Al's Cretan moment

'Recovering politician' and eco-visionary Al Gore makes a popular return to Greece

Al Gore likes Greece. And soon, if he pulls off the feat of adding the Nobel Peace Prize to his Oscar and bestseller, and then announces he'll run for president, investigations will doubtless reveal why. But in the meantime, here's a taster.

Hurricane Al, as the headline writers had him, was recently in Athens, the penultimate stop on his world tour, telling anyone who would listen that "nature is on the run". Gore was received with all the pomp and circumstance of a visiting potentate, even though Greeks are famously careless about environmental issues and more anti-American than any other nation in Europe.

Indeed, after holding talks with Al, Costas Karamanlis, Greece's conservative prime minister, immediately forgot about his backslapping friendship with George W Bush and ordered that every school in the land be sent a copy of An Inconvenient Truth.

If young Greeks couldn't digest that, he said, acknowledging that the tome is not the easiest of reads, then every school should at least screen the movie. "I will ensure that a DVD copy of the film is sent to every one of them," said the premier as Gore, a hulk of a man at 20 stone-plus, stood by beaming.

What made the love-in all the sweeter to Gore was that, nearly seven years ago, it was to Crete that he fled after he won the popular vote but lost the presidential election in the US. Greece has played a role in Gore's reinvention that few would have guessed.

"Unexpectedly [after his defeat], I got a call from Al asking if he and his family could come down and stay," says the international economist Minos Zombanakis, who first befriended Gore at Harvard University 20 years ago. "He said he wanted to keep it very low-key so he'd come incognito."

Utterly depressed, but with his wife and son in tow, Gore turned up on Crete disguised as a Mexican. He spent the next ten days trying to get over what he has described as his "terrible emotional whiplash" by scuba diving, sitting by his friend's pool and sailing with his son.

"He had a big beard and wore a Mexican hat. He was trying to find himself, to see what his future would be. He was not rich; money was an issue back then. He was, I'd say, a totally different person . . . Now he's got a mission to save the world," the Cretan told me.

Gore repaid the debt, publicly acknowledging the septuagenarian Greek before a crowd of 2,000 of Athens's great and good who flocked to hear his two-hour, PowerPoint lecture on global warming. As a "recovering politician who's at about stage nine", he publicly denied he'd be stepping into the presidential race. For now, he insisted, carbon dioxide emissions were his thing.

"If I'd been elected president, I would have made my own mistakes," he admitted, before delivering an excoriating critique of the invasion of Iraq and the current White House incumbent.

If he can entrance the Greeks, whom, as the polls show, see Americans as "mean-spirited, arrogant imperialists", he might be halfway to winning the game. The bet, in Athens at least, is that the Democratic Party will choose "the noble Gore" because he is the only man who can save the world.

The former vice-president has not ruled out another sojourn in Greece. But next time it's unlikely he'll be hiding under a big Mexican hat in Crete.

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Israel, Gaza and a summer of war?

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.