Al Gore had spent nearly every election night since 1976 waiting anxiously in a hotel suite for his moment to take the stage of a hot, crowded ballroom, where the music was inevitably too loud and the lines at the bar too long. So it must have felt strange, and maybe even a little liberating, to set up a television in the study of his new home on the edge of Nashville and watch the returns come in the way the rest of us do. Gore and his wife Tipper had campaigned or raised money for more than 50 Democrats, candidates for everything from Governor to county executive. Seven days earlier, in Minnesota for Senator Paul Wellstone's memorial service, Gore was upbeat enough to predict to Bill Clinton and Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe that the party would take back the House. But watching with their daughters Karenna, who had come in from New York, and Kristin, in from Los Angeles, the Gores saw the political carnage spread across the map. Al and Tipper each picked up a phone, plastered on a smile and began calling their party's candidates, mostly to offer condolences.
Only now--after an election that seemed to give George W. Bush a strong mandate to lead the American people--is Gore beginning to talk frankly about the man who narrowly defeated him in that painful presidential election two years ago. Despite the triumph that Bush enjoyed this Election Day, Gore is on the offensive. Bush's economic agenda, he says, is "catastrophic," his foreign policy "horrible," his environmental stance "immoral."
"Our country is headed for very deep trouble," Gore told TIME. "I wish it were not so, but I believe that with all my heart. I think that our economic plan has zero chance of working. I think that it is wrong at its core. I think that our foreign policy, based on an openly proclaimed intention to dominate the world, is a recipe for getting our country in some of the worst trouble it's ever been in." Bush, Gore says, has compiled the worst economic record since Herbert Hoover. "For Democrats to lose the Senate and to lose ground in the House means that we have got to examine what we could have done more effectively as a party. I think it's the time now for us to be a loyal opposition, not just in name but in reality, and to present a clear alternative."
This is the New Gore, a man who no longer speaks as if every sentence has been preapproved by his pollsters and handlers. After nearly two years of teaching, writing and mulling, Al Gore is in full comeback mode, road testing his popularity in the guise of a 25-day tour to promote the two books about families that he and Tipper have written. It's a multimedia show that has already included a soul-baring session with Barbara Walters, a genuinely funny exchange with David Letterman and several print interviews, including, of course, this one. This week, expect to see him with Katie Couric (twice) and Larry King; next month he'll be the host of Saturday Night Live.