Of all the Clinton-administration couples to divorce, I don’t know anyone who would’ve picked Al and Tipper Gore to divorce first—or ever. False rumors of a Bill and Hillary Clinton split have been rampant for so long that it’s true that the real shock might be if they actually went through with it. “The monster enterprise,” as Marjorie Williams called James Carville and Mary Matalin’s marriage, may have started out as a fractious traveling road show, a good candidate for dissolution, but seems settled 17 years in. But when the news came today that the Gores were separating after 40 years of marriage, many of the commentators seemed to share not just my sense of shock but of genuine sadness.
It’s not just that it’s a famous love story, although it is. The Gores met in a way that seems solidly of another era, at an after-party for a prom (Gore went to St. Albans, Tipper to what was then St. Agnes School), to which they had both brought other dates. “I was smitten,” Gore said in an un-aired documentary made by Spike Jonze for his 2000 presidential campaign. “It was love at first sight.” The couple married the month after he was named Soldier of the Month at Fort Rucker, an assignment he received after volunteering for the Army. During his presidential campaign 30 years later, Gore shook up his image by famously planting a smooch on his wife onstage at the Democratic National Convention, prompting the New York Times to editorialize that “the kiss had an old-fashioned, romantic innocence. It resembled the moment at a wedding when the groom is asked to kiss the bride and the guests can only wonder: will he give her a chaste little peck or go for it?”
But for those who grew up during the Clinton administration, the Gores’ marriage was a refuge from the tumult and confusion of the First Couple’s troubled union. It wasn’t that Al and Tipper were up there with Disney or Hollywood couples as romantic role models, but they seemed solid, connected, and confident in their marriage. That very settledness, that lack of drama, seemed uniquely valuable at a time when the worst humiliations of a bad marriage were playing out in agonizing public detail. In a world of epic marital weakness and lack of discipline, squareness and public embarrassment born of kindness and affection acquire a new value. Better the goofy Halloween costume than the stained blue dress.
In a statement announcing their separation, the Gores called the decision “mutual and mutually supportive.” If it’s true, if there’s nothing worse lurking behind their breakup, that insistence seems consistent with the principles that have guided their marriage for 40 years. I just wish those principles hadn’t led them to a point that’s so sad for their family—and for those of us who have admired it.