Friday, June 1, 2007

The Waiting Game in Union Square: Al Gore Comes to Town

In case you haven't heard, Al Gore came through New York last week. His first stop was on Thursday, at the 92nd st. Y, for and interview with Charlie Rose. Those $50 tickets had sold out before I even knew they'd gone on sale. And, honestly, 92nd st. is just so far uptown it feels to me like another planet altogether. So it's entirely possible that it might never have occurred to me to go to that event, even had there been an infinite supply of tickets. I'm not even sure what train I'd need to take to get all the way up there.

The next day though, last Friday, he hit the Barnes and Noble in Union Square, for a short talk about his new book, "The Assault on Reason," and a signing. Much more conveniently located, not to mention free, and altogether impossible to resist, at least for the overpoliticizied likes of me.

And apparently for plenty of other people too. The event was held on the fourth floor, and the place was packed. In keeping with the biggest surprise of the day, which was how unprepared the Barnes & Noble staffers seemed to be for the size of crowd, attendance estimates have varied wildly, from 400 all the way to 750 people. Whatever the number was exactly, there were a lot of us, all there to see what the former Vice President had to say, and willing to wait, and wait, and wait some more, in a very orderly fashion, in our lines, that snaked all the way through the fiction, memoir, and, if I'm recalling correctly, even eastern religion sections, as the day went on.

Ordinarily, I am terrible at waiting in line. Horrible. Patience is not one of my virtues, not by a long shot. This one though, was not so bad. I'd even go so far as to say that it was kind of fun, in a strange sort of way. Not just because we were all united in our wait, and in our frustration with the confusing, contradictory instructions given by the Barnes & Noble staffers as we waited, and not just because we'd all read, or were all in the process of reading, the same book, though all of that certainly helped. But mostly, because everyone there, at least everyone who I passed by, had one question on their minds, one I've been asking for months and months now, one the media dances around here and there, now and then, but never gets too far with. You know the one, don't you? The is he or isn't he, will he or won't he? Will Al Gore be running for president in 2008, or not?

Granted, it's just one question, but, fortunately, given the length of that fourth floor line, it's the kind of question people can go back and forth and back again about for hours. There's the fact of the book itself, of course, and its timing. It does seem to have become almost a requirement, doesn't it? To write a book when launching one's presidential campaign? And Gore's endless iterations within that book of his own personal religious faith. Again, a bizarre requirement for those with aspirations to the oval office, in twenty first century America, but not really the kind of thing people go around blathering about much otherwise. And then, the book tour, offers such a perfect opportunity to test the presidential waters, which, given Gore's reception in Union Square, and the speed with which his book shot up to number one on both Amazon the New York Times bestseller lists, would seem to be looking pretty welcoming indeed. So there's all that.

And did I mention how much everyone in line wanted him to run? Very, very much, that's how much. There was definitely something comforting, after all these months of hearing that my choices had boiled down to Hillary or Obama, and I'd better make up my mind, between those two, lickety split, that I was not the only one holding out, waiting to see if Gore might not come through after all. It's not that there's anything wrong with Hillary or Obama. Not at all. In another year, I think I'd be delighted by either one of them. But somehow, this year, the two of them feel like children playing presidential candidates, and Gore feels like the grown up, who knows how to do it properly. That's the best description I can come up with, for the trouble I have with the two of them, and the reason I'm still playing this waiting game with Gore.

Because in spite of all the reasons to think he's going to run, there is that one little glitch in the works. He won't say he's running. But then, he also won't say he's definitely, absolutely, positively, not running. This, we all agreed as we waited in our lines, was enough to drive a person mad. He's not running until he's running. Or he's running until he's not running. He's the world's biggest tease, is what it comes down to.

This is around about where we were, in line, in our conversation, when Gore showed up, to begin his talk. He was, I must add, surprisingly prompt, and very much the new Gore he's been for the last year or so. Smart and funny, comfortable in his own skin, and most importantly, saying the things no one else on the political scene seems to be saying. He hit the high points of the new book, talking about what exactly it is that's gone wrong in our political discourse, how it has happened that we know more about Paris Hilton's life than we do about what's really going on in Iraq.

Then he went on to talk more specifically about the Bush administration. Talking about the feeling he has, which we in the audience shared, that something has gone terribly wrong in America. One of the biggest applause lines was a near direct quote from the book's introduction, about it's being too easy to place the blame for what's gone wrong on one political party or one president, because we are all equally responsible for what happens in this country, and for what is done by this country around the world.

As much as I had personally responded to that line when I'd read it, I was surprised to find the rest of the audience reacting in the same way. After all, it's not really what you usually think of as a crowd pleaser, to be asked to take personal responsibility for horrible mistakes. But please the crowd it did.

More than that, though, as we applauded his speech, and prepared to move into the next phase of our waiting, to get our books signed, it reminded us of why exactly it was that we were there. Why we were willing to do all this waiting for him, in and out of that line. Because he has become the person who tells us things we might not want to hear, but have in fact been longing for. Because he has stopped playing the endless games of political calculus that keep Hillary and Obama and all the rest of them so careful of each and every utterance. Tell me something clear and true, even if it's hard, and I'll wait around, to hear what else you have to say.

I'm still waiting to hear what Gore's planning to do about the 2008 elections, but I did get my two copies of his book signed. At least that's something.

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