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Tipper Gore's Mission of Mercy : Rwanda: On a visit to L.A., she recounts tales of life--and death--in refugee camps. 'I had to see the children . . . let them know they were loved.'

August 15, 1994|PAMELA WARRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Tipper Gore came to Los Angeles, but she didn't bring her Rollerblades, her red glitter drum set or even her campaign to clean up the music industry.

Instead, she brought haunting, horrific images of the sick and dying Rwandan children she had visited earlier last week.

"I entered one room and saw two babies were dead, so I went on to the next room to help with giving baths to the sick ones still alive. They all had cholera. All had diarrhea.

"I picked up a little boy and I thought, 'This child feels so hard. Why? What's wrong?' And then I realized, this child was a skeleton. A skeleton. Skin stretched over bones, that's all. . . ."

This is not the sort of conversation one expects to be having with Tipper Gore--code name "Skylark," homecoming queen of the Clinton Administration, Vice President Al Gore's more interesting and effusive half.

As Second Lady, she has made headlines for losing weight, wearing slinky gowns and collecting Grateful Dead albums. But she is a quiet yet powerful voice for children's rights.

This mother of four has also used her 18 years in political fishbowls to build a national reputation as a respected champion for the homeless and the mentally ill. She is now President Clinton's mental health adviser to his Task Force for National Health Reform.

Until her husband won his first bid for Congress in 1976, she planned to practice child psychology--a discipline in which she holds an advanced degree.

But it was as a mother--and a mother who almost lost a child when son Albert III was struck by a car in 1989--that Gore went to Africa.

"Life is so fragile and so precious--every life," she says.

Her voice is husky, even breathless, as she tries to describe what life--and death--is like in refugee camps in Zaire, where at least 180,000 children are "unaccompanied."

"I'm sorry for the way I sound," she whispers. "I've been in 13 time zones in the last seven days and this is what happened."

Gore came to Southern California on Friday to campaign for gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Brown and to address the American Psychological Assn.'s convention on the future of the family.

It was her first trip since journeying privately to the place where one of the greatest and swiftest-moving concentrations of refugees in history is coming together in one vast and throbbing mass.

She went, she says, to "just see what I could do to help."

"I originally talked to my husband about it and he wanted to go, but that seemed too difficult logistically. I wanted to slip in to see how these young soldiers of ours are holding up, how they're handling it. And I had to see the children, hold them, let them know they were loved."

In fact, UNICEF officials say, Tipper (nee Mary Elizabeth) Gore, the eternal cheerleader, did more than lift the spirits of the troops. She saved lives.

"Sometimes all a doctor needed was someone to hold an IV bag or help get someone to a field hospital," she says with a shrug, "and so I did it."

Speaking of the experience still brings tears to her pale blue eyes. But she doesn't apologize or try to hide her emotions. She wraps her tangerine-colored silk suit tight around her arms as she describes how, in equatorial Africa, some children never stop shaking.

"They shiver at night because they are so cold and there is no electricity to warm them; they shiver in the day because they are burning up from fever."

A few miles from the orphanages and refugee camps, Gore slept in a sleeping bag in a tent and dined on MRE rations with her soldier-hosts. "The tuna noodle with cheese sauce wasn't bad. (And) I had a chocolate nut cake, naturally."

A semi-recovered chocoholic, Gore is perhaps the only woman ever to diet successfully during a political campaign. At 5 feet, 5 inches, she has maintained a near-svelte goal of about 130.

She is a born-again fitness buff, an accomplished drummer (she played for the all-girl band the Wildcats in her pre-Al days) and is considered one of the most genuinely polite women in Washington politics.

When Frank Zappa disclosed the cancer that took his life earlier this year, she sent him a sympathy note. This, despite the fact that he had called her "a cultural terrorist" for her campaign to label musical recordings.

On Friday, she will celebrate her 46th birthday--the day her husband's boss celebrates his 48th.

Will her husband give her Rollerblades again? Or something more useful? Like chocolate.

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