Here, as at many other junctures, the contrast between Bush and Gore -between the future we got from the 2000 election, and the future that we didn't- could not be more dramatic.
Two Leaders Contrasted
On the one side we have Al Gore calling our attention to "An Inconvenient Truth."
The truth to which Gore is directing our attention concerns the problem of climate change. And it is inconvenient because if we acknowledged what an increasingly strong scientific consensus is telling us it would require us Americans to change our irresponsible ways. Either that or to knowingly consign future inhabitants of this planet to some very hard -perhaps even catastrophic- times.
Gore has seriously studied this problem, and he recognizes that this is really something we need to look at, We need to look at it even if we'd rather not, because it is our moral obligation to recognize the consequences of our actions, and our inactions, because our own fate and especially the fate of our descendants hinges on whether we look at this inconvenient truth.
And then on the other side we have George W. Bush.
In the almost five years since the devastation of 9/11, this president has used his bully pulpit to call our attention -more than to anything else, indeed perhaps more than to everything else put together- to his "war on terror."
What does this tell us about the kind of leader George W. Bush is for America. The answer is: nothing good; indeed, something very scary.
It is not that the problem of terrorism is phony. There are indeed people and organizations out there that wish to do this country harm. And in an age where the technology of destruction has developed to the point that it has in our times, the desire of terrorist groups to inflict destruction and pain upon us must be taken very seriously.
No, the problem is not that George W. Bush is directing our attention to something unreal. The problem is that there is no national need for us as a whole people to be focused on that particular piece of reality.
The Misnamed "War on Terror"
A good and responsible leader would call our attention to the "war on terror" only to the extent needed to help us understand our situation and to support the allocation of the necessary resources to meet the challenge. Some problems can be very important or ambitious -like the Manhattan Project, or like putting a man on the moon by the end of the 60s- without the public needing to be focused on them, or in some cases even to know about them at all.
The war on terror is mostly a problem of that kind.
A war like World War II legitimately needed to be the focus of much of our national life. That's because, in that time of crisis, there was a need for the whole nation to rally behind the war effort- enlisting in the military service, accepting the rationing of vital resources, working in the factories instrumental to the waging of total war in a struggle for national survival against other powerful nation states. The whole of the people had a vital role to play.
But the "war on terror" is a wholly different kind of struggle, and its challenge needs to be met in a wholly different way.
It's not really a war at all in the sense that we've known it through history. The threat posed by a group like al Qaeda is in no way like the threat posed by Nazi Germany or imperial Japan or the Stalinist Soviet Union. This is not a struggle of one great nation state against another.
Rather it pits a relative handful of people, organized in a loose network of secret movements containing hidden cells embedded in countries (most of them unfriendly to it) around the world, against virtually all the nations of the world, including all the great powers. A covert organization consisting of thousands of people with perhaps a few hundreds of millions of dollars of resources, and with no territory under its control, is opposed by nations representing billions of people, in command of trillions of dollars in resources, and in control over virtually the entire globe.