Conference offers partisans time out from election rancor

Al Gore and Fred Smith represent two sides of the global-warming debate. At a recent retreat at a lush resort on a Colorado lake, they also formed half of a Samoan circle.

Gore, the former vice president whose movie about climate change is the surprise hit of the summer, and Smith, the head of the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a right-leaning, free-market think tank, were among a group of political leaders, environmental activists and scientists who participated in a “transpartisan” conference on energy security and global warming held at Gold Lake Spa and Resort last month.

The retreat is part of a larger effort sponsored by the Democracy in America Project — run by a former self-described “very conservative” congressional candidate and a hippie midwife he had met after a series of personal setbacks. The project aims to create a “safe place” where the “left, right and center” can get to know one another through Samoan circles and other relationship-building exercises.

In addition to Gore and Smith, other participants in Colorado included Gore’s wife, Tipper; Grover Norquist, the anti-tax, anti-regulation director of Americans for Tax Reform; Carl Pope, the executive director of the Sierra Club; Joan Blades and Wes Boyd, co-founders of MoveOn.org; and Roberta Combs, president of the Christian Coalition. In all, 32 people attended the retreat.

Though the meeting didn’t yield concrete solutions to the issue of climate change, participants described the event as provocative and said it did seem to break down barriers between the two sides and open up a dialogue that has continued.

In sharing personal stories as part of trust-building exercises, some participants broke down in tears, sources said.

On the last day, attendees held hands and watched a sunset during the last day of the conference, Smith said. He added, however, that one participant drew a line at that, saying conservatives “don’t hold hands.”

“Everybody here plays for keeps, and there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that,” said Andrew Langer, who directs regulatory policy at the National Federation of Independent Business.

At the conference, though, the two sides had the “opportunity to look each other squarely in the eye and open up a dialogue,” Langer said.

The conference is the brainchild of Joseph McCormick, a former top graduate in his Virginia Military Institute class and Army Ranger officer who ran as a Republican in 1998 for Georgia’s 2nd Congressional District, a targeted race that received some publicity because it was one of only a handful where Republicans test-marketed TV ads that hammered on the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

“I lived in a world of us versus them,” McCormick said. He lost the race to Rep. Sanford Bishop, a Democrat still serving.

The election loss was followed by more profound setbacks: a painful divorce and the death of his sister. The turmoil left McCormick to reevaluate his life, he said.

Traveling south from Washington, McCormick made a spur-of-the-moment decision to turn off at Floyd, Va. He retreated to a rural enclave, living in a cabin without electricity for a year and a half.

“I had no commitments in my life at all,” he said. “I had none.”

The area he stumbled upon turned out to be a community of hippies. It was there, McCormick said, that he first began to question his previous political assumptions. He had judged liberals as insincere but found that his new neighbors “walked their talk.”

Wanting to reenter the political debate without fighting the “red-blue war,” McCormick eventually left North Carolina to retrace the steps of Alexis de Tocqueville, in order to take a measure of the modern American political scene.

He determined that what was most needed was a new way for people to communicate with one another.

“In Washington, the process doesn’t allow for conversation,” he said.

With Pat Spino, whom he met in Virginia and helped counsel back from the brink, McCormick founded the Democracy in America Project. The group, funded by the Setzer Institute, has sponsored three conferences. An upcoming one will held on the war in Iraq.

At the June conference, William Ury, who has directed negotiations among the bushmen of the Kalahari and clan warriors of New Guinea, and Mark Gerzon, another professional negotiator and author of Leading Through Conflict: Transforming Differences Into Opportunities, facilitated dialogue among the group.

The getting-to-know-you process included the Samoan circle, a negotiating tool where a small circle of, in this case, four people who represent two sides of an issue discuss their views as a larger surrounding circle listens.

Members of the outer circle come down and join the debate when they have something to say, but only people in the smaller circle can talk. When a person on one side says something, the person on the other must repeat it before offering a contradictory comment.

McCormick said he shared his own story to encourage other participants to be open to share their experiences.

Participants also voted on their core values using keypad technology, the same used by the audiences on “America’s Funniest Videos” to choose which video is most deserving of the prize money.

Actual policy results might disappoint Washington veterans, battle-hardened by late-night conference committees fueled not by facilitators but by caffeine and political realities.

The Reuniting America website can seem a bit New Agey: “Tremendous success was found in the subtle yet profound building of relationships between individuals.”

What agreements there were related to improving the efficiency of the electric-power grid and making the air traffic control system more efficient to cut energy waste, Smith said.

“We didn’t solve anything,” McCormick acknowledged.

The process is not “transactional” but “transformational,” he said.

Langer, who sang the event’s praises, said he ate dinner every night with the Gores. He was impressed that, despite the success of “An Inconvenient Truth,” which has introduced the Gores to the likes of “X-Men” actor Hugh Jackman, they stayed for all three days.

Langer said he told Al Gore that his mother was a Peace Corps volunteer and Berkeley graduate. “The vice president got a big kick out of that.”

Gore was unavailable to comment for this article.

The CEI’s Smith said he talked a lot to Tipper, telling her, for example, that he liked her husband’s slide show better than the movie, which he felt had been overly dramatized in parts.

He acknowledged that there were some moving moments during the retreat but noted the higher proportion of left-leaning participants: “They hug and squeeze a lot more than we do,” Smith said.

But he added that one participant’s defense of his side’s free-market philosophy reminded him of John Wayne at Iwo Jima. Smith said there weren’t many dry eyes afterward, even among conservatives.

“Most people realized we could be Catholics, we could be Protestants, and we could get along with one another,” Smith said.