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Married...with books

Al and Tipper Gore take their bickering-but-happy-together-couple routine on the road in support of two new books about American families.

November 22, 2002|James Verini | Special to The Times

The light was beginning to wane in the Century Plaza Hotel late Tuesday afternoon, and Al and Tipper Gore, the ex-vice president and presidential candidate and his always-present wife, were late. Late for everything.

Their plane from New York had been delayed, and in half an hour they had to be in a CNN studio with Larry King, across town, to plug their new book. After that they would be signing copies for two hours at the Brentano's bookstore in Century City (where people had started lining up at 5 a.m.). At 7 a.m. the next morning, they would be on the "Today" show.

Al and Tipper Gore were also hungry. They hadn't eaten all day. So it was between hurried bites of matching salmon salads that this impossibly functional couple, the models of successful suburban marriage and healthy middle-aged sexuality in one of the most dysfunctional White Houses ever -- who had the unfortunate job of playing straight men to Bill and Hillary's honeymooners -- talked about successful marriages and healthy sex lives.

Ostensibly, anyway. One got the impression that they'd been talking about that too much. By this point in the day, the Gores wanted to cut up -- as usual, together. When the point was raised that the book would inevitably be seen as an early campaign screed, the first salvo for 2004, the Gores demurred: "I can assure you," Al said, "that if I'd set out in January of 2000 to develop an intricate strategy to run again, I wouldn't have done it by spending two years preparing a couple of books on family."

"We would have been out there, raising tons of money," Tipper added.

"Can't we just talk about Iraq?" joked Al, referring to his appearance earlier that day on the national radio talk show "Fresh Air." The host, Terry Gross, had shown little interest in anything else. "Did they leave in the part when Tipper asked Terry whether she'd even read the book?" They had.

The book, "Joined at the Heart: The Transformation of the American Family," is a labor of -- what else? -- love for the Gores, a project 11 years in the researching and two very intimate years in the writing. "Our desks faced each other -- we were literally joined at the wood, I guess you could say," Tipper said. "And I have a master's degree in psychology, so I could analyze him all the time."

"Joined at the Heart," equal parts self-help tome, family-therapy diary and dissertation, is a work of, at the very least, sincerity. Sentences like "The drive to form families is as essential today as it was 130,000 years ago on the African Savannah" and "Tipper remembers some of the complicated emotions of being a stepchild" follow each other.

It has that classic Gore self-possession (who invented the Internet?), but a lot of statistics too. Some critics will doubtless quip that it has a little too much Gore. "Growing up in a political family, family stories tend to be made public," Al said. "The day after I was born, the Nashville Tennessean ran a front-page story on it because my father was on the phone with a reporter when it happened."

"We ..." Tipper began.

"We could hardly leave ourselves out of the book," Al interjected. "Excuse me," Tipper said. "I was talking. Talk about putting yourself at the center of things."

"You see, we're not perfect -- we're having a big fight in front of you," Al said. "And we're not claiming to be experts," Tipper continued.

"Can I talk now?" Al blurted out.The book is also full of grievous, sometimes even horrific stories of family travails. Typical of the Harvard graduate, it is not light reading. "Writing this," Al said, "I became utterly convinced that if you take any American family, no matter how seemingly normal, and if you dig beneath the surface, you will find the most incredible things."

"Joined at the Heart" is accompanied by a book of photography, "The Spirit of Family," which the Gores, both former journalists, edited. It too manages to combine touchy-feely vanity-project boilerplate ("Love, like gravity, is always there, holding us securely in place," reads the introduction) with candid grittiness. There are even a few decidedly risque shots. Page 34 is occupied by a young, apparently nude couple consorting in what appears to be a public restroom, and on 37 a young woman poses in her underwear, no family members in sight. "Doesn't that shot go great with the quote?" Al said of a Thomas Hardy quotation on the facing page: "Childlike, I danced in a dream; Blessings emblazoned that day; Everything glowed with a gleam; Yet we were looking away." Does Al worry they might turn off Barnes & Noble browsers in the Bible Belt? "Part of the life cycle of a family is that people meet and people become intimate. I don't think that's a particularly scandalous picture, but if you do, by all means describe it that way. It might help sales."

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