Al and Tipper, Wedded to Politics
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 14, 1999; Page C1
Tipper Gore offers two anecdotes about her husband as fresh and compelling evidence that he is not a stuffed shirt.
In the first, the vice president insouciantly hurls clothing, pillows and blankets out a window as he helps 22-year-old daughter Kristin pack up her dorm room at Harvard after graduation ceremonies last week. In the second, he discovers 20-year-old daughter Sarah and a college friend jammin' with 16-year-old Albert III in the living room of the vice president's mansion – Sarah on sax, the friend on keyboard and Albert on drums. So he grabs his harmonica and puts it to his lips.
And then plays some mean hot riffs!
"I wish you could have been there – it's the kind of thing nobody ever sees," Tipper says, conjuring the image of the funky veep gettin' down and loose with the people. "It was really beautiful. . . . And nobody knows this, but he can really sing. He's got a pretty voice."
She's sipping lemonade with a reporter on the front porch of the residence – a flourish in the drumroll of publicity as her husband readies Wednesday's formal presidential campaign kickoff. In due course Al Gore himself appears, doffs his banker's-blue suit jacket and joins her on the sofa.
Is it true you play the harmonica? the reporter immediately asks him.
The vice president looks abashed.
"I told him," Tipper confesses.
"This is another leak," Gore says with a mock-scowl that his wife seems to be studying verrry carefully.
"I was just talking about the fun we were having when Sarah came home with Therese" – the college friend – "and how we were playing music," she explains.
So can America look forward to a new and different – indeed, a musical – Al Gore as he revs up his standard stump speech?
"Well, I hope not!" the vice president replies, reddening slightly and brushing off several urgent demands that he run upstairs and get his harmonica right this minute. "Well . . . uh . . . maybe if I practice. I'm not sure if my harmonica playing is ready for prime time."
34 Years of Love
Ready or not, prime time has arrived. The Gores have no good reason to be unprepared: They've been running hard for the position of first couple at least since 1988, when Al's precocious quest for the Democratic nomination (he was only 39 at the time) foundered for good in the New York primary.
Today, at 51, he's the front-runner for the prize – his ambition threatened only by former senator and basketball star Bill Bradley of New Jersey, and, arguably, also by President Clinton, who can't seem to restrain himself from publicly meddling in Gore's less-than-smooth-running campaign operation.
Recently Clinton telephoned the New York Times to reveal that he believes Gore's organization is steadily improving and that he has advised his vice president to stay loose and have fun on the trail – a phone call not widely seen as good for Gore. Wasn't the candidate deeply annoyed with Clinton?
"No," Gore says with a half-smile and a wavering gaze. "He was trying to help – and I understood that."
His wife emits an uncomfortable laugh. "Um, you know, people do things to try to do the right thing, and sometimes it just comes out differently," she says. "I think what's important is a person's intention."
"I think it always comes off better if you give advice to The Reliable Source, rather than to the news section," Gore adds in an arch deadpan, referring to his interviewer's regular job. "That was the mistake. It upset me that he didn't give it to you."
Unlike the president, Gore is thoroughly unconvincing when he fibs.
He's a cerebral politician who revels in abstractions, and a cautious tactician who's uncomfortable baring his soul – by all accounts a major requirement of running for president at the end of the millennium. But he's a deep thinker and talented writer whose 1992 ecological polemic, "Earth in the Balance," was a national bestseller until the royalties slacked off – though Gore observes mordantly (and correctly): "The opposition research purchases should increase sales."
The question is: Can Bill Clinton's vice president connect with voters on a human level? Can he convince them he's a leader who feels their pain?
Tipper, 50, is a media-savvy mother of four who made her bones politically as an advocate for mental health care and has spoken publicly in recent weeks about her own battle with depression. For her, the question is simpler yet more difficult: Can she help her husband connect, and convince voters that he isn't an effete policy professional who lacks empathy for their workaday worries? Can she use her natural ebullience to warm him up for the electorate?
Hence this twofer on the front porch.
"I think it's ridiculous," Tipper says about the widespread belief (confirmed in recent polls) that voters find her husband dull and boring. "I think that people are going to make up their minds on the power of ideas once the campaign gets going – "
"Tell him, honey!" Al cheers her on. "Sock it to 'em."
" – and once they get to know him," Tipper continues. "I mean, electing a president is important. It's: What does this man stand for? What's he going to do for us? How does he relate to us? Does he understand us? That's what people are going to tune in to when they're ready to tune in."
Obviously appreciative, Al confides: "I love that song by Three Dog Night with that line, 'I don't have to speak 'cause she defends me.' "
On which Tipper pounces triumphantly: "Um, I think that was the Band!"
So what do Al and Tipper really want the country to know about each other?
"On a personal level, I want America to know that he is a very good father," Tipper says as Al fixes her with his most melting gaze and slips a hand into one of hers. "I'm proud of the way that he's always been there for her" – newly minted Harvard graduate Kristin – "and has guided her. Especially for daughters, to have a father validate the fact that they can do anything, and they're intelligent, and they're strong and the world is their oyster, so to speak, it's even more important – and he's always done that."
Al elaborately clears his throat before attempting his own answer. "Ah," he begins, then, suddenly and a tad awkwardly, plants a noisy kiss on Tipper's mouth (just as the photographer is reloading his camera and can't get the shot). They decline to repeat the mushy moment for posterity – "That would be manipulative," Al chides amid much laughter – but they playfully suck face every time the camera is pointed elsewhere.
"But," Tipper says, pulling her husband back to the issue at hand, "I'm anxious to hear what you'd want the public to know about me."
"Well," Al replies, his blush coming on strong as he parses his answer. "She is the most real person you'll ever meet – and she is completely authentic all the time. And that's remarkable."
"Thank you. That's nice of you," Tipper says encouragingly as her completely red-faced husband starts giggling.
"You're welcome," he manages.
"You enjoy my company!" Tipper adds helpfully.
More giggling. "I love your company."
"I know," Tipper says. "We do like each other."
But don't they ever drive each other totally nuts?
"No," Al claims.
"We really don't," Tipper expands. "I mean, that's not to say it's perfect – of course we have our disagreements."
Al nods. "We had a fight once 23 years ago."
"Which I won," Tipper chimes in.
Message: They're still crazy about each after all these years. The Gores have been in love since 1965 – and they just celebrated their 29th wedding anniversary. Take note, America!
The Gores also want America to know that they're about to become grandparents. Their eldest daughter, 25-year-old Karenna, is expecting her first child June 27. "It's at the point where you can feel the baby move when put your hand there," Tipper says. "And to realize that this is your grandchild is profound – a sacred moment, really."
"You have never seen anyone more excited about being a grandmother than Tipper is," Al says – notwithstanding that neither of them looks remotely old enough to be in that position.
"I have always looked young," Tipper confides. "In fact, when I had, like, three kids, one of the best things that happened is I was buying some beer and stuff in the Giant near our house in Virginia – and they asked me for my ID. And I gave the woman a tip!"
"Yes, 16 years ago she was carded!" Al teases. "And she's still enjoying that fact."
"It still means a lot to me," Tipper insists.
Asked about his reaction to his wife's struggle with clinical depression in the early '90s – brought on when young Albert was hit by a car and received life-threatening injuries – the vice president is matter-of-fact.
"I was lucky," he says, "because Tipper has a graduate degree in psychology. . . . And she was able to help our whole family – me included – to understand very clearly what she was going through . . . and that enabled us to better support her as she was finding the help and healing that she needed. She was able to demystify it for us."
Since her public soul-baring in a USA Today interview about her illness and successful treatment, Tipper has become something of a confessor for the similarly afflicted.
"It's astonishing," Al says. "We have heard from so many friends and co-workers and people we've known for years who either have gone through some experience like this themselves or who have a close family member or spouse who've gone through it."
"People have always done that with me, anyway," Tipper recounts. "I think that was one reason that I was a psych major and was going into being a therapist – because I feel like I've had that kind of gift."
She was there to see her husband through the recent death of his 90-year-old father, former senator Albert Gore Sr. – an earth-shaking event in Al Jr.'s life. He sighs heavily when he recalls his last visit with the senior Gore back home in Tennessee last Thanksgiving.
"A lot of men will tell you that the death of their father is a time of reflection and new beginnings," he says. "It's hard to put into words, but all of the memories of what he gave me sort of came together in a feeling of tremendous gratitude, and the fact that he's gone . . . the fact that he knew that Karenna was expecting, you know, before he died, gave a certain sense of closure that was important. . . . I'm sorry I can't be more articulate about it."
All Dressed Up
Stuffed shirt or not, Al Gore is probably America's only politician daring enough to put on a silly costume every October for a Halloween party for the news media, staff and their children. It's a tradition the Gores started when their own children were young and they lived in a house in Arlington, and they've kept it going at the vice president's mansion. Last year, they dressed up elaborately as mummies.
Will the Gores make a solemn campaign promise to continue this policy at the White House?
"Yes," Al answers with refreshing clarity.
"Oh, wouldn't it be great," Tipper says excitedly. "I can see a masquerade ball in the White House even!"
"But," Al cautions, "we have to concentrate on getting there first."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company