Monday, May 21, 2007

When Asking Becomes Easier...for Some People Anyway

From James Traub's profile of Al Gore, which appeared in yesterday's New York Times:
One of his longtime political supporters watched in amazement as Gore badgered Kevin Wall, the rock promoter, into working with the Alliance for Climate Protection. Here was a man who as a presidential candidate could barely ask anyone for a dollar, much less browbeat them. “It was a total behavioral change,” says this old ally. “It was just shocking.”
Maybe not. I personally have never been comfortable with asking for things for myself. Part of my reticence is no doubt neurotic, a nagging feeling that what I may want is selfish. Another piece of my hesitation about asking for help is also pride, a damning unwillingness to admit that I need others. But a good part of it is that in a spiritually and psychologically healthy way, I really don't want to be selfish.

It's possible that this same complex of desires once hampered Gore's willingness to go to potential backers and ask for money for his campaign. When I myself ran for the Ohio House of Representatives, it felt terribly self-centered to ask people I know and care about to donate money to my campaign. And I know at least one successful politician who has told me privately about how horrified he is by the amount of money required to get elected. "If that money could be given to charity, Mark," he told me once, "it could do a lot of good."

For me to ask for money, material aid, or volunteer help for the church I pastor, for the local Boys and Girls Club on whose board I serve, for CASA for Clermont Kids!, an agency that advocates for foster children, for the Clermont County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, or for our area Habitat for Humanity isn't difficult for me at all. It doesn't feel selfish to ask for help for any of these organizations.

And though, as a Christian, I believe that God wants people to ask Him for help and to live in caring relationships with others in which it's possible for us to ask for help from others, I still find it tough to ask people to help me personally.

Maybe Al Gore, the one-time seminary student whose speeches can resemble sermons at revival meetings, deals with a similar complex of emotions and motives. Gore believes that global warming is destroying the planet and that he can influence people to do something about it. If that belief is authentic, it may be a whole lot easier for Al Gore to ask people to make out a check to an environmental group than to the Al Gore campaign.

Of course, we all act out of a complex of motives. Al Gore wouldn't be the first pol to attempt to use a cause to vault himself into contention for the presidency. In 1966, Richard Nixon campaigned, selflessly it seemed, for Republican congresional candidates across the country. When his once-moribund party scored big wins that November, the once-moribund career of Richard Nixon was revived. He went on to win the White House in 1968.

Given people's general disgust with politics, it may be the height of shrewdness for Al Gore to immerse himself in an environmental issue, to be a passionate leader for a cause that is increasingly becoming important to millions of Americans. This has been done before, too. When millionaire mining engineer Herbert Hoover laid aside the acquisition of wealth that had occupied him for something like forty years, he took on the feeding and re-clothing of Europe following World War 1, spearheading a major charitable effort that won him credit both for his philanthropy and his leadership acumen. (This is ironic in light of his largely deer-in-the-headlights reaction to the Great Depression during his White House tenure.) Lauded for his efforts in Europe, Hoover became Secretary of Commerce and, some said, "Under Secretary of Everything Else" during the Harding and Coolidge years. Hoover's involvement with a cause bigger than himself led him to the presidency.

Al Gore may really be thinking about presidential politics as he seeks support in his global warming campaign. Or it may be that he's found a cause he believes in even more than he believes in Al Gore.

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