(Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal. His latest book, co-authored with Vincent J. Cannato, is Living in the Eighties (Oxford University Press, 2010).)
News that Al Gore and Tipper Gore are separating after forty years of marriage has unnerved many. Despite our collective cynicism, especially about celebrity marriages, this marriage was supposed to last. This assumption was not based on believing the Gores were the ideal couple. They had shared their struggles over the years with her depression, their clear personality differences, the trauma of having a six-year-old hit by a car. But they paraded publicly for so long as exemplars of family values, they were so ostentatiously self-righteous about their rectitude, and he was just so flamboyantly square, that their “till-death-do-us-part marriage” had become part of the national furniture, taken for granted, relied upon, and now, conspicuously absent and sorely missed.
No one other than the Gores knows exactly what happened—and they, too, may not be completely sure. Even marriages free of public scrutiny are icebergs, with the true foundations submerged: some rock solid, some fragile. Still, as national role models who frequently made their private lives public, their private trauma has public repercussions.
Since the 1980s, the Gores have been a totemic couple in the nation’s culture wars, baby boomers preaching that it was hip to be square. In 1984, when Al Gore was a Democratic senator from Tennessee, Tipper Gore allied with another Washington spouse, Susan Baker, to crusade against popular culture’s immoral excesses. Baker’s husband, James A. Baker III, was the Republican White House Chief of Staff, making for a formidable bipartisan alliance. Baker and Gore formed the Parents Music Resource Center, advancing proposals for voluntary labels on music records warning of excessive sexual content and violence.
These efforts triggered an intense backlash from Hollywood, with the two accused of being moralistic prudes. Tipper Gore subsequently went out of her way to show how fun-loving she was, how with-it she was, emphasizing her love of the Rolling Stones, along with her disgust at music celebrating rape, misogyny, and other depravity.
Tipper Gore’s public image as chipper became even more important in 1992 when her husband became Bill Clinton’s running mate, because Al Gore was a stiff. Silky smooth Bill Clinton could charm a snake out its skin, but he was as inconstant as he was charismatic. Earnest Al Gore stabilized the ticket – and the White House – during the roller coaster Clinton years.
Throughout the 1990s, as Bill and Hillary Clinton became the most dysfunctional couple in American politics, Al and Tipper Gore served as the counterbalance. The Gores played the ever-wholesome Mike and Carol Brady of the “Brady Bunch” to Bill and Hillary Clinton’s Homer and Marge Simpson—a battling, mismatched duo who nevertheless stayed together. During the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, the Gores appeared ever more self-righteous and stable as the Clintons appeared ever more estranged. Al Gore even chose to telegraph to the American people that he was a passionate politician by giving Tipper a famously long smooch after his nomination.
The Gores’ obvious distaste for Bill Clinton’s extramarital escapades strained relations among the four. During the 2000 campaign, Vice President Gore distanced himself so much from President Clinton that many observers believed he sacrificed his shot at the White House on the altar of his marital morality.
The Clintons and Gores had always competed with each other as contrasting symbols of the baby boom generation. The Clintons usually nosed out the Gores as the more famous couple and the couple more buffeted by the turbulence of the sexual revolution, one of the baby boomers’ signature cultural contributions. It is therefore ironic to see the Gores outdoing the Clintons by separating, considering that divorce is one of the ultimate, iconic baby boomer acts.
Representing the generation that created the disposable camera and disposable diapers, the Gores will now offer further proof that relationships are disposable too. Divorce is not inevitable like death and taxes, but it is ubiquitous. And while it is impossible to assess the private pain that precipitated this decision, it will feed cynicism about the stability of marriages. The revelations about seemingly happy public couples like John and Elizabeth Edwards, like Tipper and Al Gore, make it harder to foster the traditional family values they championed so prominently then betrayed.
In my modern United States history courses, students have trouble fathoming how the public culture and passing trends shape the most intimate decisions affecting their lives, from the longevity of their parents’ marriages to their own decisions about sex. In the 1970s, when Time and Newsweek ran cover stories celebrating the freedom individuals enjoyed by leaving their spouses, the divorce rate skyrocketed; in the 1990s, when the same publications ran cover stories charting divorce’s destructive impact on many children, divorce rates dipped.
Divorce is not always a worse option than remaining imprisoned in an unhappy marriage. Few divorcees take this difficult step lightly. And we are lucky to live in an era which enables men and women to move on to second, even third, acts in their lives when necessary. Still, the buzz around the watercoolers as the articles about the Gore separation became among the day’s most emailed articles, suggests that while many like having divorce as an option when necessary, they also yearn for some role models who stay together, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, “till death do us part.”