That’s me in the middle in the white dress I made for the occasion.
Al Gore was the keynote speaker at a conference I attended in 2006, and he spoke eloquently to a group of teachers and filmmakers about the importance of educating our young people to take better care of the planet. Having launched Current TV a few months before the conference, Gore touted the importance of connecting our students to technology and film.
Hearing a preview for Gore’s interview with Matt Lauer on The Today Showyesterday morning, I rolled my eyes, picked up my bag of books and my car key, and left my husband to watch Gore hawk his new book. This evening I learned that Lauer spent more time skewering Gore for his decision to sell Current to Al Jazeera than talking about the book that I won’t be buying.
I grinned, pleased that the interview didn’t go as well as Gore had planned. He called himself a “recovering politician,” but I’m not entirely convinced he isn’t setting the stage for a presidential run in 2016. If he does, I won’t be voting for him.
I met Gore at that 2006 conference. I had practically danced when I got an invitation to a reception after the keynote. He said in his address that he was eager to talk with educators and filmmakers about how they were teaching young people about issues facing our country. I watched as he spoke for about a minute with each person—longer with those who had clout at the conference. I listened politely as he talked with people aspiring to get his attention for their projects.
When it was finally my turn, I shook his hand and introduced myself, and I didn’t get a complete sentence out of my mouth about my students. As I talked, he looked over my shoulder at a well-known media personality on the other side of the room. Before I finished the sentence, he said, “Well, good for you,” his feet already in motion to move past me, his hand in the air in a wave to the person over my shoulder.
I had stuck with Al Gore when most of the country thought he was an alarmist about climate change. I stuck with him after the ridicule that followed a campaign comment he made about taking the initiative in “creating the Internet.” I stuck with him after the debacle of the 2000 election. By 2006 he had reinvented himself, and I stuck with him as he made fun of himself on late-night shows and found other ways to advocate for the issues that mattered to him.
My mom used to say, when I tried to encourage her to vote, “What’s the use in voting one dirty bunch out and another dirty bunch in?” I lectured her for her cynicism and badgered her until she started voting again.
But in that moment when Al Gore debunked the myth he’d created about his belief in the importance of great teachers, I understood how my mother felt. And while I was no fan of President George W. Bush, I was glad that if someone had to lose to him, that someone was the man who had brushed aside a teacher he had claimed to value as the key to the future. In that moment, for me, Gore ceased to be a leader and became a politician.
I still disagree with my mother about the uselessness of voting, and I think there are leaders in both parties who try every day to live up to their ideals. But I wish that all of us could have one minute with the candidates—one unfiltered minute. For me, it took less than a minute for Gore to destroy everything I’d ever heard about him from the media, a few seconds that didn’t even register in his brain.
And I’m glad that as a teenager, I had the opportunity to meet leaders in West Virginia who taught me that some are leaders first and politicians second. Congressman Ken Hechler sponsored a group of students from my high school for a weekend in Washington. Though none of us could vote, he took the time to walk around the Capitol with us and to ask each of us questions about our lives and our dreams. He ushered us into the office of Senator Robert Byrd, who, though he was legendary, invited us to sit down in his office and talked to us about the history that surrounded us. And after the trip, Congressman Hechler sent us all a personally signed photograph of the group from his district.
I want to believe that we still have leaders like Congressman Hechler and Senator Byrd who believe it’s important to give attention to the least among us. Do you have stories of such leaders? I’d love to have you share your stories in a comment.