By now, everyone’s heard the news. Al Gore isn’t the guy he was in 2000. He’s the New Gore — relaxed, charming, self-effacing, funny. Really funny. Who’d have thunk it?

I’d heard all about the New Gore, of course. I’d even sampled a little bit of NG at a Current TV event I attended in December. And yet, when I snagged a press pass to see Al and his Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim receive the Sir David Attenborough award for Excellence in Nature Filmmaking at the Santa Barbara Film Festival last week, I truly thought I was going to spend the evening listening to a panel discussion featuring a former-vice-president-slash-prominent-environmentalist.

I had no idea I was there to watch a rock star.

Gone were the red power ties and man-of-the-people khakis. Missing were the scripted-into-nothingness sound bites and awkwardly jocular jokes. In their place, the audience got black cowboy boots, a more-NYC-than-DC ensemble, and an earful of complex thoughts about the Enlightenment, the importance of science-driven policy, and of course, the issue that got him on the stage to begin with, climate change.

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“This is the challenge of our time, right here and now,” he said. “This is the key that unlocks the future of human civilization.”

Standing O to that, NG.

Still, the topic that dominated the night was American democracy, which NG believes may be in mortal danger: “It took our country way too long to reach the gag threshold with the Bush-Cheney administration.” The culprits? According to Gore, a society-wide disinterest in knowledge and an addiction to television and half-minute sound bites.

It’s easy to see why he’s not a big fan of TV’s quick-fire approach. Like climate change, the essence of Gore — even New Gore — is not translatable under narrow time constraints. Witness the ho-hum reception he received every time he dabbled in 30-second speak on the campaign trail.

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What a difference an hour-long panel discussion makes. By the end of the evening, the slow-burning fervor of the crowd had built to a molten crescendo. If last year’s Attenborough Award recipient, James Cameron, hadn’t stepped up to the mike to dole out a statue, I’m convinced the crowd would have either started hauling out lighters to wave or yelling “amen.”

Amazingly enough, Authentic Al — the erudite, fact-loving guy his political handlers sought to suppress for so many years — is working for him. As is Aw Shucks Al, whose red-faced smile beamed at the floor when Cameron urged him to run in 2008.

But then, during a thunderous standing ovation, he lifted his hand to his face to look out over the crowd, as if trying to read some internal applause-o-meter. In that moment, I couldn’t help but think of something he’d said earlier in the night:

“I’m a recovering politician.”

Only time will tell whether he meant recovering like Lindsay Lohan or recovering like a front runner.