Tennessee Waltz

updated 11/16/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/16/1992 01:00AM

WHEN THEY MET AT HIS HIGH school graduation dance, the attraction was immediate. She remembers him as "very good-looking" and that she was impressed with his "seriousness and "sense of purpose." By the same token, he was quickly smitten. Within weeks they were talking about spending the rest of their lives together, even comparing notes on how many children they'd like to have. After 22 years of marriage they remain the sensible, mature, devoted couple of modern legend. Without blushing, or a hint of irony, she can say, "He's my best friend."

But are Al and Tipper Gore too good to be true? The knock on Al has been that he was an earnest political stiff with a passion for technical topics. During Gore's unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1988, rival Jesse Jackson cracked that he seemed to be running for National Chemist. Tipper has been branded a prude—and worse—for campaigning against rock lyrics she found offensive. (Frank Zappa called her a "cultural terrorist.") Yet Al, 44, and Tipper, 44, are anything but the Ken and Barbie of the political set. Both their lives have been marked by considerable pain and sacrifice. And let's face it: Their goody-goody image probably makes the Gores the perfect chaperons as the country goes on a giant blind date with Bill Clinton.

As it happens, they come to their roles from very different directions. Al was the only son of a powerful U.S. Senator from Tennessee. Tipper was the only daughter of a divorced mother. Her mother, Margaret Odom, a World War II widow, had married John Aitcheson in 1947. In 1950, two years after Tipper (her name came from a childhood lullaby) was born, they split up. "The marriage was a mistake except for Tipper," says her mother. The child was very sensitive about the breakup of her family. She once recalled that in school she was teased by classmates for "having no father." She saw her dad only on Sundays. Tipper now says she "has a good relationship" with her father, who has a wholesale supply company in the Washington, D.C., area.

In marrying Al, she entered a life where the power of family was pervasive. Both of Al's parents, Albert Sr., 84, who served three terms in the Senate, and Pauline, 80, who was among the first women ever to graduate from Vanderbilt University law school, were formidable individuals who expected their son to excel. Pauline disputes the notion that they had programmed Al Jr. for a political career. "We brought him up to do a good job in whatever he chose to do," she says. Yet all along, politics was treated as a family affair. The Vice President—elect's only sibling, Nancy, who was 10 years his senior, helped run their father's campaigns and, when her brother's career began, became one of Al Jr.'s most trusted advisers. That close bond lasted until 1984, when Nancy, the only smoker in the family, died of lung cancer at the age of 46. Her last public appearance with the family was on the day that Al Jr. announced his first senatorial race.

Tipper would contribute to the family's ambitions as well—even though she lived in the shadow of the powerful Gore women. (Pauline would often buy Tipper's clothes, until Al Jr. finally told her to stop.) When her husband entered politics in 1976, Tipper proved to be an effective campaigner, hitting the hustings in that first race though pregnant with their second child, Kristin, now 15. (They already had daughter Karenna, now 19, whose name came from Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, which Tipper was reading at the time of her pregnancy.)

Tipper had followed Al Jr. ever since their first meeting at the party at St. Albans prep school in Washington. In 1966, he went to Harvard (the only school he applied to); she later started classes at nearby Boston University. She married Al in 1970 as he was preparing to ship out to Vietnam. (He had enlisted in part to bolster his father, who was facing a tough—and ultimately unsuccessful—reelection fight over his own opposition to the war.) After Al's stint in the Army, he and Tipper moved to Tennessee, where he worked for a few years as a journalist at The Tennessean in Nashville and began law school at Vanderbilt. His first foray into politics did not begin auspiciously. Moments before he announced in 1976 that he was running for a seal in Congress, Gore, then 27 and very nervous, threw up in the men's room at the courthouse in Carthage—bill he then went on to win the election.

Still, Gore pursued the family political dream, which resulted in four terms in Congress, eight years in the Senate, a run for the Oval Office in 1988 and now the vice presidency of the United States. Through the years, he became a more relaxed performer. During his Senate races he kept up his looks by taking a sun lamp on the road with him. Not that his handsome face ever got him into trouble. "Women all over the state swooned, and he didn't even notice," says one longtime aide. "He's very naive in that area. It almost makes you wonder how they got four children."

The couple had always dreamed of a large family, says Tipper, in part because she was an only child and because Al's sister was 10 years older than he. The Gores do their best to give the kids—Karenna, Kristin, Sarah 13, and Albert III, 10—some voice in major decisions. Sundays the family goes to church, and in the evening they all get together for a group dialogue to "get their needs out on the table," as Tipper puts it.

All the children, however, seem to have enjoyed the excitement of the campaign. Albert, the most extroverted of the brood, likes glad-handing and charming the crowd. At one point, he was even signing autographs. But the Gores are reluctant to let their children be used as political props. Says Al: "We try to keep them insulated from the campaign and out of the press." Tipper is especially careful to ensure that the family enjoys a zone of privacy. When Albert turned 10 on Oct. 19, the campaign, at her insistence, essentially shut down so the Gores could enjoy some time together in Washington.

Tipper's determination on that point stems largely from the calamity that befell the family three years ago. In April 1989, the Gores were walking out of a baseball game at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore when Albert suddenly darted ahead into the road. A car hit him and flung him 30 feet, nearly killing him on the spot. For days, he hovered on the brink of death, with a broken leg and ribs and crushed internal organs. When he regained consciousness, he told his parents, "I can't get well without you." His mother and father spent a month at his bedside.

Albert has since fully recovered, thanks to a lot of therapy. But friends who have spoken to Tipper privately say she feels that the accident, coming so soon after Al's presidential bid, robbed the family of important time together before Karenna headed off to college. Says one friend: "I don't think Tipper began to get back to her jovial, fun-loving self until the last couple of years."

For all the turmoil of the past few months, both parents and children appear to be getting on well. As much as Tipper wants to be protective, she admits they seem to be doing fine without her. Tipper says the children have made it clear that they'd be just as happy being with their friends on the weekends but have implored their parents to come home on weekdays. "They're regular teenagers," says Tipper.

For Tipper, one of the biggest adjustments will be moving out of the family house in Arlington, Va., which her grandparents built. Their new home, on the grounds of the Naval Observatory in Washington, the official residence of the Vice President, is not quite as fancy an address as 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But don't expect to hear any grumbling from the Gores. The 12-acre estate is, as they say in Tennessee, big enough to swing a cat, not to mention raise a family. And even better, it's only a short hop to the White House.

BILL HEWITT
MARGIE SELLINGER in Washington, D.C.

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