The Gores’ union used to be perceived as the last marriage likely to fail. Until it did. Perhaps it’s testament to the depth of their relationship that the (former) couple are trying to downplay the inevitable fuss surrounding their separation.
If you tried to make book on it, the last public political marriage you would have bet on failing would have been Al and Tipper Gore’s partnership. Not when the field includes Bill and Hillary Clinton’s highly unusual marriage, or former New York governor Eliot Spitzer (the straight-laced politician who found so much support outside of his marriage) – or perhaps even our own Jacob Zuma, what with his oh-so-complicated family life.
For a political couple, Al and Tipper always seemed unusually affectionate – and comfortable demonstrating it in public. Example number one: that famous full-bodied, whole-body kiss at the Democratic Party convention back in 2000 when he accepted his party’s nomination for the presidency. But aides and reporters who followed Albert and Tipper Gore’s life in politics say they can recall many other moments of genuine, gentle tenderness.
As a couple, their life together played out in full view of the public. There was Tipper’s struggle with depression; their frustrations with their Washington life as a highly visible Senate couple when he represented Tennessee; the family therapy they underwent as their young son, Albert Gore III, nearly died. They bonded tightly, especially after their son was struck by a car and nearly killed. Tipper told a reporter about the events that: “We both realised what was really important, and it was not to give one more speech.” And he, in turn, said Tipper 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 fact, Washington observers say that the Gores were so open about their problems that their efforts to overcome the struggles in a family’s life and history seemed both healthy and right-thinking – an example to others. Throughout their marriage, Tipper, with her enthusiasms and energy, had actually managed to make Al Gore seem to be a fun guy – the kind you’d like to have come round for a family braai – but only if she came along as well. Moreover, the rumours about infidelity that seem to swarm around so many other politicians and their spouses never touched the Gores.
All of this is why their joint email on Monday to their friends, announcing an amicable separation as a couple, seemed such a shocker – especially since it came so soon after their 40th wedding anniversary.
In recent years, according to friends and reporters, the Gores seemed finally to have shaken off that dark cloud that had descended after losing a disputed US presidential election in 2000. He immersed himself in environmental and climate activism that was rewarded with both a Nobel Peace Prize and an Academy Award for the film An Inconvenient Truth, while she threw herself into her professional photography work.
Friends say that with their children grown up, their professional interests diverging and his travel taking him away from home, they just gradually grew apart. Or as their email said: “This is very much a mutual and mutually supportive decision that we have made together following a process of long and careful consideration [and] we ask for respect for our privacy and that of our family, and we do not intend to comment further.”
Friends and confidants were mostly unwilling to say much about the announcement, except to express shock and surprise, although one told the Washington Post: “I don’t know anybody who saw it coming,” adding that although the two had largely been leading separate lives in recent years, he thought that had been mainly a scheduling issue.
Their romance had been in the public eye from the beginning. He was the son of a popular Tennessee senator and had gone to St Albans School, Washington’s equivalent of Bishop’s, then on to Harvard. They were married in Washington’s National Cathedral in 1970 – just before he went to Vietnam as an army journalist. When he returned from ’Nam, they moved to Nashville, Tennessee to work on a newspaper there – she as a photographer and he as a writer.
However, when Al Gore first ran for Congress he gave his wife less than a week’s notice. She said later in her book, Picture This: A Visual Diary, that this news came as “a bombshell…. Our lives changed forever”, as she found herself alone with a young family in Washington while he was often back at constituent events in Tennessee. She was also not happy when he told her he was going to make a run for the presidency in 1988.
Regardless, for a while, at least, she was the Gore that made the most news. As a leader of the Parents’ Music Resource Center she led a vigorous fight to require labelling on the covers of music albums with profane and sexual content – withstanding the ridicule and scorn of many sophisticates over her fight. But, after he was elected vice president, she had told a Washington Post reporter that their family life actually improved because his new job kept him closer to home.
But, in what might just possibly have been a foreshadowing of what has now come to pass for the couple, Tipper told a Tennessee-based interviewer: “I have my own interests, my own pursuits, my own passions. 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.”
By J Brooks Spector
Photo: Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore kisses his wife Tipper as he arrives on stage during the final evening session of the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in this August 17, 2000 file photo. Gore and his wife, Tipper, have announced their separation after 40 years of marriage, according to media reports on June 1, 2010. REUTERS/Sam Mircovich