Hill Crowds Giddy for ‘Rock Star’ Gore

Posted March 21, 2007 at 6:45pm

If there was any doubt that former Vice President Al Gore (D) had ascended to rock star status, you only had to talk to Ron Flores, a paid line-stander waiting Wednesday morning to gain entry to Gore’s inaugural testimony before Congress on climate change.

Flores said he’d arrived at 9:30 a.m. the previous morning and spent the night outside the Rayburn House Office Building on a grate “like a homeless” person to snag the first spot in the queue.

Gore — who testified before a joint hearing of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on energy and air quality and the House Science and Technology subcommittee on energy and environment in the morning, and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in the afternoon — certainly attracted something of a spectacle.

Several of those waiting before the House hearing said they were fans of Gore’s or were just there “observing,” as energy lobbyist Thomas Dennis of Cassidy & Associates asserted.

Of course, there also were detractors — mostly Republican. House Energy and Commerce ranking member Joe Barton (R-Texas) arrived at the joint hearing in a huff, having just received Gore’s testimony at 7 a.m. There were “a lot of misstatements in [Gore’s] movie,” he told reporters, referring to “An Inconvenient Truth,” which won this year’s Academy Award for best documentary, before entering the hearing room.

With such long lines, plenty who came to see Gore were disappointed. Two rooms upstairs in Rayburn were set aside for overflow crowds, and at times some of these, including a group of Close-Up Foundation students, even spilled into the press room.

If the numbers seemed to indicate a new-found interest in the man who was almost president (and is mentioned as a possible latecomer to the 2008 presidential field), Gore himself didn’t seem to have changed so much. His hair might have been grayer and waistband a bit thicker, but he has remained the inveterate wonk. His rambling House testimony invoked everything from the battle of Thermopylae to the fight against fascism during World War II in his effort to drive home the importance of combatting the climate “crisis.”

Partisanship also was on display. In both the House and Senate hearings, the chairman and ranking member opened the hearing by briefly squabbling over the importance of having received Gore’s testimony late. Gore even had a light jab for his “friend” Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas), a former Democrat, about going “over to the dark side.”

The lawmakers inside the House hearing room couldn’t seem to settle on what to call Gore. He was compared at times to a “movie star” and “a prophet” and even called “Mr. President,” in what only can be assumed was a slip of the tongue.

One name they didn’t call him was Kris Kringle, though it would’ve been appropriate: Shortly before Gore’s arrival, in a moment vaguely reminiscent of the courtroom scene from the film “Miracle on 34th Street,” aides wheeled in boxes holding 516,000 petitions Gore had collected via his Web site urging Congress to stop global warming.

One thing lawmakers could agree on was their interest in questioning him. Gore’s portion of the House hearing dragged on past 12:30 p.m., when the hearing stopped to break for a House vote before the second witness — Denmark’s Bjørn Lomborg, an adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School’s Copenhagen Consensus Center and author of the “The Skeptical Environmentalist” — could be called. Meanwhile, Gore left by the back exit, en route to meet with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), drop by the House floor and then lunch in the Senate dining room with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), whose panel he would testify before later that afternoon.

The 42-year-old Lomborg, who had time to kill before the hearing would reconvene, sat in the empty House hearing room munching a Subway sandwich. Lomborg, an openly gay vegetarian with a mop of dyed-blond hair, cut a rather unorthodox figure. He wore jeans, a black polo shirt and Adidas sneakers. Lomborg, who said Republicans initially had reached out to him about coming, said he didn’t disagree with Gore about the reality of global warming or that humans caused it, he just didn’t think it made the most economic sense to have it be the most burning issue on the world’s agenda.

Lomborg dubbed some of Gore’s prescriptions “beyond silly” and said focusing on climate change to the extent Gore advised was akin to saying “let’s fix the one issue where we can do the least good for the most amount of money when the solution is the furthest away,” instead of attending to problems such as HIV/AIDS.

Attendees at a dissenting forum, put on by the George C. Marshall Institute and the Center for Science and Public Policy held later that afternoon in the Longworth House Office Building, conceded they were up against a “rock star” in Gore, but predicted that arguments downplaying the danger of global warming would prevail despite their lower profile. (About two dozen people showed up to watch a slideshow featuring maps and flow charts aimed at rebutting current climate change models, compared with the hundreds who turned out to hear Gore.) “We compete on the facts,” said David Ridenour, vice president of the National Center for Public Policy Research, who attended the event.

Protesters against Gore were less visible Wednesday, though several people waiting in line to get into the Senate hearing sported stickers proclaiming “Al Gore says do as I say not as I do.” Earlier, during the House hearing’s question and answer period, shouting could be heard in the hallway but it wasn’t anti-Gore; It was a group of CODEPINK anti-war demonstrators, one of whom had yelled at Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) when he strode by because he disliked Waxman’s Iraq War position.

Some CODEPINK protesters, along with Rev. Billy and the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir, started singing “Don’t buy Bush’s war,” but it had “nothing to do with Gore,” a woman said. CODEPINK’s main target that day had been Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who had been upstairs at another hearing testifying on the State Department’s fiscal 2008 budget. Of course, Gore could bring attention to their cause inadvertently. The same group could be seen hanging out in front of an entrance to the Dirksen Senate Office Building, where Gore testified in the afternoon and drew even bigger crowds, because “that’s where the media was,” one member said.

So what was the secret of the former vice president’s new-found hipness? W.T. Woodson High School senior Lily Grabill, a fan of Gore’s who had hoped to get into the House hearing, thought she had the answer. “I think gaining the weight … helped a lot,” she quipped.