Unpolished Tipper shines by own light

In a world of carefully honed images, Al Gore's guileless wife may help

The contrast was striking.

There was first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, in a dramatic, bubble-gum-pink pantsuit, speaking self-assuredly with a group of panelists about mental health. She focused on the individuals with laserlike concentration, nodding along regularly - sometimes too regularly, as if on autopilot.

And then there was first-lady aspirant Tipper Gore, literally hopping with excitement as she opened this week's White House conference on mental health - a subject about which she cares passionately.

Dressed in a sage pantsuit as down-to-earth as she was, Mrs. Gore came off more as an enthusiastic mom than a polished politician. She knew her subject, but would sometimes repeat herself, or run on. When she caught sight of a familiar face in the audience, she would give a little wave and wink, and mouth the word "Hi!"

As a conference participant put it, Mrs. Clinton might be in control, but she seemed "contrived." And while Mrs. Gore may be "impulsive," she was "real."

The Gore campaign avoids comparing the first lady with the wife of presidential candidate Al Gore, because, as they put it, every first lady has her own style. While Mrs. Gore may not have the commanding presence of Mrs. Clinton, the conventional wisdom in Washington is that she'll add needed life to the campaign of her reserved husband.

"I'd have to agree with that," says Gore campaign spokesman Roger Salazar. "She's very strong, and very energetic."

Tipper Gore - nicknamed by her mother after a favorite lullaby, "Tippy Tippy Tin" - will play a key role in the Gore campaign. On Saturday, she and the first lady will be in Los Angeles and San Francisco for fund-raisers, and that schedule will step up once the vice president officially announces his candidacy next week.

In many ways, the mental-health conference, hosted by Mrs. Gore, was her debut as spouse of the leading Democratic presidential candidate. She's kept a relatively low profile in her nearly seven years at the White House, with her last major public event being a quick trip last November to hurricane-ravaged Honduras on behalf of the president.

In interviews, Mrs. Gore says she's tried to use the unpaid, undefined position as second lady to further the issues she cares about - especially mental health and homelessness.

At the mental-health conference, Mrs. Gore spoke of her own battle with depression after her son was nearly killed in an auto accident. In "outing" herself and hosting the conference, her aim was to remove the stigma of mental illness - a task made easier by sharing the stage with the Clintons, her husband, and television personality Mike Wallace.

Coming on the heels of the Littleton, Colo., shootings, the conference couldn't have been more timely.

"Mental health is an issue that touches most families and attracts enormous public interest," says Thomas Mann, a longtime political observer at the Brookings Institution here.

Mrs. Gore seems to have a knack for picking issues that resonate with families, perhaps because she's a mother of four herself, and on the verge of becoming a grandmother.

Her last crusade on behalf of family values was in 1985, when her husband was in the Senate. She took on the music industry for their explicit sexual and violent lyrics - a cultural issue that, more than a decade later, is back in the news.

At that time, Mrs. Gore was heavily attacked for promoting censorship, especially by rock musician Frank Zappa, who labeled Mrs. Gore and her bipartisan cohort of political wives "cultural terrorists."

Mrs. Gore countered that she did not favor censorship but wanted to enable parents to better screen what their kids were listening to. Eventually, she and her group got the recording industry to put a label on controversial music reading "Explicit Lyrics - Parental Advisory."

The wholesome image of Tipper and Al Gore - a couple that appears to have been happy and faithful over their 29-year marriage - could be a politically useful contrast to the Clintons. At the conference, Tipper and Al embraced, kissed each other with a big smack, teased and generally supported each other.

"I hope you can imagine how proud I am of Tipper and her leadership role," said the vice president, who appeared far more relaxed double-teaming with his wife than he sometimes appears when going solo before a large crowd.

Al and Tipper met at his high school graduation dance in Washington - she was 16 and he was 17. According to Bob Zelnick's new political biography of Al Gore, she then partied hard and played drums in a rock band called "the Wildcats," but "knew when to say when" about all things.

In an interview with Good Housekeeping magazine, Mrs. Gore once said she and her husband share a "playfulness" and that she brings out the "childlike quality" in him.

In fact, people who know Mrs. Gore say that her talents are her people skills, not her political acumen. As she told The New York Times this week, "I think the way for people to understand me the best, is for you to understand that I'm not really of the political milieu."

Patricia Letke-Alexander, a physician assistant at Unity Health Care, a service provider for the homeless, sees Mrs. Gore's people skills at their most basic level. Several times a month, she and an incognito Tipper make the rounds of Washington's bridges and parks, working directly with the homeless.

"Tipper's excellent with people," says Ms. Letke-Alexander. "She has a great gift for working with the severely mentally ill - folks who don't look nice, who don't smell nice. But Tipper will compliment them on their smile, and talk about what beautiful eyes they have. She's very non-threatening."

Whether all this energy, compassion and human advocacy is enough to invigorate her husband's campaign, however, is a question.

While his wife is certainly a plus, Al Gore, if he's to graduate to the presidency, will have to earn it on his own, say political analysts.

"We probably overestimate the importance of spouses," Mr. Mann concludes, "just like we overestimate the importance of running mates."

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