Seeing Al Gore so deservedly share the Nobel Peace Prize, it is impossible not to note the contrast in his leadership and that of President Bush.
Gore and Bush each faced a crucible moment. For Gore, it was winning the popular vote and having the election taken away from him by a Republican-dominated Supreme Court. For Bush, it was the shocking terrorist attack on 9/11.
Gore lost the presidency, but in the dignity and grace with which he gave up his legal fight, he united America. Then, faced with what to do with the rest of his life, he took up a personal crusade to combat climate change, even though the odds were stacked against him, his soapbox was small, his audiences were measured in hundreds, and his critics were legion. Nevertheless, Gore stuck with it and over time has played a central role in building a global consensus for action on this issue.
"No matter what happens, sooner or later character in leadership is revealed," said David Rothkopf, author of the upcoming "Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making." "Gore lost the election and had to figure out what to do with the rest of his life. He took the initiative to get the country and the world to focus on a common threat climate change. Bush won the election, and for the first year really didn't know what to do with it. When, on 9/11, we and the world were suddenly faced with a common threat terrorism and al-Qaida the whole world was ready to line up behind him, but time and again he just divided us at home and abroad."
Indeed, Bush, rather than taking all that unity and using it to rebuild America for the 21st century, took all that unity and used it to push the narrow agenda of his "base." He used all that unity to take a far-right agenda on taxes and social issues that was going nowhere on 9/10 and drive it into a 9/12 world.
Never has so much national unity which could have been used to develop a real energy policy, reverse our coming Social Security deficit, assemble a lasting coalition to deal with Afghanistan and Iraq, maybe even get a national health-care program been used to build so little. That is what historians will note most about Bush's tenure the sheer wasted opportunity of it all.
Yes, Iraq was always going to be hugely difficult, but the potential payoff of erecting a decent, democratizing government in the heart of the Arab world was also enormous. Yet Bush, in his signature issue, never mobilized the country, never punished incompetence, never made the bad guys "fight all of us," as Bill Maher put it, by at least pushing through a real energy policy to reduce the resources of the very people we were fighting. He thought he could change the world with 50.1 percent of the country, and he couldn't.
"Gore, even without the presidency, used all the modern tools of communication, the Internet, video and globalization to reach out and galvanize a global movement," Rothkopf said. "Bush took the greatest platform in the world and dug himself a policy grave."
Now Bush is a spent force and Gore is, apparently, not running. So we still need a president who can unify the country around meaningful action on energy and climate. Most of the Democratic candidates mouth the right words, but I don't sense much real passion. Most of the Republican candidates seem to be brain-dead on the energy/climate challenge. And it is amazing to me how flat-out wrong some conservatives, like Rush Limbaugh, can be on this issue.
They can't see what is staring us in the face that in pushing American companies to become greener, we are pushing them to become more productive, more innovative, more efficient and more competitive.
You can't make a product greener without making it smarter and more in demand whether it is a refrigerator or a microchip. Just ask GE or Wal-Mart or Sun Microsystems. You can't make an army greener without making it more secure. Just ask the U.S. Army officers who are desperate for distributed solar power, so they won't have to depend on diesel fuel to power their bases in Iraq fuel that has to be trucked all across that country, only to get blown up by insurgents. In pushing our companies to go green we are spurring them to take the lead in the next great global industry clean power.In sum, Al Gore has been justly honored for highlighting like no one else the climate challenge. But we still need a vision, a strategy, an army and a commander in the White House who can inspire young and old not only to meet that challenge but to see in it the opportunity to make America a better, stronger and more productive nation. This is our crucible moment.
Thomas Friedman is a New York Times columnist.