The second event of the 2009 Speaker Series: Live & Uncensored featuring former Vice President Al Gore in conversation with Boston Globe reporter Susan Milligan at the Wang Center was uneventful throughout most of the evening until Miligan became stuck on several questions regarding the (self) importance and likely downfall of newspapers in their current form. While this diversion didn’t diminish the entire evening, it struck me as odd and uncalled for. (I wasn’t able to Twitter this event, so quotations will be even more paraphrased than usual as I was taking notes with a Sharpie, on the back of an envelope, in the dark, in my terrible handwriting.)
Al Gore was introduced by Boston Phoenix Founder and Publisher Stephen Mindich, who called him ‘The truly elected President in the 2000 election’ and asked the audience to imagine what might have been had Gore been allowed to serve. Gore who went to college in Boston began his remarks by praising the Wang Center and saying, “They just don’t build them like this anymore.” From this, he launched into a quasi stand-up routine telling multiple jokes about his time after the White House. This wasn’t the boring Al Gore described by the media in the 2000 election.
He was funny, knowledgeable, and informative and spoke for about 25 minutes, giving example after example of how the climate crisis plus the economic crisis have lead directly to the security crisis. And how all 3 can be mitigated by beginning to address energy issues. Gore restated his goal of 100% renewable energy in the US in 10 years and said, “I need your help…This is your challenge…Political will is a renewable resource.” I cynically wondered if Gore’s humor and deliberate speaking style wasn’t a reaction to years of being stung by the media as boring, wooden, and a serial exaggerator and then I chastised my cynical self for being a jerk.
It should have been clear from the first question which direction the night was headed, but I say that with the benefit of hindsight because at that point, Miligan hadn’t begun to lose the crowd. The question was some version of “Have you been able to change more because you didn’t become President.” Gore amicably spoke for a few minutes, essentially answering, “Uh, no, President would have been better.”
Regarding nuclear power, Gore says he remains skeptical, but not reflexively opposed and said his concern stems from the fact that rogue weapons programs typically grow out of legitimate nuclear power programs. On whether going green is a luxury, Gore’s first sentence was about the need for jobs channeling Van Jones, but stopping short of saying we can’t afford NOT to go green.
It was at this point, in my mind, that Miligan began getting squirrely, asking a question about bailing out the auto industry with so much unbridled disdain that Gore began his answer, “If I had known this was a touchy subject.” This setting off a sputtering denial of bitterness in which Miligan used the word bitter a bitter 12 dozen times. The entire time, neither Gore nor Miligan noted the irony of castigating the autos while ignoring the bank bailouts (both of whom, it could be argued, have suffered from an enormous lack of personal responsibility).
Gore answered a question on whether lack of personal responsibility is more to blame than deregulation by connecting Democracy and capitalism since their birth in the same year of 1776. Gore said, “I like the market, but we have a right to make laws.”
When asking Gore’s opinion on Obama, Miligan quipped “Careful, he might fire you like he did Rick Wagoner.” (I think this was supposed to be a dig at Obama overreaching, but it was confused by Miligan’s earlier attacks about the auto industry, making Miligan seem willing to attack everybody). Gore said, “Well, he can’t fire me” and “I think he’s doing a great job.”
Miligan then asked Gore, a former journalist himself, his opinion on the crisis facing newspapers around the country. Gore’s answer appeared to be that Americans are watching too much TV with time they used to spend reading the newspaper. And then there was a follow up. And then another. And then an attack on ‘the blogs’ and their veracity, and their lack of posting corrections, which is about the time my eyes filled with a white light and my ears a rushing noise. And I can’t obviously connect the theme of the talk to this, but about 10 minutes before the evenings abrupt end and 10 minutes after Miligan’s self-important rant, people started leaving in 2s and 3s until entire rows were pocked with empty seats.
One question from one reporter to a man who could have been President (but also a former reporter) strikes me as relevant and Gore’s head is stuffed full of interesting examples of successes on the internet, but Miligan broke the first rule of interviewing (and giving toasts, incidentally) in that she made the interview about her. Instead of Bostonians filing out of the Wang enthusiastic about making a difference on climate change, they ambled out listlessly wondering who they had paid to see. It was similar to Ann Coulter vs Bill Maher when hecklers attempted to interrupt the evening in a ‘look-at-me’ bid for attention, except tonight it was Susan Miligan attempting to curry pity and Al Gore was too polite to tell her off. This is the second bad moderator in a row for the speaker series, and I hope Charlie Rose is better for Karl Rove vs James Carville.