Column: The Public Eye: Enemy of the People: Al Gore or George Bush?

By Bob Burnett
Friday June 02, 2006

It’s unlikely that the producers of the documentary An Inconvenient Truth thought that they were producing a sequel to Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. But it’s impossible to see this 96-minute film about Al Gore’s single-handed fight to educate America about the dangers of global climate change and not wonder how different things would be if he had won in 2000. 

It’s hard to forget how close that presidential contest was, the fact that millions of Americans decided that they trusted George Bush more than “wonk man,” that the dark forces of Karl Rove managed to label Al “an enemy of the people.” 

Of course, in the alternate universe where Gore won the 2000 election, 9/11 would still have happened. But we probably wouldn’t have diluted the war on terror by attacking Iraq or crippled our economy by taking on a mountain of debt. And Gore certainly would have recognized the danger posed by Hurricane Katrina. One thing for sure, George Bush wouldn’t have gone on the road, night after night, to show Americans his elaborate multi-media pitch about the evils of global warming. 

Most of us remember the 2000 presidential election ending with a disputed Florida vote count, where the Supreme Court ultimately determined the results. But the fact is that George Bush was close to Gore in the popular vote because millions of Americans liked and trusted him. Under the direction of the Machiavellian Karl Rove, the Bush campaign did a number on Al Gore. A lot of voters were put off by his personality. Americans bought Bush’s claim that Gore was a liar; that he had bragged of inventing the Internet. On November 7, 2000, many Americans voted for George Bush believing that he was a “good Christian man,” who would usher in “an era of responsibility.” 

Sensing that it wasn’t “hanging chads” that had defeated him, Gore left the political stage. But he didn’t give up. After taking some time off, he returned to his original, heart-felt message, “Our ability to live on planet earth is at stake.” 

Gore’s story parallels that of the protagonist in An Enemy of the People, one of Ibsen’s most famous plays. Dr. Thomas Stockman discovers that environmental pollution threatens the municipal baths at his small Norwegian community, a health resort. He thinks that if he tells the townspeople the truth, they will believe him and take remedial action. Instead, his fellow citizens brand Stockman “an enemy of the people,” because they are afraid of the economic consequences of his news. They harass him and his family, but Stockman doesn’t leave town. At the end of the play, he declares, “The strongest man in the world is he who stands alone.” 

After the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore never left town either. He embarked on a one-man crusade to wake up America to the perils of global climate change, a subject he’d been interested in since his college days. He put together a multi-media presentation and schlepped it back and forth across the US. Gradually the presentation got better and attracted more attention. Eventually it became the subject of the movie that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. 

The documentary has problems. It’s too long. How many times do we need to see Gore walking through airports or sitting in hotel rooms staring soulfully at his laptop computer? And it doesn’t give viewers enough to do. Al refers them to, but he easily could have shown them what’s being accomplished in green cities such as Curitiba, Brazil, and Oslo, Norway. And Gore misses an opportunity to lobby for collective action, the formation of a public-private partnership to address global warming. 

Moreover, An Inconvenient Truth can’t decide what it is. Is it an information-oriented documentary about the dangers of global climate change, where Gore does the voice over? Is it a semi-biographical film about Al reinventing himself? Or is it a soft political film implying that the United States made a big mistake ditching the wonk man for that cheeky Dubya? The documentary is at its best when it shows us the redemption of Al Gore: how he found moral clarity by standing up for his beliefs and woke up America to the peril caused by its shortsighted policies. 

In the process, public perception changed and America grew fond of Al’s awkwardness. He’s no longer labeled “an enemy of the people.” In fact, in some quarters he’s become a folk hero. There are whispers that if Hillary Clinton falters, wonk man might be drafted as the Democrats’ presidential candidate in 2008. 

There’s been a reversal of fortune. Americans are waking up to discover that they made a bad mistake electing George Bush. That he can’t be trusted and isn’t even that likeable. That Dubya not only doesn’t have a plan to solve America’s problems, he hasn’t recognized most of them. Rather than usher in an era of responsibility, he’s championed an era of unbridled self-interest. After five and a half years, it’s Bush who’s become the enemy of the people. 




Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at