Special Report

Touring the Al Gore Presidential Library and Museum

Why didn’t Presidents Bush, Clinton, Bush and Carter attend its opening?

By 1.12.05

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Almost obscured by the climbing pink orchids and dense sub-tropical foliage in Boca Raton, Florida, a one-story, somber post-modern building of concrete and glass rises from the landscape. Though locals just refer to it affectionately as "that ugly damn place," the newly completed Al Gore Presidential Library and Museum is an important cultural site that should be part of everyone's Florida vacation -- even during the off-season. Just off I-95 in Palm Beach County, and convenient to the Pompano Beach Motel 6, this new historical and educational landmark is simply as magical as Disneyworld. Much more than a civic building, the Al Gore Library is a testament to one Tennessee man's heroic stand against adversity, who dared challenge the status quo with courage, resolve, and above all, a team of ferocious lawyers.

As my wife and I entered the soaring 20-foot-high sun-filled atrium and lobby, one nagging thought did keep coming to mind: Al Gore was never President. That much, of course, is true. However, the Al Gore Library's founding charter (signed by 162 nations) clearly states that it should be the popular vote, not the Electoral College, which elects presidents. Since this conflicts with certain language in The United States Constitution, the Library is not recognized as an official landmark by the Federal government and no public money was used in its construction. Instead, the Library was funded in large part by a generous grant from a mysterious "Warren," and has also received millions of dollars in contributions from donors who either believe that Al Gore really is president, or really was elected president, or was president for a month until the Supreme Court threw him out of office -- and from a much larger group of people who realize that Gore was not elected president but should have been, although he probably was elected after all, if all the votes were actually counted.

Soon, we were greeted by our docent, a retired high school shop teacher originally from Kew Gardens, Queens. "We got over ten thousand books here," he said, as he started the tour. Yet it wasn't books that first piqued our interest, but the question of whether it was appropriate to charge $15 for adults (and $7.50 for children under 12) for admission to a presidential library that had no president. But our docent wasn't bothered by that. "Al Gore won the popular vote," he said. "And he did seem to be president there for a while, at least on a couple of networks."

That philosophical matter solved, we turned our attention to the main feature of the airy lobby: a mural that stretched across the entire back wall. Here, enlarged to about 1,000 times actual size, was a print of a Mapquest map of Massachusetts Avenue in Washington D.C. -- the street where Al Gore spent much of his life. First, we saw the blue "X" marking his boyhood home at the posh Fairfax Hotel in the 2000 block, back when Al's Dad was a United States Senator. Then, we noticed another blue "X" marking the young Albert's prep school, the swank St. Alban's School, near the 3700 block. Nearby, there was another blue "X" at 3450 Massachusetts Avenue -- the former Naval Observatory that serves as the Vice President's official residence. Towards the eastern end of the Avenue, there was another blue "X" signifying Al Gore's 16 years' employment as a Congressman and Senator at the United States Capitol, conveniently located just two blocks from Massachusetts Avenue. (The huge Mapquest map was generated on a NASA Supercomputer and superprinter, by clicking repeatedly on maximum Zoom In.)

There was no blue "X" at the White House, of course, since there was no Gore presidency. Nevertheless, the Al Gore Library and Museum's curators have carefully considered what a Gore presidency would have been like, if he had actually won. As a result, the place proudly displays several fascinating exhibits portraying the projected great moments and achievements of a Gore Administration, as if they had already happened.

To combat global warming, there was Gore's ambitious National Central Air Conditioning, mandating that cool air be pumped into every building with four walls and a roof in America retrofitted with the proper ducts -- at no charge. This Act is commemorated at the Library and Museum with an original Jimmy Carter oil painting depicting the sun, with a red circle around it and a red slash through it. For consumer safety, there was the Mandatory Airbags for Bicycles Act, and in education, the No School Lunch Left Behind program, designed to help public school children learn the basic skills and fundamentals necessary for finishing Lunch. Yet the Gore Administration's finest achievement would have been The Beverly Hills Peace Accords -- a unilateral "statement of purpose" drafted by major film stars, directors, and producers calling on all the Nations of the World, large or small, or rich or poor, to stop fighting. As the Accords' Article I eloquently puts it: "Dude, can't we all just get along?" Yes, these are words to live by. The Accords exhibit was aptly dignified and austere, too: an original Jimmy Carter oil painting of George W. Bush, with a red circle around it and a red slash through it.

After we spent fifteen minutes marveling at these exhibits, and a half-hour enjoying Kosher hamburgers at the adjacent Joe Lieberman Delicatessen & Lounge, our docent led us down the hall and asked us to give our serious and undivided attention to the Library and Museum's principal attraction.

"Come here," he said, beckoning with a finger. "You gotta see this."

Inside a special, large acoustically-dampened room, seven cheerful uniformed Library employees were sitting at a long, low folding table, piled high with papers and cards. Behind them, a blackboard was covered with numbers and check marks and unfamiliar names like "Volusia" and "Osceola," and now and then somebody would yell out a number -- like "62" or "73." For a moment, we were drawn in by everyone's visible enthusiasm, and we almost called out, "Bingo!" But then we realized what this room was for. This was The Vote Counting Room. They were counting the Florida ballots from the 2000 Presidential Election again. Nearby, supervising the tally, was an Ernst & Young senior accountant and two heavily armed Florida State Troopers, who gathered the ballots each day at closing time and deposited them overnight in the largest, most secure vault in Palm Beach County -- the one at the Limbaugh estate.

"Who's winning?" I finally asked.

Our docent grinned and said, "It's still too close to call."

The Al Gore Presidential Library and Museum, located near N. Federal Highway in Boca Raton, Florida, is open daily (except holidays) from 5 to 4, in observance of the Supreme Court decision that gave George W. Bush the presidency.

Leonard Albin is a writer in San Francisco.

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