The Tipping Point: What Part of Tipper Gore Didn't We See?

06/09/2010 10:11 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

"Photography is a way for me to preserve the part of me that is only me"
--Tipper Gore on her book "Picture This: A Visual Diary" (1996).

That quote reverberates loudly now as I sit and try to make sense of the breakup of Al and Tipper Gore. Maybe it's a significant clue, maybe not, but I do know this: In every marriage, whether a long or short one, "the part of me that is only me" is the hardest part to hang on to.

My thoughts also go back to the evening I met Tipper Gore in the mid-90s at a dinner party -- a casual, intimate gathering of photographers and friends at a low-key Georgetown restaurant to celebrate a friend's birthday. While working on "Picture This," her photographic journal heavy with imagery of her time in the White House, Mrs. Gore had been surrounding herself with some of the most talented and renowned photojournalists of the day.

I wasn't one of them. I was just an impressionable novice photographer, and I was a bit star-struck at having the opportunity to have dinner with the vice president's wife. But most of all I was struck by how down-to-earth she was. Here was the Second Lady of the United States, just a few seats away, laughing and joking with me, by far the youngest and least experienced of the group, just as easily as she conversed with the internationally known photographic royalty who were the other guests.

I got the chance to chat with her one-on-one for a few minutes, and she asked me a little bit about myself and my work. I hadn't done much at that point -- I was an assistant on National Geographic shoots -- but I had my dreams. At the end of our conversation Mrs. Gore gave me a bit of advice. She told me not to get lost in other people's lives. To cultivate a signature style of my own. To never lose sight of my own goals and dreams.

It's the kind of advice that now sounds so Hallmark Card hackneyed, but at the time it gave me pause. I was dating an older, much more established photographer and putting a lot of energy (maybe too much) into that relationship. Young and dumb, I didn't know much about life, but even then I got the impression that Tipper was speaking from hard-earned experience. She had poured a lot of her own life into her husband's. Every politician's wife, it seems, has to.

Had she subsumed too many of her own dreams to make her husband's aspirations and accomplishments possible? Is this baffling breakup somehow a way for her to re-assert, or return to "the part of me that is only me"?

I have no way of knowing. Al and Tipper Gore, together 40 years, were one of the most solid couples in the public eye in recent history. Although the Gores said it was "a mutual and mutually supportive decision that we have made together following a process of long and careful consideration," all sorts of speculation gripped the capital and even the nation. There was anxiety, too: "This doesn't just make us sad," Monica Hesse wrote in the Washington Post Style section. "It makes us scared."

If they can't make it to 'til death do us part, then maybe 'til death do us part can't realistically be done.

I feel like a fool here at the very beginning of my own marriage, barely 2 ½ years in, trying to analyze the Gores's four-decade union. No one ever really knows what goes on behind closed doors between a husband and a wife. You may think you can know, but you never will.

Shortly before my wedding my fiancé and I met an elegant white-haired lady working in the gift shop of a concert hall. We were picking out ornaments for what would be our first Christmas as husband and wife. She had been married for longer than I had been alive. She had noticed, approvingly, my engagement-ringed finger.

She said she'd been married to the same man for nearly 40 years. I asked her what the secret was. She replied simply, "Hang in there. Just hang in there."

So marriage is a choice that you make every morning when you wake up. Simple? Hardly. Because along with hanging in there, as "you" slowly and inexorably becomes "us," you have to find a way to hang on to what matters even more than marriage: That part of you that is yours alone, and always will be.