American voters will be asked to choose between a hypocrite and a hysteric for presidentby Jonathan Rauch / December 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Every politician worth voting for harbours something embarrassing in his past, something which raises questions about his suitability for the top job. For Texas Governor George W Bush, that something is the suspected-and not denied-use of cocaine or some other 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? This is a difficult question. Seriously.
For Bush, the problems would be two fold: felony and hypocrisy. People seem willing to forgive an ancient and apparently harmless felony, if one was indeed committed. But the public’s forgiveness merely compounds the hypocrisy problem. In 1997, Bush signed the Texas law authorising judges to send people to jail for possessing less than one 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 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 characterised the book unfairly.
The first part of the book is a catalogue 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 mending 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 civilisation’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…