Tipper Gore: Activist, Mother, Soon-to-Be Potential First Lady?

Times Staff Writer

“I am not a raunchy, inflexible prude,” Mary Elizabeth (Tipper) Gore declared, setting her “World’s Greatest Mother” coffee mug on her kitchen table.

Gore, 38, has been called many things since she burst on the public scene a year ago, battling violence and pornography in rock music. In some wild Capitol Hill hearings, rock stars and fans--some in outlandish punk garb--squared off against a group composed mainly of government officials’ wives, headed by Gore.

Before the Senate subcommittee on communications, Gore complained about albums and videos containing themes of murder, suicide, rape, masturbation, incest, mutilation, drugs, alcohol and sadomasochism. Another witness at the hearing, rock star Frank Zappa, later called Gore a “cultural terrorist.” Hustler magazine called her something this newspaper will not print.


This weekend Tipper Gore and her husband, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), will go to an undisclosed location to be alone and discuss whether she would like to add “First Lady” to the varied and ever-growing list of things people call Tipper Gore.

According to a political aide, Albert and Tipper Gore will decide by next Friday whether the 39-year-old senator will run for the presidency in 1988, a possibility that has grabbed Washington’s attention like a sudden storm in the last month. Newsweek has dubbed the phenomenon “Gore Chic,” noting that vice president is a possibility, too.

At the same time this rather important discussion will be taking place, Tipper Gore will begin a rigorous tour promoting her new book, “Raising PG Kids in an X-Rated Society” (Abingdon).

“I don’t know if I can think of it all at once,” said Tipper Gore, who 10 years ago became so nervous before giving a campaign speech for her husband that she would tremble and feel ill. As for the possibility that her husband might run for President, she said, “I’m not sure how I feel. I’d like to see him just in the Senate.”

11 Albums Labeled

After the congressional hearings in September, 1985, about 20 record companies agreed to put labels on explicit albums. But more than a year later, Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center (which she co-founded with Susan Baker, wife of Treasury Secretary James Baker) find that only 11 albums were suitably labeled. So the group is continuing to meet with record companies to ask for better voluntary compliance in labeling contents as explicit, or printing lyrics on the album cover.

Zappa expressed his opinion of the PMRC’s efforts, saying, “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 such as this.”


Reminded of this comment, Tipper Gore leaned back in her kitchen chair and said, “Very, very sexist remarks coming from the very modern Mr. Zappa.”

Gore talked about her battle, sitting in the home where she was raised by her mother and grandparents, an only child whose father divorced and remarried. In the bright kitchen was a television set that has had the MTV cable channel disconnected. The Gores’ four children are not allowed to watch “Miami Vice” on this television set, either. Prince’s “Purple Rain” album has been stowed on a high shelf were the kids can’t reach it.

Memories of Her Youth

When Gore--then Tipper Aitcheson--was growing up here in the 1950s, divorce was rare and she was sometimes taunted by her schoolmates for “having no father.” Along with fond memories of catching tadpoles in the creek near her house and selling pencils to help her mother campaign for gubernatorial candidates, Gore also recalls the confusion of feeling “as if I were an odd person, that I was very different, that this (the divorce) was not happening to most people but it was happening to me.”

It was, Gore said, “because of that early pain and those experiences” that she later decided to obtain undergraduate and master’s degrees in psychology, with the goal of becoming a child psychologist. To help children in pain.

That professional goal has been interrupted by her participation in her husband’s political career, as well as the raising of four children--Karenna, 13; Kristin, 9; Sarah, 8, and Albert III, 4. Tipper Aitcheson met Albert Gore, the son of a senator, at a high school dance when she was 16 and he was 17 and attending St. Alban’s, a prestigious Washington private school. After he graduated from high school and went to Harvard, she went to Boston University to be near him.

Critics who now accuse Gore of having a “hidden agenda”--perhaps to help her husband become President--might be surprised to learn that her activism goes back to her college days, when she marched in the streets of Boston against the Vietnam War and in support of the civil rights struggle. She read Gandhi, admired Martin Luther King Jr. and campaigned for Eugene McCarthy.


‘Couldn’t Sit Back’

“I couldn’t sit back and watch that (war) happen without protesting, without trying to bring some reason to a government that I felt--we felt--was acting in an arrogant manner,” she said.

She married Albert Gore right after her graduation and they lived in a trailer in Daleville, Ala., where he was stationed in the Army. They had faced a difficult decision about what he would do about military service as he, too, was against the war. He considered moving to Canada.

“Everything was discussed,” Tipper Gore said.

But Albert Gore Jr. had the added pressure of having a father in the Senate who was speaking out against the war and was up for reelection in 1970, and young Gore did not want to give his father’s political enemies any additional weaponry.

“It was a point of conflict, but he resolved it and decided to go,” she said.

Gore Was a Journalist

Albert Gore Jr. served his six months in Vietnam as an Army journalist, and later returned to his family in Nashville. There he worked for the Tennessean newspaper as a journalist while attending Vanderbilt Law School. Tipper Gore also worked at the Tennessean part time as a photographer while raising their first child, Karenna, and pursuing her master’s degree at Peabody College.

Because of his father’s long career in politics, no one was terribly surprised when young Gore announced he would run for Congress in 1976 when a vacancy occurred. His victory brought the family back to Washington, where Tipper Gore immediately became active in issues that interested her.

Upon her arrival, she went with some other new congressional spouses to a seminar on being a political wife, “and Carmala Walgren, whose husband was a congressman from Pennsylvania, stood up and said, ‘Isn’t there more than going to teas here?’ ”


It turned out that about 70 wives decided to form a group called the Congressional Wives Task Force, which did research, wrote reports, lobbied Congress and talked to the media about various issues. The first issue they took on was television violence and commercials for sugary food products that were aimed at children. At that time, Gore played an active but quiet behind-the-scenes role.

“I was real shy,” Gore said. “Other people went on the Today Show and lobbied Congress and I thought, ‘I can’t do that!’ ”

Gore still objects to violent television programs and toys, while trying to be flexible and realistic about the desires of children to play with some violent toys. She thought a cowboy gun would be an appropriate toy for her son, but when she went to a toy store to buy one she was disgusted to find that only more violent, bizarre and war-oriented toys were available.

Nothing but ‘Weird Stuff’

“I said to a woman who worked there, ‘I see you have Uzis and hand grenades and submachine guns and Ninja razor blades that you can throw.’ And she said, ‘All we have is this weird stuff here.’ I could not buy a cowboy gun and holster for my son.”

The wives’ group also studied nutrition and health care for the aged, in each instance making what Gore considered small but significant gains, primarily by raising the issue publicly.

Gore is also attacking the homeless issue, helping to put together a slide show depicting the problem, which she hopes will travel and spur the public to action. She and two other people recently solicited a $325,000 contribution from Triangle Industries, she said, to help fund the project.


Sometimes Karenna Gore is chided by some of her schoolmates over her mother’s activities.

“She just deals with it, I think, very well,” Tipper Gore said. “I think for her it’s like, ‘Mom, how much longer is this going to go on?’ ” In 1985, Karenna told an Atlanta Constitution reporter: “I hate it. But it’s something she believes in.”

Tipper Gore said she realizes her children may watch “Miami Vice” and MTV when they go to their friends’ houses, and she is not overly concerned about that. She would let them watch either show if she had some kind of advance information on what was going to appear and could judge whether the material was going to be appropriate. She thinks much of MTV is “wonderful,” but she never knows what she’ll get when the station is tuned in.

In addition, “I’d rather have a boundary for a kid to sneak around than no boundary at all,” she said.

Gore’s argument is not to censor or wipe this material out of existence. She is concerned about excess, about young, impressionable minds absorbing the idea that all of the things they’re hearing in the songs and seeing on television and in the videos are completely endorsed by society, that there are no rules, limits, boundaries or consequences.

Media Messages

“Because of my background in psychology, I’m convinced that the messages in the media influence attitudes, and attitudes influence behavior,” Gore said. “If it’s glorified and sold as a package, in an unchecked way without countermanding messages, we have to be aware of the kind of impact that can have on the society.”

Gore is especially concerned about the “commercialization of these things to children.”

“We’re all liberal where adults are concerned. But kids are fragile as they develop.” It is also, Gore said, a “consumer issue”: A purchaser has a right to know these materials are contained in the product he is buying, “just like we are now told what is in our food, our clothes and our insecticides.”