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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Candidate Profile: Al Gore

Air Date: Week of January 21, 2000

Host Steve Curwood profiles Vice President and Democratic candidate for President Al Gore. Seven years ago, the environmental community was overjoyed as Mr. Gore, author of the environmental tract “Earth in the Balance,” came into office. Today, while some credit him with fighting off Republican attacks on key environmental laws, many claim he hasn't lived up to his promise to foster environmental change.

Transcript

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. For seven years, Vice President Al Gore has enjoyed a privileged reputation as America's most prominent environmentalist. And he's part of an administration that many consider to be among the greenest in history. But now, as the presidential primaries are on hand and Mr. Gore is running for the top job in Washington, people are taking a closer look at his successes and shortcomings. Not everyone thinks he's lived up to his promise.

GORE: I, Albert Gore, Junior, do solemnly swear.

MAN: That I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States...

GORE: That I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States...

CURWOOD: It was January 1993, a dream come true for environmental advocates. Al Gore, veteran senator, who said protecting the environment should be, quote, "the central organizing principle of modern society," is sworn in as vice president of the United States.

GORE: So help me God.

MAN: And I know you will, Vice President.

GORE: Thank you, Mr. Justice.

(Crowds cheer, a band starts up)

CURWOOD: As Washington partied at inaugural balls, many environmentalists felt they had seized the reins of power.

 

CLAPP: For those of us in the environmental movement, this really seemed like a new dawn, a completely new beginning.

CALLAHAN: There was an excitement and an optimism about the future that was extraordinary.

SCHARDT: The electricity was unbelievable. Everybody was just exploding with expectations and hope and a sense of great accomplishments ahead, and had very, very high hopes.

CURWOOD: So high, recalls Deb Callahan of the League of Conservation Voters, that there was almost a magical sense of opportunity about the new administration.

CALLAHAN: I remember so many of my friends were knocking on doors and doing everything they could and trying to maneuver their way into jobs, because they wanted to be a part of this. And that says something when people not only want to vote for you, they want to work for you. They want to be a part of the future that you're creating.

CURWOOD: Thanks to Al Gore, President Clinton started with an ambitious environmental agenda.

GORE: I told him the single most important issue for me was to make sure that he would protect the environment, and he kept his word to me.

CURWOOD: But the euphoria soon faded with a crushing defeat. The administration's firstmajor environmental policy initiative, a broad-based energy tax, was killed by the Senate. And there were other setbacks. Fights to increase grazing fees and mining royalties on federal lands were abandoned as President Clinton ran into political roadblocks. Challenged, the administration seemed to be losing its backbone. Many activists felt their historic opportunity was being squandered. Phillip Clapp is the president of the National Environmental Trust.

CLAPP: The list of environmental issues on which this administration has been willing to say this is a matter of principle, and I will not move from this ground, is very, very short. And had the administration chosen to really take the issue over the heads of Congress and the American people, I think they could have made a lot more progress than they did.

CURWOOD: But some view the retreat as a matter of political survival. Jonathan Adler is with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank.

ADLER: The reason the administration was not more aggressive was because it was being politically savvy, not because it didn't want to do those things. And I think a lot of the criticism of the Clinton-Gore administration forgets that. That it wasn't for lack of trying that there weren't more environmental legislative accomplishments.

CURWOOD: Still, there was a sense the administration had surrendered. And come 1994, things only got worse.

HOUSE CALLER: Mr. Clerk, the Speaker-elect Newt Gingrich, representative from Georgia, and the escort committee.

(Cheers from the crowd)

GINGRICH: The balanced budget amendment and line item veto to stop violent criminals emphasizing, among other things...

CURWOOD: In a massive political shift, Republicans took control of both houses of Congress.

GINGRICH: Eighth was rolling back government regulations. Ninth was...

CURWOOD: Newt Gingrich's Contract with America launched some of the most aggressive anti-environmental legislation ever. The speaker's lieutenants in the House were on the attack.

DeLAY: The critical promise we made to the American people was to get the government off their backs. And the EPA, the gestapo of government, pure and simply, has been one of the major claw-hogues that the government has maintained on the backs of our constituents.

CURWOOD: It seemed like Al Gore's darkest hour. But some credit him with fighting back, urging the president to veto GOP initiatives that appeared to go too far, like the one that would have allowed oil drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, known as ANWR.

GORE: Any reconciliation bill that opens ANWR to drilling, he will veto, period. Doesn't matter what else is in the bill.

CURWOOD: It's during this time, supporters say, that Al Gore earned his stripes. He reminded the president that protecting the environment is a core American value and that standing his ground would be good politics even if it meant shutting down the federal government. I recently asked Mr. Gore if he feels he made a difference during this critical period.

GORE: Well, I talked constantly with the president, of course, about the need to veto anti-environment measures.

CURWOOD: Did you get down on the floor and scream and yell and --

GORE: No, he's committed. He's committed.

CLINTON: The government is partially shutting down, because Congress has failed to pass the straightforward legislation necessary to keep the government running...

CURWOOD: Many environmentalists credit the vice president with stiffening the resolve of the administration. Attorney Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., is with Environmental Voters for Gore.

KENNEDY: The takeover of the Congress was so dramatic and so convincing and so seductive to so many people, a lot of people thought that's the way we need to go. And Al Gore stood up and said no, you know, the truth is on our side, and as devastating as this appears, it's going to come back. And we came out on the other side of it, and we still had most of our federal environmental laws intact.

CURWOOD: Not merely intact, Al Gore supporters point out, but in many cases improved. When it wasn't fighting off challenges from Congress, the administration managed to expand public lands and forests, strengthen clean air standards and accelerate the clean-up of toxic waste sites. In most of these cases, Mr. Gore took the initiative on the president's behalf.

GORE: He asked me to take charge of that part of the agenda, And with very few exceptions -- there have been a few exceptions -- but with very few exceptions he has taken my advice.

CURWOOD: Those exceptions, however, have left many angry with both President Clinton and Mr. Gore. A case in point: their response to Congressional budget riders, a tactic Republicans used to suspend environmental laws. One of the most infamous riders, to open vast regions of protected forest to so-called salvage logging, came to the president's desk in 1995. Vice President Gore urged another veto. But in the end, President Clinton let the rider pass. Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth, was among those left wondering whether Al Gore was as effective as he claimed to be.

BLACKWELDER: What good does it do the improvement of the health of the planet when you get into a position of power and you suddenly can't get a result? Al Gore accepted that title of environmental spokesman. He did not shy away from it. He in fact boasted that he is not like other vice presidents. He has been given extraordinary powers and roles and influence.

CURWOOD: Others criticize the vice president's record on his signature issue, global warming. In 1997 Al Gore traveled to Japan, negotiated a treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and got the president to agree. But when Mr. Gore came home, he found a Senate resolutely opposed, and the treaty is now in limbo. Failures like these led Friends of the Earth to endorse Al Gore's Democratic opponent, Bill Bradley. And they're not the only ones talking about the vice president's shortcomings. Lester Brown, president of the World Watch Institute, once said Mr. Gore could be a Gorbachev of the environmental revolution. Now, he's not so sure.

BROWN: He just knew so much more than anyone else in political life about these issues. I mean, he was head and shoulders above anyone. And so, at that point I had to hope that he would really make a difference. But I think he was captured by the office.

CURWOOD: Few question the vice president's ideals, but many wonder whether he has what it takes to maintain his idealism as president. Deb Callahan of the League of Conservation Voters thinks Mr. Gore could choose to compromise the way Mr. Clinton has.

CALLAHAN: The reality is, Gore is somebody who does try to do what is politically feasible. I think if he has a Congress and committee chairs that are like-minded people, I think you'll see very sweeping measures. I think that he'll be careful to make sure that he doesn't get too far out in front of the politics.

CURWOOD: In the end, it's a question of leadership, and whether Al Gore has the charisma to energize voters about the environment. He was once known as a firebrand on the subject, but now he's viewed as passionless and wooden. He rarely talks about his signature issue on the campaign trail.

SCHARDT: Over and over again, I believe that we have seen his staff in the vice presidential arena holding him back from what he knows is really needed.

CURWOOD: Arlie Schardt was once Al Gore's press secretary. He disagrees with those who are apparently advising the Vice President to restrain his rhetoric on the environment.

SCHARDT: Frankly, I think that's a mistake, because I think the main reason that he has reached the prominence that he has is because of his leadership on environmental issues.

(Marching drums)

CURWOOD: Despite the debate over campaign tactics, Al Gore hasn't completely abandoned the issue. I caught up with him earlier this month at a high school in Somersworth, New Hampshire.

GORE: ... clean up the environment ...

CURWOOD: He stood in a gymnasium full of students, taking an environmental poll.

GORE: How many people here think global warming is real? Could I see a show of hands?

CURWOOD: Almost all the students silently raised their hands.

GORE: How many people here don't think it's real? I hope the traveling national press takes note of that, because we need to take action on problems like that. We need to take action ...

CURWOOD: Events like this are rare. Still, when you sit the vice president down, one on one, his enthusiasm shines through. He told me it's just a matter of convincing Americans the environment isn't an abstract scientific concept. It's something that affects each of us personally. He's confident people can solve big problems like climate change because it's been done before.

GORE: Let me give you an example. People said, when we tried to clean up our rivers, that it was impossible. It would wreck the economy. But we've made tremendous progress. They said that we couldn't clean up air pollution because it would wreck the economy, too expensive. Well, we have made dramatic gains in the reduction of air pollution. And the economy has grown even faster in the process. That's good news.

CURWOOD: Okay, I grant you all of that, and yet to solve the climate change issue --

GORE: Yeah --

CURWOOD: You have to change the entire energy system.

GORE: Yeah, it's tougher. It's tougher, fair enough. But it also makes it a much bigger opportunity. We can find new efficiencies that will make a dramatic, positive difference in the way we live our lives. I mean, who enjoys traffic jams? If we come up with better ways to get to work and back, with less pollution, that's going to be a big challenge, yeah. But it's a big opportunity to improve the quality of life, to give parents more time with their children. If we go to different kinds of fuels, if we go to affordable, safe, comfortable, easy mass transportation, like light rail, we're going to be able to read on the way to work and back, or use laptops or whatever people want to do, instead of sitting bumper to bumper and having our blood pressure go up. Yeah, it's going to be tough. But we've always risen to the challenge.

CURWOOD: So now it's up to Mr. Gore to convince voters that he can rise to the challenge as president, and be the environmental ally many have been waiting for. Our profile of Vice President Gore was produced by Jesse Wegman.

 

 

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