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Al and Tipper Gore's Love Story: We Thought You'd Never Part

4 years ago
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A decade ago, during one of a number of interviews with Al Gore for a biographical series I was writing for The New York Times, I mentioned to the vice president that I had interviewed his wife earlier that same day, and he lit up: "Isn't she cool?" Even his parents, he said, had a less formative influence on him than Tipper had in the years since they'd met at his high school prom.

"It's clearly the most important relationship I've ever had with anyone, bar none," he told me that day. "Even at a young age, she helped me understand things I never would have been able to understand otherwise. She has a way of understanding people and the world that I, well, I would be a completely and totally different person in every way except for her."

On another occasion, he told me that his wife "brings excitement to my life that wouldn't be there otherwise. She sees things I don't see, understands things I don't understand.'' And what does he bring her? He answered with a joke: ''An opportunity to use her expertise in psychology.''

Who would have bet that the Clintons would be the couple still together at the finish line? In fact, I'm not sure I can think of any public couple I would have been more surprised to hear was separating than the Gores. Though neither of them has spoken to me in the 10 years since I wrote this story about Mrs. Gore -- a story the then-editor of The New York Times Magazine, Adam Moss, derided to my face as "a total valentine" -- I couldn't be sorrier to hear about the split.

When someone dies, you want to know how they went, and when a marriage ends, you want to know the cause of death for the relationship, too -- not only out of prurient interest, though there is that, but for your own sake. When I was diagnosed with cancer, I can't tell you how relieved people were to hear that yes, the year before my diagnosis had been extra stressful, actually. I think that's because it made them feel that with just a little more yoga or pomegranate juice, they could keep right on walking around feeling immune. Just as, when a couple breaks up, you want it to make sense, and maybe even to be someone's fault, because if it doesn't and isn't, then you're stuck with the truth that it can happen to any of us. Or with the wisdom of Woody Allen: "Love fades."

The Gores weren't just a solid couple for Washington; they were solid, period. And if they couldn't stay together after 40 years, four kids, almost losing their son to a terrible accident, her depression, his schedule, their winning and losing and worse -- and then coming back together from what must have been hell after the recount -- well, what, if anything, does that mean for the rest of us?

Sad as it is, it takes bravery to make a decision this hard at this point, when most people would just do whatever it took to make the broken bearable. Would Oliver and Jenny Barrett have ended up divorcing after 40 years, too, had the heroine of Erich Segal's Love Story lived that long?

Follow Melinda Henneberger on Twitter.

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