Tipper Steps Out

It was Tipper Gore's first solo campaign outing of the year, a daylong sprint across New Hampshire on a miserable snowy day in January. Mrs. Gore cheerfully trudged from hospital to meeting hall, shaking hands, talking up her husband--and giving voters an up-close look at the lady who would be First Lady. Back home in Washington, Al Gore spent the day wondering how his wife was really handling the northern exposure. Private and wary of the rigors of campaign life, Tipper has often been a reluctant public figure. This time the stakes were even higher and the scrutiny was sure to be even closer; the vice president phoned her entourage at every stop, grilling aides about her mood. How was she holding up? he wanted to know. He didn't have to wait long for an answer. That evening, Tipper phoned him at his office in the White House. "I like it so much here I think we should rent an apartment, and I'll just stay," Tipper teased. Gore, not picking up on the joke, reacted with stunned silence--until he heard Tipper and her aides erupt into laughter. Her message was clear enough: stop worrying, Al, I'm on board.

It's a good thing she is. As friends of the Gores plainly admit, the vice president can't win the presidency without her. Over the years Tipper has played a crucial behind-the-scenes role in Gore's political career, advising her husband on everything from strategy to hiring decisions. But perhaps more important, Tipper provides much needed balance to Gore's stilted public persona. Playful and gregarious, 50-year-old Tipper prods her taut husband to loosen up and enjoy himself. It isn't always easy. Even after 29 years of marriage, Al and Tipper still have shades of the Odd Couple. He can be awkward and formal even in casual social settings, relaxing only in the company of a close circle of intimates. She is at ease in a crowd of strangers or sitting in the bleachers with other parents at a school ball game. Often she will get restless and pull out her camera at official functions and take a few snaps of the audience from her seat on the dais. While Al methodically worked the crowd at an April fund-raiser in Silicon Valley, Tipper--once a drummer in an all-girl band called the Wildcats--couldn't resist grabbing some sticks and thumping out "Queen Jane Approximately" with members of the Grateful Dead.

Despite her outward levity, Tipper has long wrestled with the trade-offs of public life. She hugely prizes her privacy and has struggled to preserve some semblance of a normal life with her husband and four children; yet she clearly enjoys her ability to wield influence on favorite causes like mental health and homelessness. With the campaign underway, Tipper once again is deciding just how much of herself she wants to reveal. Earlier this month she disclosed her own personal struggle with the depression she suffered after her son was struck and nearly killed by a car in 1989. She sought counseling and took medication, and now says she has recovered. In part, friends say, the timing of her revelation signaled that Tipper has begun to gird herself for the intense scrutiny that goes with a presidential bid. "She knew that the way politics works today, she would have to put this out," says a close friend.

But only a cynic would suggest her disclosure was purely political. Mrs. Gore says she chose to speak out to help erase the stigma surrounding mental illness, an issue she's championed for years. She had been mulling the idea of going public for a while, and the school shooting in Littleton persuaded her to do it. She says she was struck by how troubled teens were afraid to get help--and especially bothered by news reports that suggested Columbine shooter Eric Harris's antidepression medication might be to blame. "It was the right time for me to be able to talk about this," she told NEWSWEEK. "The next time when I'm in a school I can say, 'You know, I, too, have suffered with this, and let me tell you, you can get help and you can recover'."

There were other reasons to go public now. Next month Tipper will lead the first-ever White House conference on mental health, a daylong gathering of psychologists, politicians and citizens. She has high hopes the session will help dispel myths and shame about the issue. At the meeting, Clinton is expected to set the tone by requiring health insurers who cover federal employees to provide equal benefits for physical and mental health.

Since Tipper's disclosure, dozens of Americans have already approached her at public events to tell their stories; hundreds more have sent encouraging letters and e-mail. Aides do worry, though, that the press will now watch her every move and mood for signs of relapse. She's bound to have an off day now and then. When she does, says one aide, "I'm hopeful people won't say, 'Is something wrong with Tipper?' "

Mrs. Gore's lifelong interest in mental health dates back to her childhood in northern Virginia. Mary Elizabeth Aitcheson--nicknamed "Tipper" by her grandparents--watched her mother suffer with serious bouts of depression from the time she was a girl. Margaret Ann Aitcheson was hospitalized more than once with the disease, and it cast a gloomy pall on the household. Tipper's father, Jack Aitcheson, a plumbing- and heating-supplies dealer, was distraught over his wife's condition. They divorced when Tipper, an only child, was 4. She and her mother moved in with her grandparents, who helped to raise her. It was a difficult and frustrating time for the young girl. At the time, mental illness was something to be kept deeply hidden, and her mother was fearful of anyone's discovering the problem. When her mother was once hospitalized for a physical ailment, she instructed Tipper not to tell doctors about the depression medication she was taking. Her mother's long battle with the stigma of her disease left a lasting impression on her daughter, who saw "how awful it must be to be depressed and be so embarrassed you don't want to do anything about it," says friend Elizabeth Rukeyser.

For many years, Tipper herself seemed anything but depressed. Outgoing and mischievous, she went to an Episcopal girls' school and fit in well with the social scene around St. Alban's, the prestigious Washington school Al Gore attended. The two met at his school graduation dance in the spring of 1965. As Gore lore goes, they were instantly smitten. She followed him to Boston when he went to Harvard, enrolling first at Garland Junior College and later transferring to Boston University. In 1970 they married and moved to Al's hometown of Carthage, Tenn. By 1976 both young Gores were working at the Nashville Tennessean.

But Al, the son of a senator, had bigger ambitions. That year he abruptly announced he was running for Congress. Tipper was caught utterly by surprise. "It was a bombshell," she recalls, and she was not at all enthusiastic about Al's career switch. Her own career as a news photographer was just starting to blossom, and she had been studying for a master's degree in psychology. Insecure in her new role as a candidate's wife, she found it painful to beg strangers for votes. And she resented how little time Al had to spend with her and their 3-year-old daughter, Karenna.

Al won, and they packed up and moved to Washington. Tipper was determined to keep the family together in a city where work often takes precedence over everything else. When the Gore children were young, Tipper would head to Capitol Hill lectures or meetings with a child in tow, bottles and all, and she insisted Gore carve out time in his schedule for the kids. But Congressman--and eventually Senator--Gore went to visit voters in Tennessee nearly every weekend, and Tipper was left home alone with the children. During Gore's 1988 campaign for president, she tried sending the kids out on the campaign trail with him; but it was hard to fit in quality time with Dad between fund-raisers and union rallies.

She has since honed the difficult skill of juggling her personal and public lives. Tipper still insists on putting family first. She and Al catch up on long walks together in the evenings, and their two schedulers meet to coordinate calendars, reserving a weekday off together every few weeks. Though the three Gore daughters have left the nest, 16-year-old Albert III is still at home, and Tipper doesn't like to go away for more than a night or two. The Gores' eldest daughter, Karenna, is expecting a baby this June, and Tipper plans to clear her schedule for a few weeks to focus on being a grandmother.

Though she can't avoid public scrutiny altogether, Mrs. Gore often goes out of her way to keep a low profile. She refuses a limousine, choosing to get around in a simple sedan. And she tries to keep some of her volunteer work out of the newspapers, even when she could earn favorable press. A few times a month she goes incognito, donning jeans and a sweat shirt to help the homeless find showers and shelter. When a TV crew once staked her out, she was livid.

Unlike Hillary Clinton, Tipper is hardly a policy wonk. She says she still has "no idea" what she'd do as First Lady, but friends say she is unlikely to lead a task force or head a commission. Instead, she'll continue to concentrate on her twin issues of mental health and homelessness. As she braces herself for the rigors of the months to come, Tipper once again finds herself in a familiar role: trying to balance it all, without losing her balance.

Tipper Steps Out | News