We can wait until the whole sordid mess plays out, but as someone who has spent a lot of time researching and training managers about sexual harassment, it is all but certain that Al Gore’s reputation is a goner. One accusation of sexual harassment can be and often is a false alarm. When more allegations of the same type begin to surface after one accuser has broken the dam, however, it is a sure sign that the accused is a serial harasser. The National Enquirer, which has a nose for sleaze (see: John Edwards) is reporting that two more masseuses in two different locales have reported in-room encounters with Gore that echo that of the Portland masseuse whose complaint about Gore was first stifled by her environmentalist friends, and later by the Portland police. This news puts in a new perspective Gore’s unseemly defenses of Bill Clinton’s conduct when Al was Veep, and may even begin to solve the mystery of why the “Love Story” Gores ended in divorce. Al, in other words, probably really is a “crazed sex poodle.”
Will this development greatly damage his ability to exercise influence in the climates change debate? Of course it will. This is cognitive dissonance at work: if a person is associated with a strongly negative value, it drags down everything he endorses, represents or advocates. This is what makes the “politics of personal destruction” so devastating. Human beings are incapable of sorting out the contradictions and inconsistencies in public figures who we only know from a distance; if we like and respect them and respect them, we are likely to appreciate their work and what they say. If we think one is a crazed sex poodle, however…well, it’s going to be hard to take him seriously.
In Gore’s case, this seems especially unfair. There are a lot of brilliant sexual harassers out there; I personally don’t think Gore is brilliant, but whether or not he molests masseuses shouldn’t change the validity (or not) of his message regarding global warming. We don’t see O.J. Simpson or Lindsay Lohan being engaged as advocates for lowering the deficit, either, though, no matter how intellectually persuasive they might be. The fact is that a serious message needs an admirable messenger, or the message will be ignored.
When the message is related to a messenger’s flaws, there is more reason to reject both, on grounds of hypocrisy. Bill Cosby, another serial harasser, encountered this phenomenon shortly after he became a prominent advocate for emphasizing values, ethics and morality in the African-American community. As I wrote about his situation in 2007:
“Cosby’s answer … has been to say that his message should be evaluated on its own merits, and the mistakes he has made in his life are irrelevant. Cosby is trying to have it both ways. His message is being debated and publicized in the black community only because it is being delivered by him, Bill Cosby, celebrity, comedian, actor, producer, author and educator. The message wouldn’t have any impact if, for example, I delivered it; the black community doesn’t know me, or have a reason to listen to what I say. And Bill Cosby, who it appears gave drugged wine to at least fourteen young women (logic tells us it was probably more), cannot deliver this message either. When a parent who lets his children run wild sends me unsolicited parenting advice, I don’t give careful consideration to his recommendations because I don’t respect his parenting skills. Somewhere a seven year-old girl may be explaining the secret to world peace that we have sought for centuries, but even though she may have stumbled on the wisdom of the ages, she has no credibility. No one will listen. That’s life. “
No one wants to listen to what a crazed sex poodle has to say about civilization’s obligations to address climate change, either. This is where Gore has failed his public, his cause and his supporters. If a messenger has an important message to deliver, he or she must acknowledge human nature and how the persuasiveness and perceived wisdom of every message depends upon the character and conduct of the messenger. Having a powerful and important message is not good enough, even though logically it may seem that it should be.
Bill Cosby, who understood that his accomplishments gave him a platform to help change the conduct of some black parents for the better, also had an obligation not to undermine his power to deliver a message that could accomplish this important goal. He failed that obligation, and so, it seems, has Al Gore. Blinded by privilege, ego, celebrity, confidence that he would be protected by the police and the media, or just raw masseuse lust, Gore allowed selfish and irresponsible desires and instincts to interfere with his ability to advance an objective he has claimed will save humanity. What warped priorities! It is as if Paul Revere interrupted his ride on April 18, 1775 to spend a couple of hours in a bordello.
In the end, that is why it may be reasonable to discount Gore’s credibility as a climate change herald. If his message was so important, so critical to the future of the earth and the lives of millions, why would he risk impeding it for the chance to have some naughty romps in hotel room with intimidated young women?
If Al Gore didn’t take his own message, and his own importance as a messenger and a leader, more seriously than that, he deserves no credibility.
UPDATE: Portland police have closed their investigation, and will bring no charges against Al Gore…a not unexpected result following a three-year delay in the inquiry into the masseuse’s complaint.