By Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 2, 2010; A01
For a couple in politics, they were unusually affectionate, and comfortable showing it -- yes, that ferocious embrace and open-mouthed kiss before the cameras at the 2000 Democratic convention, but also in little moments of tenderness witnessed by reporters or aides who walked unexpectedly into rooms. They were unusually open about their marital struggles -- her battles with depression and frustrations with the life of a Senate spouse, the therapy they sought after their young son's near-death -- in a way that seemed bracing, yet healthy. She made an otherwise stiff candidate seem fun. And the rumors that fly around so many other political couples never hovered near them.
Which is why so many people -- strangers and friends -- were stunned by the news that just days after their 40th wedding anniversary, the Gores are separating. The former vice president, 62, and his wife, 61 -- who in recent years had been occupied with his globe-trotting environmental activism, recognized with both a Nobel Prize and an Academy Award, and her photography work closer to home -- announced the news Tuesday in an e-mail to friends that quickly made its way to reporters.
"This is very much a mutual and mutually supportive decision that we have made together following a process of long and careful consideration," they wrote. "We ask for respect for our privacy and that of our family, and we do not intend to comment further."
Chris Downey, a friend of Tipper's since they were both young congressional wives, burst into tears when she heard the news. "I'm shocked -- beyond shocked," said Downey, who had talked to her friend just last week. "This is the least likely course of events I could imagine."
Many other friends and confidants, though, declined to share personal reactions, even on background, citing their determination to help the Gores keep the matter private. One of those friends was willing to say, "I don't know anybody who saw it coming." He added that although the Gores had largely been leading separate lives in recent years, that was seen mainly as a scheduling issue.
The parents of four grown children, the Gores had made their home in Nashville since shortly after his bitter loss in the 2000 presidential race. Last month, California newspapers reported that the couple had purchased an $8.9 million coastal mansion in Montecito. Their spokeswoman did not respond to e-mails or phone messages asking where each intends to live.
Theirs was a Beltway romance. He was a political scion, son of Tennessee's first Sen. Gore and a senior at St. Albans when she -- a junior at Alexandria's St. Agnes School -- showed up at a post-prom party. They both arrived with other dates who were soon history. She later told The Washington Post that he was her first "love." ("But not my first boyfriend!") A year after he went to Harvard, she followed him to school in Boston. They wed in May 1970 -- weeks before he shipped off to Vietnam -- at Washington National Cathedral. They were working in Nashville for the Tennessean (he as a reporter, she as a photographer) when their first child, Karenna, was born in 1973.
Tipper later said she wed Al assuming he'd make his career as a writer, or maybe a lawyer. Instead, in the first big challenge to their marriage, he entered politics. He gave her only three days' notice that he was running for Congress. In her 1996 photo-memoir, "Picture This: A Visual Diary," she called the news "a bombshell. . . . Our lives changed forever." In Washington, she wrote, she was often left unhappily alone with the kids on weekends while he returned to Tennessee for constituent events. She was infuriated when he informed her in 1987 that he was going to make his first run for president.
But she also seemed to keep pace with him well. For a while in the mid-1980s, she was the more famous one, as leader of the Parents' Music Resource Center, advocating that profane and sexual content in music require album-cover labels and absorbing the public scorn of music-industry detractors.
They bonded more closely in those years, especially after their 6-year-old, Albert III, was struck by a car and nearly killed, and the whole family entered counseling. "We both realized what was really important, and it was not to give one more speech," she told The Post's Karen Tumulty, then with Time, in 2000. In the same interview, he said his wife had taught him "a way to enrich my own experience of life by opening up to the heart as well as the head. . . . She's been a great teacher for me."
In a 1996 interview, she told The Post that their family life actually improved when he was elected vice president in 1992 -- the job kept him closer to home.
During his 2000 race, Tipper was a driving force behind Al's decision to uproot his campaign and move it to Nashville, to get rid of the limo and start doing more personal events. She helped brand him as a more likable guy, releasing old newlywed photos she took of him shirtless and shaving. Some advisers, though, said she also reinforced her husband's tendency to blame others and to second-guess.
Back in Tennessee after that loss, the Gores wrote a couple of books together. Al, in a 2002 interview, told Tumulty that they had been meditating and praying together. Tipper pondered but passed up a run for Senate. "I have my own interests, my own pursuits, my own passions," she said at the time. "I am just also in a position in my life to be able to design it in a way that allows me to spend a lot of time with my family, with my children, with my grandchildren."