Most Americans last saw Al Gore on December 13, 2000. That's when he ended his concession speech by saying, "And now, my friends, in a phrase I once addressed to others, it's time for me to go."
But look at Al Gore today. Magazines are running articles on "The Resurrection of Al Gore" (Wired) and "The Comeback Kid" (New York). His new movie, "An Inconvenient Truth," opened this week, and it's drawing good reviews: "A necessary film," writes A.O. Scott in The New York Times. For an Al Gore movie, that's a rave.
Could this be Al Gore's moment?
Since 2000, the former vice president has been traveling the world delivering lectures on the threat of global warming. More than a thousand lectures, in fact.
"I set myself a goal to communicate this real clearly," Gore says as the movie shows him trudging through airports, carrying his own bags. "The only way I know to do it is city by city, person by person, family by family."
He means it. At an advance screening in Washington last week, Gore was asked why his lectures had not gotten much press attention. "I deliberately kept them off the record," he said. "I wanted to preserve the intimacy of each occasion."
Hollywood producer Lawrence Bender saw Gore's talk and said to himself, this has got to be a movie. "We need to get millions of people to see it," Bender told CNN. "So we filmed him all around the world -- in China, all over the country, doing this presentation. It's truly phenomenal. It's going to blow your mind."
A lecture by Al Gore?
"The message is one that is serious and urgent and complicated," Gore said at the Sundance Film Festival in January. "They have made it entertaining and enjoyable and funny and really watchable."
How did they do that? By doing what Hollywood does best: Telling a story.
Director Davis Guggenheim said, "One of the things I wanted to do was tell his personal story, why he's so invested in this, why these facts and figures are so interesting to him." He added, "It all goes back to his life on the farm and tragedies in his family and the 2000 election. The process was very much an intimate storytelling experience."
The film includes the story of Gore's sister's death from lung cancer. "That's one of the ways you don't want to die," Gore says in the film. "The idea that we had been part of that economic pattern that produced the cigarettes that produced the cancer. It was so painful on so many levels. My father -- he had grown tobacco all his life. He stopped."
The filmmakers refuse to call it a "political" film, because they see the picture's message as unifying. Guggenheim said, "Gore frames it not as a political issue but as a moral issue, something we should all really think about no matter who we are."
Ok, but does President Bush plan to see it?
"Doubt it," Bush said. He explained, "We need to set aside whether or not greenhouse gases have been caused by mankind or because of natural effects and focus on the technologies that will enable us to live better and at the same time protect the environment."
These days, some Hollywood liberals have doubts about Hillary Clinton. Is she selling out? Can she be elected? Al Gore is emerging as their dark horse. After all, they say, he's been elected.
The Clinton legacy was something of a problem for Gore in 2000. A lot of Democrats believe Gore lost because he tried to distance himself from Bill Clinton. But you could also argue that Gore lost because he couldn't distance himself from Bill Clinton, even though he tried. That's why Gore put Joe Lieberman, Clinton's severest Democratic critic, on the ticket.
If Gore and Hillary Clinton were to run in 2008, both Democratic contenders could claim the Clinton legacy -- the former president's wife and his vice president. On the theory that a helpmate is closer than a running mate, Hillary would probably have the stronger claim. That could liberate Gore to run against Sen. Clinton from the left.
"He has a true vision," producer Bender told CNN. "He's strong. He doesn't equivocate. He's great on all the issues. He's passionate. He's funny, and he's grounded."
Well, Gore did appear on "Saturday Night Live" recently, where he pretended to be speaking as the president elected in 2000. "We have way too much gas," Gore said. "Gas is down to 19 cents a gallon, and the oil companies are hurting. I know that I am partly to blame by insisting that cars run on trash."
Gore calls himself a recovering politician, but adds, "There's a danger of a relapse." He said on NBC's "Today" show, "I'm not at the stage of my life where I'm going to say, 'Never in the rest of my life will I ever think about such a thing.'"
Talk about a smart marketing strategy: The film is coming out at the perfect moment. Millions of Americans are angry at President Bush and worried about energy.
The film is not overtly partisan, but few viewers will miss the visual cue after Gore says, "I was in politics for a long time. I'm proud of my service." The next shot shows the terrible devastation of Hurricane Katrina, an event some people believe hurt President Bush.
Would Americans really elect a president who served eight years as vice president, then ran for president and failed, and then was out of power for eight years?
It worked for Richard Nixon, because the moment was right.