Al Gore's Churchillian moment
He still has the same patrician manner - friends would say aloof, others might say pompous. He still carries a mountainous chip on his shoulder, believing that he was robbed of the US presidency seven years ago. But Al Gore's speech this week accepting his share of the Nobel Peace Prize was of such noble quality that the world must lament the fact he will not be acclaimed the next president of the United States.
He was eloquent, authoritative, powerful and scary. He warned that climate change is a 'real, rising, imminent and universal' threat, that 'our world is spinning out of kilter ... the very web of life on which we depend is being ripped and frayed ... We, the human species, are confronting a planetary emergency - a threat to the survival of our civilisation that is gathering ominous and destructive potential even as we gather here'.
It was impossible not to contrast Mr Gore's majestic performance with the absurd theatre of US domestic politics. Here was the giant with a broad, if chilling, international vision; while back in the world's most powerful country, candidates are cat-fighting for the presidency like spoilt brats.
It is not merely the frantic squabbling that should be a worry. It is the money politics - with the total cost of getting elected president heading to US$5 billion - accompanied by petty parochialism. In Iowa, which needs immigrants to keep the economy moving, Republican candidates are vying to see who will kick illegal immigrants the hardest. Contenders are throwing mud at each other as quickly and dirtily as they can.
The Democrats are hardly better, although the sight of Senator Barack Obama laughing and dancing with talk-show host Oprah Winfrey, his new supporter, was a small revelation: here is a human being of a candidate, not just the best automaton that money can buy.
There are lots of lessons to be learned. One is that the great American system is broken. With the twin emphasis on money and small-town politics, it is hardly capable of producing a qualified person to run a medium-ranking country, let alone someone to shoulder the responsibilities of commander-in-chief and chief executive of a great power. Witness President George W. Bush in power, thrust from the boastful state of Texas to face unprecedented and perilous global problems.
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton had the cheek to claim that she had the experience to lead the US through its current economic turbulence, in contrast to Senator Obama's inexperience. Senator Obama responded memorably: 'My understanding is she wasn't treasury secretary in the Clinton administration.'
His own experience - the son of a white American mother and a black Kenyan father and who spent time as a child in Indonesia - marks Mr Obama as someone who almost embodies the American dream. But that is not the same as being tested in the crucible of having to make instant decisions with potentially frightening global implications. But none of his rivals has national or international experience; Mr Gore does.
Mr Gore will not be president in 2009 because he lacks the guts and the dirty street-fighter instinct to go for the job. Maybe his instincts are right. He still carries the nicknames 'Mr Straight and Mr Narrow' and 'Mr Dull on Wheels', indicating that he lacks the common touch, even though he would probably make a good president and a great international leader. America and the world may one day rue their loss.
Mr Gore said categorically in post-Nobel interviews that he would not take a post in a new administration. The best he could suggest was that he might, one day, re-enter politics as a presidential contender. He should reconsider, and ponder the importance of carpe diem - 'seize the day' - or it may be gone forever.
The former vice-president said he was concentrating on trying to raise public awareness of global warming. Indeed, he has largely succeeded internationally: his Nobel Prize and Academy Award for his documentary film are clear recognition. But Mr Gore should not make an exhibition of being naive. He noted in his Nobel speech that two countries block the path to a new deal to protect the environment: the US and China.
To underline the point, the US Senate this week rejected a far-reaching green energy bill - another reminder that it is not merely the US president and presidential hopefuls who do not understand the global political footprint of their own country. The squabbling Senate also betrays the hopes of America's founding fathers.
Mr Gore is wrong. The job of environment supremo in a US administration would be a worthy one and, done well, could be a stepping stone to the office he was denied in 2000. If he does not have the courage to go for the presidency now, an Obama-Gore platform - with the former vice-president promised an initiative on the environment - would be hard to beat.
The commitment to protect the environment is taking shape everywhere except where it counts most, in the US and Japan, China and India. A more imaginative leadership than the present grey men in Beijing might challenge Mr Gore to produce a scheme for China that does not disrupt its growth or economic aspirations. But the greatest danger comes from the US, not only from its own emissions. America badly needs someone to explain the damage being done - to the US itself - by its failure to comprehend its role in the planet's destruction.
But even if everyone can be convinced of the cause, a Leader - with a capital 'L' - is needed to produce a workable plan for sharing the burdens, and with the experience and stamina to hammer out the nitty-gritty details.
Mr Gore quoted Winston Churchill on world leaders faced with the threat from Hitler: 'They go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all powerful to be impotent.' With an even greater danger facing the world today, is Mr Gore going to flunk his own Churchillian moment?
Kevin Rafferty worked at the World Bank in Washington when Al Gore was vice-president