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?