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CONVENTION 2000 / THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION

Tipper Gore, in Focus

She's very clear about what matters to her, including the homeless, mental health care--and her family.

August 16, 2000|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If he's a robot, she's his heartbeat. When Tipper Gore takes center stage at Staples Center on Thursday to introduce the vice president at the Democratic National Convention, she will speak both as a veteran political spouse and as the person Al Gore whispers to as he fades off to sleep.

As for Tipper, her smile, her warmth and her confidence make her seem easy to know. Even those who fault her husband are inclined to have generous words for the woman he needs by his side.

More traditional than Hillary Rodham Clinton and less traditional than Laura Bush, this, after all, could be America's first potential first lady who started married life in a trailer park. Ever since her parents called her Tipper, after a favorite lullaby, Mary Elizabeth Aitcheson Gore has carried mischief in her eye and feistiness in her spirit. With more envy than judgment, friends say she can be a little naughty. Whether it's dueling the music industry, ditching the Secret Service or hanging out with the homeless, she just doesn't always follow the rules.

Her husband agreed: "You know, she just does things her own way." Habitually, Tipper Gore takes on edgy causes. Sometimes these issues get her in trouble; even last week, the New York Times recalled her "puritanical crusade" 15 years ago against explicit rock lyrics. But for the most part, if she has enemies, they fail to advertise themselves.

Part earth mother, part rebel, Gore says she has no model for the role of first lady, but that if the job is hers, she'll do it her own way. Those who know the demands of this unpaid position wish her luck.

"It's probably a healthy idea that she has, but it isn't going to happen," said Nancy Reagan's former press secretary, Sheila Tate. Anonymously walking the streets of America? "If she's the wife of the president," Tate said, "that day is gone."

For Tipper Gore, that day also is not yet here. In discussing what may happen in November, she speaks only in the conditional. No assumptions, and a standard feature of her stump speech is that every vote counts. Her stock address includes personal responsibility, tolerance, economic opportunity and, consistently, the Supreme Court. Along with women's rights, mental health, physical fitness and the welfare of children and families, these are familiar issues for someone who, as longtime friend Jane Slate Siena put it, "is very clear about the things she cares about."

So here's what will happen if Tipper and Al move into the White House. He'll run the country, she'll invite homeless people to picnics in the backyard. He'll handle foreign policy, she'll play the drums at gay rights concerts. He'll joust with Congress, she'll go backpacking.

And if he doesn't win?

The object of this discussion gazed off into some unknowable distance.

"Life will stop," she said during a relaxed interview recently at the Biltmore Hotel. "Everything will turn to black . . . and fade away. . . . We'll open the door . . . and who knows what will be on the other side?"

As a matter of fact, Tipper Gore knows exactly what will be on the other side: Her husband, her children, her grandson, her mother, her friends, her causes, her camera.

After nearly 30 years as a Washington spouse, she also knows precisely what awaits her if Al Gore wins in November.

Win or lose, Tipper Gore insists life--her life--will carry on. She vows she'll still shop at Walmart, advocate for mental health issues, hike in the High Sierra. She'll stuff her hair in a scarf and slip away to speak to troubled people who live under bridges. She'll take pictures. She'll worry about her mother and ride her son to study for his SATs. She'll run, she'll work out, she'll battle those 20 or so rogue pounds.

This is a complex woman. She is not about tea parties or power lunches and is much more about connections than networking. Her philosopher of choice is Jean Piaget. And if she has a pressure point, it's her family: Don't mess.

She turns 52 on Saturday and is clearly comfortable with herself.

"Well," Gore said in an interview here, "I know who I am, and I like it."

A camera goes everywhere with her, so maybe her life is best told in snapshots.

Tipper the Enforcer

As a young mother, Gore banned her three daughters from watching "Mighty Mouse" on the grounds that the series demeaned women (the boy mouse was always rescuing the girl mice). Led by Tipper, the Gore household in 1977 began boycotting Nestle products, because the company pushed infant formula over breast-feeding in Third World countries.

The activist Tipper was in full throttle in 1984 when eldest daughter Karenna, then 11, brought home the album "Purple Rain" by Prince. Together, mother and daughter listened to "Darling Nikki," about a girl in a hotel lobby, "masturbating with a magazine."

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