She weathered the storm over rock lyrics to become Clinton's 'secret weapon' the Unsinkable Tipper Gore

June 20, 1994|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON — When Bill Clinton chose Al Gore as his running mate, he knew what he was getting: A member of his own generation, someone with Washington experience, foreign policy seasoning, service in Vietnam and, perhaps most important, no reputation for hanky panky.

Tipper Gore was a pleasant surprise.

The Gore/Clinton coming-out party took place on a sweltering July day in Little Rock. Some liberals still had negative vibes because of Mrs. Gore's mid-1980s crusade to clean up rock lyrics. But on the lawn behind the governor's mansion, the two families looked like something Norman Rockwell would have painted on a particularly luminous day.

The husbands were tall and good-looking, their wives rosy-cheeked and smart. They were flanked by a sea of blond children, smiling and poised. But it was Tipper who seemed in focus in every picture. She was the mother of four of those children. Men looked at her admiringly; mothers chuckled knowingly when she tried to smooth her young son's hair and he squirmed out of reach.

Mr. Clinton would tell friends later that he knew instantly it was a good fit -- and the election returns proved him right. But it was during those Clinton-Gore campaign bus trips across country that he realized it was even better than that. Late at night, after the campaign speeches, as the bus rolled through the Midwest, Mr. Clinton and Mrs. Gore discovered that they were something of kindred spirits.

It was quirky little things like having the same birthday. Tipper Gore and Bill Clinton are talkative people, too, "pleasers" who want to put perfect strangers at ease. And both are married to less gregarious spouses, driven people with less of a need to be loved by all.

Mostly, it was their personal histories, of emotionally troubling childhoods in which each was raised by a struggling single mom -- long before that phrase was in vogue.

The couples kidded each other about marrying the wrong person. But Mrs. Gore, in an interview with The Sun, also revealed that thosebus rides included deeply serious conversations with the future president about her mother's bouts with mental illness.

"I told him about my family background," Mrs. Gore said, referring to an issue she has, until now, been reluctant to discuss publicly. "The president asked me to be his mental health adviser."

In so doing, Mr. Clinton earned the fierce loyalty of Mrs. Gore, who has become a tireless advocate for his health care plan, particularly the provisions to expand mental health coverage.

But if Mr. Clinton has tapped someone with similar levels of passion, Mrs. Gore does not have his baggage. Mr. Clinton has acknowledged that people tend to love him or hate him, but with Tipper Gore, it's hard to find anyone active in politics, Democrat or Republican, who doesn't admire her -- although that wasn't always the case.

"Political campaigns don't always bring out the best in people," said Democratic activist Ann F. Lewis. "Yet I'm always meeting people, young volunteers who drove her around, people like that, and two years later, they still rave about her."

"She's their secret weapon," adds Republican Susan Baker, wife of former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and a former ally of Mrs. Gore in the battle against foul-mouthed rockers, rappers and heavy metalists.

Image transformed

Even liberals have come around.

"Her image changed as people got to know her better," said Frank Tobe, a prominent Southern California Democrat who has close ties to the Hollywood left. "It literally changed from being this weirdo Christian fanatic into somebody who is a great campaigner, a happy woman -- and a person with integrity."

The happy part took some work.

Her parents, John K. Aitcheson and Margaret Ann Carlson, married in 1947. Tipper, christened Mary Elizabeth Aitcheson, was born the following August. But in October 1949, her parents split up.

Tipper's mother went to live with her mother in Arlington, Va., and filed for divorce, accusing her husband of physical abuse and drunkenness. Jack Aitcheson's cross-complaint described his wife as "neurotic" and "erratic," and a person who "would seize upon some idea or trend with fanatic fervor, to the exclusion of common-sense participation in everyday life."

And in what sounds like a contradiction, but which isn't if one factorsin the symptoms of clinical depression, his complaint also accused Tipper's mother of lying around in bed on occasion, instances in which she appeared "lazy" and "lacking in normal maternal instincts."

"My mother had a recurring problem with depression," Tipper Gore says today.

Court papers show that her mother was twice confined in mental institutions more than 40 years ago. Tipper Gore has known since childhood that she wanted to do something to take the stigma out of seeking counseling and other treatment for mental health problems -- treatment she is confident would have helped her mother immensely.

"I was going to be a psychologist," she said, "specializing in children."

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