Gore wants to say and do."
Gore has done other things since 2000: He started a cable network, joined the board of directors at Apple Computer Inc., taught college classes. But nothing has compared with this.
"When he's excited about something, he wants you to know every single thing about it," said Tipper Gore. She said she sometimes worried that he was wearing himself out with the slide show. "He would say: 'You don't understand. This gives me strength.' "
A 40-year concern
GORE'S interest in world climate changes dates to the late '60s. Roger Revelle, one of his science teachers at Harvard, issued a shocking prediction to his students: Carbon dioxide, spewed into the atmosphere by cars, coal-burning power plants and other black-smoke polluters, would devastate Earth if left unchecked.
"I was lucky because I had a good teacher who explained and showed this to me early on," Gore recalled.