Al Goreâ€™s diving deeper into the business world. The Nobel laureate â€“ already the chairman of investment firm Generation, chairman of Current TV, special advisor to Google, board member at Apple and lecturer at up to $175,00-per-gigâ€”is taking on a new role as a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caulfield and Byers, the preeminent Silicon Valley venture capital firm. His goal is to spur the development of clean technology and make a little money, too. My friend and colleague Adam Lashinsky and I tell the story in the new issue of FORTUNE, cover date Nov. 26. You can read it online but it will look a lot better in print.
It was an enjoyable story to work on. John Doerr, a lead partner at Kleiner, invited FORTUNE behind the scenes to see how the deal with Gore was done and watch the new VC in action. Goreâ€™s role at Kleiner is part of a broader alliance between Kleiner and Generation that includes David Blood, an impressive former Goldman Sachs exec who is now managing partner at Generation. We watched Gore in action in Silicon Valley, Adam visited Generation in London and all of us gathered for a three-hour interview at Goreâ€™s home in Nashville, followed by lunch, al fresco, with Al and Tipper. This was four days after Gore won the Nobel Prize, the first time heâ€™d talked to the press since then.
I came away from my reporting with some strong impressions of Al Gore. First of all, he is intellectually formidable. Itâ€™s hard to convey the breadth of his knowledge and interests in a business story, so we didnâ€™t really try, but I saw him give a speech at a startup company in Silicon Valley that focused on climate change but ranged across an array of political, scientific, historical issues. He drew an interesting, if strained, analogy around the theme of the breakdown of centralized power. Communism, he said, had given way to democracy, which is distributed political power. Command-and-control economies had been supplanted by capitalism, which uses distributed decision-making to shape an economy. The Internet took the control of information out of the hands of a few and gave it to the many. And centralized power in the form of big coal and nuclear plants, he predicted, would give way to distributed, renewable power like fuel cells (he was talking to a fuel cell company) and solar. Maybe you had to be there, but it was quite a talk. I also spoke to a scientist named Ted Scambos at the National Snow and Ice Data Center, which Gore visited recently to get an extensive briefing on the cryosphere. Scambos described an engaged, well-informed and intensely curious Gore who spent more than half a day trying to understand what was happening to the melting ice at the North Pole this past summer. Most politicians, if they cared at all, would have asked for a paper summarizing the data, but Gore wanted to dig in deeply.
Another takeway: I canâ€™t imagine Gore returning to politics, although you never know. He struck me as someone who has found his calling, to use a word that this Southern Baptist would understand. He is genuinely alarmed by the climate crisis, and can devote all of his considerable clout, energy and intelligence to doing something about it. This fall, for example, he has met with the heads of Mexico, France, Germany and Austria to talk about global warming. Heâ€™s very engaged with the group he started called the Alliance for Climate Protection which will use mass media to drive public opinion on the issue. He sees his work at Kleiner as a way to spur green innovation. Plus, he gets to live in Nashville, spend time with Tipper, his daughters and grandchildren, make a good living, and deal with pesky journalists only on his terms.
Of course, he could have more impact as president, as he knows. â€œI want to be clear about the fact that Iâ€™m not making the mistake of assuming I could do more this way than I could as president,â€ he told us in Nashville. He also will not definitively take himself out of the political game.
â€œI am not going to give the so-called Sherman statement: If nominated, I will not run. If elected, I will not serve.â€
Then he smiled.
â€œYou know, I know what itâ€™s like to be elected and not serve.â€ He laughed louder than anyone at that line and then said, â€œI wouldnâ€™t want to do that again.â€
And, then, when Adam pressed him to explain why, he turned reflective, saying:
â€œBecause, well, you know, casting about for words to describe this with precision is less productive than just saying what Iâ€™m doing feels like the right thing to do. It just feels like the right thing to do.â€
That was one of the very few moments when I felt like I glimpsed the unguarded Al Gore. All those years in Washington, Iâ€™m sorry to say, have turned him into the kind of person who chooses all his words carefully and makes a long speech when a short answer will do. Iâ€™m sure this isnâ€™t the case when heâ€™s with Tipper or friends, or at least I hope it isnâ€™t. But the public Al Gore still comes across, much of the time, as formal and stilted and a tad self-important. That’s a shame because I have a feeling that the private Al Gore would be a lot more interesting, and more fun, to be around. Maybe his guardedness is an understandable reaction to the whipping he took, much of it unfair, from the press during the 2000 presidential campaign.
That morning in Nashville, Adam and I turned off our tape recorders at one point so everyone could take a â€œbio break.â€ I mentioned to Gore that our paths had beforeâ€”at Wal-Mart when he spoke there, at the Washington premiere of An Inconvenient Truth and, a decade earlier, when we had both run the 1997 Marine Corps Marathon in a four-hour downpour.
He lit up, and told a long, very funny story about how his daughters had talked him into running, how heâ€™d been stuck at a Democratic Party event in Iowa the night before where bad weather had kept him out until the wee hours of the morning, about how after the marathonâ€”when all heâ€™d wanted to do was collapse–he had to host a Halloween party dressed as a wolf. Then, that night, Tipper dragged him to the Kennedy Center in black tie. â€œIt was the longest day of my life,â€ he said, laughing at himself. It was the only moment when I felt a human connection to Gore.
Later this week, Iâ€™ll have more to say about Generation, a fascinating investment firm that we were able to cover only briefly in the magazine.