How the Mighty Have Fallen: Lunch With the Gores

You've seen them on television, you've read about them in magazines, you've heard from them on the radio -- and now Al and Tipper Gore spill their guts (or, at the very least, flog their books) in The Reliable Source.

Last week in New York -- sandwiched on their schedule between Katie Couric and David Letterman -- we finally redeemed our long-promised lunch with the ex-veep and his wife. They're in the midst of a media juggernaut to tout two joint publishing ventures: "Joined at the Heart," an anecdotal book on the modern American family, and "The Spirit of Family," a companion coffee-table photo collection.

Tipper, who arrived chewing gum, wore an autumnal orange jacket, and Al sported the same boldly purple shirt that has been seen this week on the "Today" show and in Time magazine.

Over seafood delicacies and exotic cheeses at Manhattan's Gramercy Tavern, we laughed and we almost cried. Recalling daughter Karenna's wedding, Al got weepy as he talked about his sudden memory, when he walked her down the aisle, of carrying her as an infant. Minutes earlier, we had gotten weepy while recalling a recently departed uncle during a discussion of a powerful deathbed scene in the photo book.

A dry-eyed Tipper suddenly had two blubbering men to console. "It's okay to cry," she said. "Our families are truly important to us -- people that we love and who love us. When we talk about the memories that we have, if you're emotionally attached to that memory of a particular time or situation, it just pops right up."

We asked how devastating it felt two years ago to come so close to occupying the White House -- even garnering a half-million more popular votes than George W. Bush -- and still come up short.

"Are you trying to make me cry again?" Al demanded.

"Certain subjects touch him," Tipper quipped.

"A long vacation helps," Al explained. "It wasn't a piece of cake. I decided I was going to accept the rule of law . . . then Tipper and I took the longest vacation we've ever taken in our lives. That really helped a lot. By the time we got back from Europe, I was pretty much over it."

"You have to move on," Tipper added.

"That was hard, but the country moved on and I've moved on," Al said. "I also grew a beard. You may not have known that."

Of course, as Gore well knows, we made fun of his beard incessantly. We even provided a forum for Gore's former Senate colleague Bob Dole to plead with him to lose the whiskers. Thankfully, Gore is now cleanshaven.

"I was surprised at apparently how very few people were neutral," he said.

"I was surprised at the amount of attention it got. That was just astounding," Tipper said. "But men don't have that many ways to change -- or as many ways as women do. Know what I mean?"

"No, I don't," Al replied.

"Clothing choices, for instance," Tipper explained. "I can wear pants. I can wear a skirt. I can wear a dress."

"I could, too."

"Yeah -- you and J. Edgar Hoover," Tipper needled. At which both groaned: "Oooooooh!"

Gore has agreed to host "Saturday Night Live" next month, but as for any possible cross-dressing, "that's probably going to naturally migrate down the list of skits that make the final cut," he predicted.

When we asked him if he really knows what he's getting into, he emitted a high-pitched giggle.

" 'Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.' That's so true," Tipper said.

"Yes," Al agreed. "That Kris Kristofferson lyric is a mantra. It's the Janis Joplin song, of course, but I think he wrote it."

The once and possibly future presidential candidate is not just selling books, he's reintroducing himself after nearly two years out of the spotlight. This time around he wants to be seen as the laid-back, self-deprecating, emotionally open Al Gore -- and certainly not as the angry and scolding Al Gore who phoned our Post colleague Liza Mundy at home last weekend to accuse the paper of violating a news embargo involving Mundy's profile of him in The Washington Post Magazine. ("An embargo that both sides agreed upon was broken," Gore spokesman Jano Cabrera told us yesterday about a Friday news account of the Sunday magazine article. "The Post has stressed to us that it was not by design and there's no reason not to believe that." But that's another story.)

"Joined at the Heart" chronicles the many pressures on families, so we wondered if public life and the accompanying loss of privacy put a special pressure on families. Gore, after all, has been a public figure, willing or unwilling, since his boyhood as a senator's son, and he has seen his own son Albert's misdemeanors become headline fodder.

"We have no complaints," he answered. "The fact that I grew up in a political family made it little bit easier for me to understand some of the things that my children experience when their dad and mom are on TV. We're just a normal family -- a normal family that has had a number of extraordinary experiences. But I think truck drivin' puts pressures on families."

"Families working split shifts -- that's pressure," Tipper said. "Yes, we deal with politics and everything is under the microscope. But talk about pressure!"

"You just put it in perspective," Al said. "You don't soak in too much of the harsh criticism, but that means that you don't soak in too much of the overly effusive praise that also comes with the territory."

Hinting that he might announce in this column his decision on whether he'll run again -- he's waiting till after the holidays -- Gore sounded ready for a long and grueling comeback. "A book tour is a lot easier than a campaign," he said. "They say this is an aggressive book tour, and they say, 'Oh this must be so grueling. This is going to be so hard.' My reaction is, actually, it's not grueling at all." He glanced around the wood-paneled dining room bustling with prosperous gourmets. "I mean -- look!"

At which point the cheeses arrived.

THIS JUST IN ...

* Special Olympics International Chairman Sargent Shriver has decided to give up the job next June, and son Tim Shriver, the CEO of the 34-year-old nonprofit, told us a search committee is being formed to find a replacement. The younger Shriver said his father wants to work on finishing his memoirs and starting a peace center. "I asked him if he wanted to give a reason for resigning and he said, 'Christ, I'm 87!' "

* We're pleased to report that if Vice President Cheney ever finds himself up the creek, he won't lack for a paddle. He was spotted yesterday purchasing a retractable aluminum oar at the Sports Authority in Alexandria

* House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) reached out to Texas moderates yesterday, or at least one Texas moderate. She lunched at the Palm with Bob Strauss and proved herself a red-blooded American by eating an entire steak.