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Monday, July 02, 2007

An Inconvenient Truth?

This from a huggy Bob Herbert interview with Al Gore in the NYT a few weeks ago: "[W]hat politics has become requires a level of tolerance for triviality and artifice and nonsense that I find I have in short supply.”

And this from Monday's Times:

It turns out that Al Gore is a die-hard fan [of The Sopranos], but when the series finale loomed in early June, he and his wife, Tipper, had to be on a plane for an appearance in Istanbul.

So Mr. Gore . . . called Brad Grey, the chairman of Paramount whose studio distributed his documentary, for a favor. Mr. Grey is also an executive producer of “The Sopranos,” from his previous incarnation as a Hollywood manager. Could Mr. Gore get an advance copy of the final episode, he wanted to know? . . . .

On the Sunday of the finale, [Grey] had a Halliburton-made steel case, containing a copy of the episode, delivered to the tarmac where Mr. Gore’s plane sat in Chicago. The case was locked with a code (some might call it a “lockbox”). Mr. Gore could not open it until the plane was in the air, when he was instructed to call Mr. Grey’s office for the numeric code. Mr. Gore sent Mr. Grey a photo of himself trying to pry open the case, which Mr. Grey now keeps on his desk.

Maybe I'm naive.  I understand the two items aren't directly contradictory.  But assuming the story is accurate, do I really want lessons in rising above triviality and artifice from a guy who trades on his name and connections for privileges that are, at one and the same time, both cheap and unobtainable?  I thought being a populist was about something more than buying your speeches from Bob Shrum; I thought it meant something about not cutting in line, too. 

Posted by Paul Horwitz on July 2, 2007 at 12:10 AM in Current Affairs | Permalink


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"I've worked in politics, and advisors always give candidates rules of thumb so that they always appear to be "regular folks" even though they're not, e.g., never wear a watch that cost more than $40. These rules exist because the American people are easily duped into thinking such trivial matters are important."

But these matters are important. There are a lot of us out here who don't want our lawmakers to be "elites." We want them to be regular human beings who live in the real world and see things as we do, instead of behind that proverbial velvet rope. And if they're only acting like regular people, we need to know that as well.

"Perhaps we'd see real social and political change if voters (and the media) started looking at policies and less at personal lives."

If only they could be so conveniently separated. People who are hypocrites in their real lives are likely to be that way professionally as well, and the policies they craft will end up being "for thee, but not for me." We have way too much of that already, IMHO.

Posted by: Kev | Jul 3, 2007 2:14:09 AM

it seems to me that this post makes gore's point rather effectively, however unintentionally.

Posted by: jonah gelbach | Jul 2, 2007 11:10:43 PM

Kevin's post, in particular, is very insightful. And aeroman asks the key question. I've worked in politics, and advisors always give candidates rules of thumb so that they always appear to be "regular folks" even though they're not, e.g., never wear a watch that cost more than $40. These rules exist because the American people are easily duped into thinking such trivial matters are important. I'm not a fan of a Gore run, but he's dead on. Perhaps we'd see real social and political change if voters (and the media) started looking at policies and less at personal lives.

Posted by: anonlawstudent | Jul 2, 2007 9:07:43 PM

More to the point: are all wealthy and powerful people supposed to pretend not to be wealthy and powerful, or just ones with populist political beliefs?

Posted by: aeroman | Jul 2, 2007 6:21:55 PM

I just don't understand how Al Gore "doesn't see the velvet ropes." Has he ever claimed not to be wealthy? Not to be powerful? You're attributing ignorance or blindness to him when there's no reason whatsoever to do so. Isn't it a bit more likely that when he enjoys special privileges he either: a) thinks it's harmless; b) thinks availing himself of the privilege has some benefit outweighing the harm (such as when he uses his own wealth and connections to pursue a policy position); or c) is just being selfish, like you are with your clerkship photo, and isn't ignorant of it at all?

By the way, getting the advance video actually WAS harmless, so it seems ridiculous to fault him for it. When you cut in line, the harm isn't that you get something sooner, it's that the people behind you get something later. No one missed out on the Sopranos because Al Gore didn't have to.

Posted by: aeroman | Jul 2, 2007 6:19:17 PM

Needless to say, I expect an angry denunciation of the double standards in Bush's effective pardon of Scooter Libby.

Posted by: Bart Motes | Jul 2, 2007 6:15:37 PM

Somewhere John Edwards -- who owns the largest, most expensive home in all of Orange County, South Carolina -- is smiling through his Vasoline-coated teeth.

Posted by: Joel Smith | Jul 2, 2007 5:03:05 PM

I read that story, and I thought the inconvenient truth was that Gore flew from Chicago to Istanbul in a private jet instead of commercial. And though it would be ironic if Gore received a delivery in a case made by Haliburton (instead of say Occidental), Zero Haliburton (the luggage company) is actally a subsidiary of some Japanese conglomorate.

Posted by: Insignificant Dallasite | Jul 2, 2007 4:45:41 PM

This is just the Canadian academic version of the plen-t-plaint. As Kevin's excellent comment points out, Horwitz somehow works himself into a lather over Gore's meaningless indulgence but Bush's far greater excesses don't rate a mention. How about what Donald Trump said about the Bush daughters: "“When you’re a president who has destroyed the lives of probably a million people, our soldiers and Iraqis who are maimed and killed — you see children going into school in Baghdad with no arms and legs — I don’t think Bush’s kids should be having lots of fun in Argentina,” he says." But heck, let's talk about Gore watching a specially procured video. Do you put on a big red nose when you type this stuff?

Posted by: Bart Motes | Jul 2, 2007 4:42:41 PM

When has Al Gore ever said he was a populist? The "people vs. the powerful" shtick of 2000 was so transparent, I don't think he really intended us to believe it. Gore has always presented himself as heir to a family political tradition and an intellectual who writes books about heavy topics. You never heard about Gore joining Clinton on one of those midday McDonald's runs.

My concern about Gore, illustrated by the story, is that he is part of an emerging global warming nomenklatura of wealthy and powerful people who will be permitted to live a lavish lifestyle not in keeping with their professed environmental principles, and rationalize it because their "views" are so damn important. They are blind to the self-defeating aspect of their behavior.

Posted by: John S. | Jul 2, 2007 3:29:37 PM

Can you imagine Woody Guthrie calling his Hollywood friends for such a favor?

Would Robert LaFollette ever have cut in line?

Would Hubert Humphrey presume to such trivial elitism?

Real pupulism comes with the humility of the common man. Al Gore has yet to learn what the word means. Paul, I couldn't agree with you more.

Posted by: Lycurgus | Jul 2, 2007 3:13:45 PM

I also think this is an ironically perfect example of exactly what Gore was talking about. It matters not in the least what Gore watches on TV, or how big his house is, or what favors he gets that impose no cost on anyone else. But the right wing has brainwashed not only its own followers, but the press and pundits, into believing that their obsessive hostility to other people's personal lives constitutes some sort of policy analysis. They actually believe that hyperventilating over Gore's TV watching is the sophisticated version of poking each other in the ribs over John Edwards's hair. And for them, it is.

Populism has nothing to do with pretending to live the same lives as others in other circumstances. That Marie-Antoinette-as-milkmaid bullshit is for George Bush and his fake farm down in Waco. Populism means caring about the lives of each person regardless of status or influence, and working to see their needs met and their interests taken seriously - something at which Gore is several lifetimes' worth of effort ahead of any Republican.

I'll note one seemingly obvious point in closing: what's wrong with cutting in line is that it pushes everyone behind you that much further back; asking a favor that doesn't affect anyone else isn't cutting in line. Gore getting to watch "The Sopranos" on tape, rather than on cable, isn't cutting in line. George Bush begging for special admission to the National Guard so that someone else could go to Vietnam in his place is cutting in line. There's a difference.

Posted by: Kevin T. Keith | Jul 2, 2007 2:39:41 PM

This is silly. The problem with politics is too many people focusing on things that don't matter at the cost of those that do, i.e., the policy and approach of those in power. I am happy that Al Gore got to see the episode. Good for him.

Posted by: anonlawstudent | Jul 2, 2007 12:56:12 PM

Paul, maybe your next post could be about the disconnect between pulling a single quote from an article in which Gore also bemoans the attempt to discuss serious issues in sound-bites and 30 second ads.

Posted by: Greg | Jul 2, 2007 11:40:23 AM

Though I really like the vast majority of your posts, I have to say that the politics of personality issue is wearing thin, whoever pursues it. If I want an in-depth dissection of the vices and virtues of politicians, I'll read a MoDo column.

I'm vastly more interested in John Edwards' health plan than in the cost of his haircut, and in Bush's economic policies rather than his private reading list (of, say, The Stranger). Check out Paul Krugman's column on Franklin Roosevelt's lack of "authenticity" as a populist--he loved sailing, came from an aristocratic family, etc. But he knew that programs like Social Security made policy sense, and just saying that his circumstances left him unbothered by the taxation necessary to fund it makes very little contribution to the policy debate about the wisdom of Social Security.

Finally, maybe your analysis would matter if Gore were a candidate--but he's not even running! And even if he were, I think my comment on this post would apply to this situation, too:

Posted by: Frank | Jul 2, 2007 11:08:58 AM

James, thanks for the comments. I will for the most part not respond, and allow others to thread the agreements and disagreements between us -- although I will say that "[p]erhaps it should have" suggests a point of overlap between us that the remainder of your disagreements might leave obscure. I just want to add one thing in response to your comment: I'm not critizing the show The Sopranos! I was not a loyal fan but certainly liked it just fine.

Incidentally, for more on Brad Grey, see, e.g., http://www.defamer.com/hollywood/brad-grey/brad-greys-pelican-problem-160169.php.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jul 2, 2007 10:15:06 AM

I think you're profoundly misreading what Gore meant by "triviality, artifice, and nonsense." You seem to be saying that the Sopranos is all three, and so is calling in a personal favor to watch the episode even though one will be on a plane at the time. But my sense is that Gore's point is usually about the hypocrisies of politics -- the daily lies, false friendships, and vapid lines. I don't see any of that in his actions with the final episode. He may have made more telling comments elsewhere in the interview or in other speeches, but the two stories you link don't provide good evidence for contradiction.

More generally, Gore's populism, particularly his environmental populism, takes a "we're all in this together" tack. An Inconvenient Truth contains some musings on the obligations of those in privileged positions to give back and not to allow their lifestyles to harm others--but not so much, as I recall, of an attack on privilege itself. Perhaps it should have.

Basically, I think you're finding a contradiction here by essentializing "populism" and "elitism," both of which come in many flavors.

Posted by: James Grimmelmann | Jul 2, 2007 10:02:51 AM

I thought this might stir things up. I'm willing to stand by this one notwithstanding the fair criticisms from Dan. The not-quite-paradox that strikes me wrong here is that Gore is a populist *and* an elitist, and I think the two just don't fit in a way that is good for the development of a just society -- not just politically, but in a broader social sense. I feel this maybe a little more keenly because I am opposed to populism, but believe, so to speak, that elites ought to behave in a populist way -- with humility, a willingness not to feed off of the prerogatives of class and celebrity, an open acknowledgement that they are walled off from much of society, and a willingness to do something about it. Dan writes that the entire glitterati class is fuled by favor trades that often form the "friendships" (my scare quotes on that one) between its members. That, to me, seems the very point -- and the very definition of living a life shot through with an often unconscious acceptance of triviality, artifice and nonsense. Or do you think, Dan, that Gore is likely ever to give a speech in which he calls himself a member of the glitterati class?

Does that mean Al Gore would be a bad President? No. Does it make him different from other members of his class, whether in Washington or LA? No. The world is populated by what I might semi-vulgarly call star****ers. I can't help but note that *I* haven't taken down the picture of the judge for whom I clerked, which is still on my wall, and I don't doubt that my motives for having it on the wall are mixed. I don't doubt the same is true for those who have even more impressive pictures on their wall -- their Supreme Court Justice, their Senator, etc. -- no matter how ardently revolutionary or egalitarian or populist they may purport to be -- to themselves, not least. We might acknowledge the troubling aspects of living in such a system, though, rather than pretending we're rising above it. Those who are privileged in this manner might actually acknowledge that they live in a privileged world in which celebrity is the coin of the realm, rather than pretend they are above such worldly snares. It's fine to see life from the VIP lounge; I wish I could! But, as I wrote, I am not inclined to take lectures about avoiding artifice from people who can't even see the velvet ropes -- who have Jon Bon Jovi play at their concession party but don't see anything unusual or telling in that fact.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jul 2, 2007 9:01:17 AM

Paul, Howard, I have to disagree here too. Gore's a private citizen these days and the entire glitterati class is fueled by favor trades that often form the friendships between its members. Moreover, just having an advantage over other people is the product of economic and cultural success, no different than who gets into which busy restaurants, theatre tix. Now if Brad Grey had been a gov't exec instead of a studio exec...different story.

Posted by: Dan Markel | Jul 2, 2007 8:05:18 AM

He did cut in line. He jumped ahead of the other people on that plane and everyone else who otherwise had some obligation that kept her from watching the show when it first aired and had to watch it later. All bore "the risk of having the ending of the series spoiled by someone" who got to watch the show when it first aired. Gore, because of that personal connection, avoided that risk.

Now, I don't think this is a big deal and don't think it says much about Gore's populist credentials. But he did get an advantage (trivial though it might have been) over other people.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jul 2, 2007 6:55:02 AM

I'm with Bart on this one. And notice that, contra the post, Gore didn't even cut in line -- he didn't get to watch the finale before everyone else ("On the Sunday of the finale..."), he just avoided the risk of having the ending of the series spoiled by someone who wasn't flying when it aired on HBO!

Posted by: Kevin | Jul 2, 2007 3:30:31 AM

Oh give me a break. If you can't see the difference between tedious obligations and calling in a favor based on a personal relationship, I pity you.

Posted by: Bart Motes | Jul 2, 2007 12:22:23 AM

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