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


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."

Motherhood and Al Gore's career would forestall that dream, but then, it was Al who probably made it possible in the first place. Until she went to the senior prom at St. Albans, a Washington prep school, and met the earnest son and namesake of a U.S. senator from Tennessee, young Tipper could charitably be described as an indifferent student.

At St. Albans, Al Gore got A's -- and headed off to Harvard. At St. Agnes, a private school in Alexandria, where Tipper Aitcheson worked on the switchboard to help supplement her tuition, she was a star on the field hockey team, a dedicated partygoer, renowned prankster and a girl with a knack for getting along with everyone in the school.

Meeting young Al Gore seemed to give her a sense of purpose. She followed him to Boston, although her grades and financial means landed her at Garland Junior College, not an Ivy League school. From there, she transferred to Boston University, ending up with a master's degree in child psychology.

That year, however, her husband returned to his family's historic home base to lay the groundwork for his 1976 congressional bid in a district once held by his father. Living in the Nashville area, Al did a stint as a reporter on the local paper, The Tennessean. Mrs. Gore took up photography and eventually worked her way up to staff photographer at the paper. By then it was time to move again, this time to Washington, as a congressman's wife.

First taste of politics

Today, she calls photography and psychology "my two loves." But as her husband's career was taking off, first as a congressman, then a senator and, in 1988, a presidential candidate, Mrs. Gore's primary responsibility was as a mother.

It was in this role that she first tasted controversy and first entered politics on her own.

It started simply enough. Ten years ago, Mrs. Gore went shopping with her 11-year-old daughter, who wanted Prince's best-selling album "Purple Rain." At home, they listened to it together. Among the songs was "Darling Nikki":

I knew a girl named Nikki Guess you could say she was a sex fiend I met her in a hotel lobby Masturbating with a magazine . . .

Angry that such material was being marketed to children, Mrs. Gore began paying attention to MTV, to rap music and, mostly, to the lyrics and symbols used in heavy metal, which included stories of rape at gunpoint, strangulation, sadomasochism and suicide.

Within months, she and a group of others founded the Parents Music Resource Center. Its stated purpose was to get record companies to agree to place warning labels on record albums aimed at young people.

The same year, another prominent Democrat, Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois, checked into a hotel room and flipped on the television to see a depiction of a young woman being sawed in half with a chain saw.

It's evident that Mrs. Gore and Mr. Simon were naive if, as late as 1984, they were shocked -- shocked -- to learn that Prince was singing about sex and that cable television was airing such fare as "Texas Chainsaw Massacre." It's also evident that millions of other parents were having similar reactions to the violence and sexin popular culture.

In her subsequent book, "Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society," Mrs.Gore expanded from records to movies and television and what she felt were the harmful effects of raunchy images. Initially, Hollywood reacted to both Mrs. Gore and Mr. Simon the way it had for 30 years, simply denying that there was any evidence that televised violence increased violence in society.

But there was plenty of evidence, and Mr. Simon's staff gleaned the conclusions of some 200 major studies that showed a direct causal relationship between viewing violent programming and violent behavior in young people.

And the pressure kept mounting. Finally, last year, with Attorney General Janet Reno threatening dire measures and others in Congress considering requiring a computer chip that would scramble violent television programming, the industry agreed to a warning on certain programs.

The warning may have been a small step, but 1993 was the first time in the four decades this issue has been debated that industry leaders conceded that their product causes problems -- and that they have a responsibility to address it.

Tipper Gore's group achieved success faster, but the reaction against her was far more vituperative and personal. Partly, this was because the music industry she was challenging is less politically savvy than the motion picture industry. Partly, it appears to be because she is a woman.

"No person married to or related to a government official should be permitted to waste the nation's time on ill-conceived housewife hobby projects like this," fumed legendary rocker Frank Zappa.

But if some employed sexism, others were even more crass, using vulgar and sexually suggestive personal insults that underscored their critics' original complaint.

"Ah, Tipper, come on," sang the Ramones. "Ain't you getting it on?"

Friends of hers who knew Tipper Gore to be the kind of woman who felt free to hug, kiss or dance with her husband in public found the rockers' accusation that she was sexually frustrated to be not only a cheap shot, but ridiculous as well.

Tipper Gore herself laughed it off: "I know they think I'm a prudish, uptight, sex-disliking Washington housewife with nothing better to do than eat bonbons all day," she said.

Censor or savior?

What did get to her, however, was the repeated accusation -- still made to this day -- that she was a censor who would run roughshod over the First Amendment.

"Censorship is getting worse, and Tipper opened that can of worms," said Joey Ramone. "Our civil and human rights are under attack."

But Mrs. Gore and her allies always insisted that it was their critics who were actually the censors. All the PMRC wanted was for warning labels to be placed on certain records so parents could exercise discretion.

Those stickers are now in place.

They read, simply, "Parental Advisory -- Explicit Lyrics."

The recording industry has survived the labels, although there are those who hate them -- and who still have little use for Tipper Gore.

"Who voted Tipper into office?" asked Phyllis Pollack, a publicist for several gangsta rap groups. "If Mrs. Gore ever saw Watts or the projects, she'd see that these rappers are simply writing about the world they know. People like her should keep their noses out of things they don't understand."

Music critic Dave Marsh adds that the issue of labeling has kept some records from being made in the first place, and that the labels have scared away many record stores from even stocking the albums. "Over 1,000 record stores won't carry the labels," he said. "In small towns, if your record is not in WalMart, your record does not exist."

But such voices are increasingly in the minority.

What's hot now are "virtues," and politicians across the political spectrum are wondering how the government can help inculcate such notions as personal responsibility, honesty and compassion go along with all of America's vast freedom.

It should be a time for Tipper Gore to gloat. She was one of the pioneers. Long before William J. Bennett came out with this year's big best-selling "The Book of Virtues," Mrs. Gore was writing "Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society."

"I never thought I needed vindication," she says. "I always felt that I was right."

Another crusade

But Mrs. Gore has another crusade these days. True to his word, Mr. Clinton has made her the point person on the issue of including universal mental health benefits in his health reform legislation.

In so doing, she has come full circle, something she made clear in a revealing remark made when she stopped by the National Mental Health Association conference recently.

"I feel like I've come home," she told the group.

But in returning to her first great issue, Mrs. Gore re-enters a debate that has changed fundamentally since 1950, when her mother, like so many Americans, refused to seek help for a treatable mental disease.

Today, with sales for the anti-depressant Prozac topping $1 billion -- much of it to patients with very mild anxieties -- many believe that America has gone too far in the other direction. We are becoming a therapy-happy nation, these critics say, in which blaming others for one's problems is a kind of national pastime.

Mrs. Gore is aware of this line of criticism and insists, "We're not trying to medicalize everything."

But she was introduced at the National Mental Health Association by an official who claimed, "Hardly any family in America is unaffected by emotional or addictive disease."

These are the kinds of extravagant claims that alarm some critics. The Wall Street Journal wrote an editorial wondering about the costs involved in creating a "therapeutic" America "engulfed by a wave of disorder-seeking and blame-shifting."

Mrs. Gore fired off an angry reply accusing the paper of "ignoring the facts."

The facts, she believes, are that lost production, absenteeism and the costs of hospitalization are far more expensive to America than the timely treatment of depression.

She cites an MIT study that estimates the United States already is burdened with $43.7 billion in costs from depression -- half of it borne by American businesses.

"We've just got to stop thinking that health includes everything below the neck," she said. "The brain gets sick; it can be cured."

A cause she believes in

So far, no organized opposition has surfaced in Congress, but administration health experts fear that when the budget numbers don't add up, bean-counters will deem mental health expendable.

In the meantime, however, White House health reform officials expressed gratitude that Mrs. Gore is willing to carry the ball on mental health. She replies that she's grateful to be given something to do that she believes in deeply -- and acts supremely loyal to the Clintons for putting her in that position.

When Hillary Rodham Clinton was on "Larry King Live" recently, Mrs. Gore called in, telling the first lady how much she "loved" her, gushing on in a way that made one wag long for those automatic disconnect devices that Mrs. Gore's parents' group once advocated for 900 numbers for teen-agers.

But her loyalty to the Clintons seems genuine.

A recent New Yorker piece about Mrs. Clinton portrayed the first lady as wanting to succeed her husband as president -- a desire that would necessarily ace out Al Gore. Asked about this, however, Tipper Gore just smiled.

"If that happens," she said, "I'll be running with Hillary. So it would still be Clinton/Gore."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad