Al Gore is earnestly talking about the long-term implications of the energy and climate crises, and how the Arctic ice cap is receding much faster than computer models had predicted, and how difficult and delicate a task it will be to try and set things straight in Iraq.
You look at him and you can't help thinking how bizarre it is that this particular political figure, perhaps the most qualified person in the country to be president, is sitting in a wing chair in a hotel room in Manhattan rather than in the White House.
He's pushing his book "The Assault on Reason." I find myself speculating on what might have been if the man who got the most votes in 2000 had actually become president. It's like imagining an alternate universe.
The war in Iraq would never have occurred. Support and respect for the U.S. around the globe would not have plummeted to levels that are both embarrassing and dangerous. The surpluses of the Clinton years would not have been squandered like casino chips in the hands of a compulsive gambler on a monumental losing streak.
Mr. Gore takes a blowtorch to the Bush administration in his book. He argues that the free and open democratic processes that have made the United States such a special place have been undermined by the administration's cynicism and excessive secrecy, and by its shameless and relentless exploitation of the public's fear of terror.
The Bush crowd, he said, has jettisoned logic, reason and reflective thought in favor of wishful thinking in the service of an extreme political ideology. It has turned its back on reality, with tragic results.
So where does that leave Mr. Gore? If the republic is in such deep trouble and the former vice president knows what to do about it, why doesn't he have an obligation to run for president? I asked him if he didn't owe that to his fellow citizens.
If the country needs you, how can you not answer the call?
He seemed taken aback. "Well, I respect the logic behind that question," he said. "I also am under no illusion that there is any position that even approaches that of president in terms of an inherent ability to affect the course of events."
But while leaving the door to a possible run carefully ajar, he candidly mentioned a couple of personal reasons why he is disinclined to seek the presidency again.
"You know," he said, "I don't really think I'm that good at politics, to tell you the truth." He smiled. "Some people find out important things about themselves early in life. Others take a long time."
He burst into a loud laugh as he added, "I think I'm breaking through my denial."
I noted that he had at least been good enough to attract more votes than George W. Bush.
"Well, there was that," he said, laughing again. "But what politics has become requires a level of tolerance for triviality and artifice and nonsense that I find I have in short supply."
Mr. Gore is passionate about the issues he is focused on — global warming, the decline of rational discourse in American public life, the damage done to the nation over the past several years. And he has contempt for the notion that such important and complex matters can be seriously addressed in sound-bite sentences or 30-second television ads, which is how presidential campaigns are conducted.
He pressed this point when he talked about Iraq.
"One of the hallmarks of a strategic catastrophe," he said, "is that it creates a cul-de-sac from which there are no good avenues of easy departure. Taking charge of the war policy and extricating our troops as quickly as possible without making a horrible situation even worse is a little like grabbing a steering wheel in the middle of a skid."
There is no quick and easy formula, he said. A new leader implementing a new policy on Iraq would have to get a feel for the overall situation. The objective, however, should be clear: "To get our troops out of there as soon as possible while simultaneously observing the moral duty that all of us share — including those of us who opposed this war in the first instance — to remove our troops in a way that doesn't do further avoidable damage to the people who live there."
I asked if he meant that all U.S. troops should ultimately be removed from Iraq.
"Yes," he said.
Then he was off to talk more about his book.
Bob Herbert is a regular columnist for The New York Times.
© 2007 The New York Times