If you live in New Hampshire in the months before a presidential primary, you can’t help but get engulfed. Big politicians roll into small towns. TV trucks with satellite dishes squat in the few parking places. Self-absorbed people in suits pace village greens, shouting into cell phones. All this week, as Dartmouth College geared up for candidates’ “town meetings” and Hanover descended into chaos, my friends and neighbors were thinking about, talking about, rehearsing the questions they would ask the presidential aspirants.

Made me think what I would ask.

My burning question, I discovered as I mulled it over, is for Al Gore. I’d like to ask it in private, away from microphones. I want his honest answer, as a human being, not as a political candidate. I really need to know.

Unconstrained by the fast-paced, shallow TV format, I’d ask a long question and wait for a long, full answer.

“Vice President Gore, in 1992, just before the Rio summit on the environment and before you were called to the vice-presidency, you published a wonderful book, Earth in the Balance. That book gladdened and inspired people like me who care deeply about the environment. It showed us there was one person in high elective office who had done his homework, read the science, queried the experts, thought hard. You understood as no other politician did.

“You realized, back then, that if the environment doesn’t work, nothing else — not the schools, not the health care system, not the economy — can possibly work. You recognized that restoring the environment is not to be done on the margin or achieved through compromise. You called for a ‘Global Marshall Plan.’ You wanted to ‘make the effort to save the global environment the central organizing principle of our civilization.’ You called our economic system ‘partially blind.’ You even had the guts to talk about ethics and faith and an ‘environmentalism of the spirit.’

“You said: ‘I have become very impatient with my own tendency to put a finger to the political winds and proceed cautiously. The voice of caution whispers persuasively in the ear of every politician … But … the integrity of the environment is not just another issue to be used in political games for popularity, votes, or attention. And the time has long since come to take more political risks — and endure much more political criticism — by proposing tougher, more effective solutions and fighting hard for their enactment.’

“By now my question should be obvious. What happened to you? In the past seven years we have seen only tepid environmental measures from you and your president. Back-pedaling. Compromise. Window-dressing. You know that as well as I do.

“Why? What happened? Where did your understanding and commitment and courage and spirit go?”

All week I’ve been wondering what he might answer, if he could speak truly, as a human being, from his soul.

Would he say, “Hey, I’m only vice president. I’ve just been biding my time, seething, waiting till I can be Number One and Really Move on my agenda!”?

Would he say, with devastating self-understanding, “You know, it’s a lot easier to be righteous when you’re not actually in power. You wouldn’t believe the pressures, from outside and from within oneself, that seduce one away from courage and into caution — caution based on the insatiable desire for still more power. I’ve discovered, to my sorrow and shame, that I’m not up to resisting that desire. My mind and heart may be driven by principle, but there’s something much stronger in me that will pitch out principle for power every single darn time.”

Or would he say — this is the response I fear — “You know, no one — no one — can attain or keep or exercise high elective office in the United States without constant obedience to the money and power that put him there. Politicians are just the puppets of campaign donors. I tried for an energy tax; you saw what happened. I tried for a strong greenhouse policy; the oil and coal and car companies ran right over me. I could see that global free trade would be an environmental disaster, but the corporations said ‘fight for free trade or we contribute only to Republicans.’ I gave up. I’m just playing games now, trying to advance a few baby steps in good directions. They aren’t enough to save the environment, but they’re better than giant Republican steps in bad directions.”

If I could know Gore’s honest answer, derived from his hands-on experience in the arenas of power, I could decide not only whether to vote for him, but whether to vote at all. Is our political system so corrupt that no one, no matter what his understanding or commitment, can do what is necessary to save the climate and the forests and fish and soils and waters? Can we even hope to save our democracy with thoroughgoing (not cautious) campaign reform? Or is the cynicism of the voters who stay home completely justified?

Mr. Vice President, you’re in a position to tell me, straight and true, if you can rediscover the person you were when you wrote that book.