I saw Al and Tipper Gore together in person once, up close. I stood for an hour in a long, snaking line to get signed copies of their two new books, The Spirit of Family and Joined at the Heart. It was 2002, and I was crying as I waited, still raw from the Supreme Court's decision in Bush v. Gore and, even worse, the refusal of Congress to hear the Congressional Black Caucus's challenge to Florida's electoral votes a few weeks later, as allowed by the Constitution and election law. I was remembering all the people who had died in my native state of Mississippi to protect the right to vote.
When I finally met Vice President Gore, he was definitely uncomfortable with my display of emotion. Critics called him stiff and emotionally detached -- check and check. Tipper, on the other hand, was as vibrant as he was distant. She made eye contact and engaging conversation, clearly the better politician of the two.
Who knew they were prophesying their own marital demise in their books, when speculating about how marriages would withstand the new pressures of good health and long life. At 60, many adults can now expect another 20 years of vitality, a third phase of adulthood. Without the responsibilities of career-building and child-raising, 60-somethings can ask anew: what do I want to be when I grow up? Long-held fantasies need not disappear with age.
Al Gore clearly decided president wasn't going to be part of his future after 2000, and that realization appeared to come as a relief. It was an ambition that Gore's father, the progressive U.S. senator from Tennessee, desired for his son from infancy. Perhaps more than Al Jr. ever really wanted it for himself.
Too often Tipper was not consulted about the major changes in Al's life -- and hers. He enlisted in the Army during Vietnam without asking her, decided to enter politics without telling her, ran for president impetuously in 1988 -- too soon and without her consent. He left her alone to raise a family of four while he worked long hours in Congress and flew to meet with constituents on weekends. She complained, justifiably, about being a single parent. But then every political spouse plays that part -- which is why far fewer women run for office.
When their young son, Albert III, almost died after being struck by a car, Tipper again had to deal with her grief alone. The crisis prompted Al to spend long nights writing a book on climate change; Tipper sank into a deep depression. Yet that dark night of the soul turned into political victory for Gore as vice president -- and ultimately created a role for him as planetary prophet.
After the 2000 election, the Gores toured Europe together, the longest vacation they ever had. But with the success of An Inconvenient Truth and Al's new mission as peripatetic philosopher, they spent more and more time apart. No surprise, perhaps, that the old patterns of separation suited Tipper less -- Oscar and Nobel Peace Prize notwithstanding.
Al remains emotionally inscrutable, as always, but a pattern has emerged over the years of casting his lot without considering the counsel of his closest companions. He supported women's rights, but didn't treat his wife as an equal partner. He switched lawyers during the Bush v. Gore oral arguments, and he told Joe Lieberman he wasn't going to fight the decision -- by Blackberry. He urged the Senate not to hear the Congressional Black Caucus's appeal of the Florida electoral votes on January 6, 2001, though only one senator's vote was required. Bush would have still been president, through the vote of the House, but the CBC missed its chance to educate the entire nation on C-SPAN about the Republicans' campaign of voter suppression in Florida's black neighborhoods.
The Gores announced their separation days after their 40th wedding anniversary and the purchase of a new $9 million home on the California coast, a place where generations of Americans have chosen to reinvent themselves. For Al, I'm hoping he'll learn how to be a better partner, in whatever path he pursues.
It is a hard life being a prophet. It is even harder being a prophet's wife.
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