For the past year, Al Gore has gone about his considerable business without showing much interest in running for President. While picking up an Oscar and an Emmy, publishing a very smart book and playing host at a global concert for the planet, he's never done more than tease the idea. And yet all that time, the leaders of the Draft Gore movement have been clinging to a single fervid dream: that Gore would win the Nobel Peace Prize and use it to catapult himself to an eleventh-hour bid for the presidency.
Now the Nobel Committee has done its part, awarding Gore the Peace Prize for being "probably the single individual who has done most to create greater worldwide understanding of the measures that need to be adopted" to combat climate change, according to his citation. (The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was also a joint winner of the prize.) And so, after the obligatory spasms of celebration and the equally obligatory gnashing of Rush Limbaugh's teeth, will Americans finally get to enjoy one of the great spectacles in political history, as Gore's ultimate honor levitates him beyond his leading rival, Hillary Clinton, and into the Oval Office?
Let me be clear. If Al Gore gets into the presidential race, I'll eat my copy of An Inconvenient Truth. (The paperback, not the DVD.) I've spent a good deal of time with Gore this year, while writing a TIME cover story about him. I think he's staying out of the race and I think I know why. But before I get into that, let me offer a few thoughts about what's not keeping him on the sidelines. I don't think Gore is staying out because of all the logistical difficulties that running would entail. Sure, it would be challenging to staff up a national organization and build the county-by-county teams he'd need to compete in the early states. True, he has no shadow campaign lurking in the background and waiting to be deployed. But he could hire one, recruiting first-rate people from other campaigns as they fade; and he could enlist his vast army of grassroots followers as well as his Silicon Valley friends in a rainmaking operation mighty enough to compete against the fundraising prowess of Clinton and Barack Obama. So the logistics, though daunting, aren't what's keeping Gore out.
Nor do I believe that Hillary Clinton is keeping Gore from running. It's true that Gore's late-entry presidential calculus always required Hillary to stumble, and it's true she has not done so to the contrary, she has extended her lead nationally, edged ahead in Iowa, and taken on an aura of invincibility that has brought the Democratic power structure into line behind her. One hundred and thirty-six thousand people may have signed Draft Gore petitions, but most Dems seem pleased with their current candidates and especially with the front-runner. To borrow a phrase from Barack Obama, the Clinton machine is fired up and ready to go, and Gore doesn't relish the idea of being caught beneath its wheels.
But that's not the nub of it either. Hillary is just a sideshow; the main event is unfolding deep inside Gore. Consider: He put himself in position to win the Nobel by committing to an issue bigger than himself the fight to save the planet. If he runs for President now, he'll be hauling himself back up onto that dusty old pedestal, signaling that he is, after all, the most important thing in his world. Sure, he'd say he was doing it because he feels a moral obligation to intervene in a time of unparalleled crisis. But running for President is by definition an act of hubris, and Gore has spent the past couple of years defying his ego and sublimating himself to a larger goal. Running for President would mean returning to a role he'd already transcended. He'd turn into again just another politician, when a lot of people thought he might be something better than that.
And he'd be risking a hard-won happiness. Gore is happier these days because he is living the kind of life he always wanted to lead. He's happier these days because he is free from the excruciating requirements of electoral politics, the glad-handing and the money-grubbing that drove him deeper into himself the more he was forced to reach out. And, finally, he's happier now because he has been vindicated. The Nobel is an acknowledgment that Gore was right about the greatest global threat we face (and that this is the year when most everyone else finally figured out he was right). Winning the Peace Prize may not place Gore among the global saints, the Nelson Mandelas of the world; but it does place him among the laureates who are beloved in some quarters and loathed in others those highly charged prizewinners like Jimmy Carter.
That's not a bad place to be, but you won't find Gore gloating about it. This prize, after all, is a recognition that Gore has done more than anyone else (excepting Mother Nature) to bring about a sea change in public opinion. An overwhelming majority of Americans 90% of Democrats, 80% of independents, 60% of Republicans now say they favor "immediate action" to confront the climate crisis. Gore helped make that happen, but he can't take too much satisfaction in it. As he told me last spring, "Time is running out, and we still haven't done anything."