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On the Gores’ breakup, the Clintons’ survival, and the marital toll of a lost election

Presidential expert Gil Troy in conversation with Kate Fillion

by Kate Fillion, Macleans, Wednesday, June 16, 2010 10:00am

Yoray Liberman/Getty Images

A professor of history at McGill and a visiting scholar affiliated with the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, Gil Troy is the author of several books on the U.S. presidency, including an examination of Hillary Clinton’s tenure as first lady and Mr. and Mrs. President, a study of presidential marriages in the modern era.

Q: Why are people shocked that Al and Tipper Gore are separating?
A: People want to believe in marriage, and the Gore marriage was part of the national furniture. Starting in the mid-1980s, with Tipper’s involvement in the movement promoting warning labels for records [with explicit and violent lyrics], the Gores set themselves up as an iconic couple representing family values—significantly, from the left. They were saying, “Republicans do not have a mono­poly on faith, flag and family.” Especially during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, the Gores emerged as the counter to the Clintons’ famously dysfunctional marriage, culminating in 2000 at the Democratic National Convention with the famous smooch.

Q: What do you make of that kiss?
A:
Al Gore’s line was, “I wasn’t trying to send a message to the American people, I was trying to send a message to Tipper.” But it was very much a message to the American people. Everybody was joking about how wooden he was, and the issue on the table was: is he a full-blown personality or a Gore-bot? That prolonged kiss was the easiest, most dramatic way to respond. It got people talking, and telegraphed a disdain for Bill Clinton’s behaviour while reinforcing this narrative that the Gores were the Democrats who would not embarrass you.

Q: Well, Tipper looked pretty alarmed.
A:
Here you are on national television, glaring lights, blaring music—it’s not necessarily the most romantic of settings.

Q: In this cynical age, why would people fall for such obvious political stagecraft?
A:
Canadians do this less, but all of us in modern, celebrity-oriented democracies tend to project onto our leaders some dimensions of our lives and dilemmas. In general, Americans are torn between wanting to progress and still wanting something old-fashioned. That’s how Al and Tipper Gore became the soothing background music in this cacopho­nous age: see, there are some couples and families that still work. Marriage, whether you’re getting married in Vegas with an Elvis impersonator or in front of 400 people in the most traditional Catholic ceremony, is a leap of faith. To have totems is reassuring, and the Gores set themselves up as totems.

Q: Why did they continue doing that, with the publication of Joined at the Heart, even after Tipper ruled out her own Senate run in 2002?
A:
It makes sense in modern American celebrity culture to cash in on your identity, and the central signifier of the Gores’ lives was their togetherness. It was very much a baby-boomer togetherness, not an Ozzie and Harriet we-never-fight togetherness. It was, “We’re different: he’s a bit of a stiff, and I’ve had some emotional ups and downs.” They’ve always competed with the Clintons in the popular imagination as contrasting symbols of their generation. The Gores were preaching “it’s hip to be square” while the Clintons seemed buffeted by the turbulence of the sexual revolution, which is one of the baby boomers’ signature cultural contributions. It’s the irony of ironies that the Clintons are still together while the Gores are splitting, because, of course, divorce is an iconic baby-boomer act.

Q: Why has the Clintons’ marriage endured?
A:
I think it has to do with the bar of history. When you become president, in the same way that your family is suddenly the first family and you don’t just work in an office but in the Oval Office, you become extremely aware of the fact that there’s going to be a presidential library, there’s monumentalism about the whole experience, and I think it becomes that much harder to divorce. Especially with the Clintons, where people were constantly saying, “The marriage is a sham,” there’s hesitation to give their enemies any satisfaction. Plus, there’s a bond there.

Q: It’s not just a political alliance?
A:
I was never part of that school of thought. Their commitment to Chelsea kept them together; they very rarely rolled her out as a political prop, they protected her to an extraordinary degree. And throughout all the ups and downs, Bill Clinton always made it clear Hillary was the smartest woman he’d ever met and had a kind of discipline he lacked, and she often talked about his tremendous people skills, which she lacked. They worked together, they fed off each other and built off each other. Those are parts of the recipe that make for a marriage.

Q: Why does campaigning put such a strain on a marriage?
A:
It’s a combination of the hellishness of being apart and the hellishness when you’re together. The hellishness of being apart is Betty Ford counting that when Gerald Ford was House minority leader, he was away from home 256 days in a year so she was on call 24 hours, seven days a week for their kids. Even when the couple is together, there’s a certain apartness; the drug of public adulation makes it difficult [for the candidate] to come down. It’s not a whole heck of a lot of fun being in a room where all eyes are on your spouse, you’re the prop, and your mandate is a variation of the Hippocratic oath: do no harm. And this guy that you married 25 years ago when you were just students, there are ego issues—and simply the insanity of the campaign trail, the late nights, the jumping from hotel to motel. But the White House is a surprisingly healing place for a marriage.

Q: How?
A:
The couple is finally living above the store, as they say. There’s less travel, they’re entertaining more, so she’s no longer just a prop. Also, you’re in this glamorous mansion with servants galore—there’s a fairy-tale nature to the existence. The other thing that heals presidential marriages, and probably to some extent vice-presidential ones, is that it’s hard when you’re president to get straight advice, especially if it’s critical. Even some of your closest friends clam up. Nancy Reagan reported that during the Iran-Contra scandal, she asked Robert Strauss, a Democrat and one of the wise men of Washington, to explain to her husband how serious the issue was. But as soon as Strauss sat down he got all “Mr. President” and couldn’t deliver the message. So she had to do it. Presidents love the adulation, but also understand the need to be grounded, and the spouse is often the conduit to reality. It’s a key bond.

Q: So if you go through the hell of campaigning and then lose, like Gore, you don’t get that healing opportunity?
A:
It was a devastating public blow. Al Gore was raised for the presidency, and they came so close to getting the White House.

Q: Was it crushing for her, too, after decades as the Good Wife?
A:
Absolutely. The job of first lady is alluring because you do have a certain kind of power, you can make a difference in people’s lives. You bring a lot of political capital to the table as the spouse, through the entertaining, through creating the narrative. We don’t really know what goes on even in our best friends’ marriages, so we don’t know to what extent did she blame him for the loss in 2000? Did she think he could’ve campaigned more effectively? We have no idea.

Q: Would she have grounds for blaming him?
A:
It wasn’t just that forces beyond Al Gore’s control stole the election. Al Gore lost it. Two things were going on: the press was very hard on him, and his campaign was a nightmare—poorly planned, poorly run. There were all kinds of ridiculous things that came out, like he was thinking of dressing more in brown, because it’s an earth colour. How did we even hear about that? There was competition among Gore’s campaign staff, and also a failure to lead on his part. Part of the reason he didn’t run in 2004 is that a lot of his fundraisers just wouldn’t work with him again.

Q: What is it like to have to leave your home, Washington, after a loss like that?
A:
Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter wrote very powerfully about how devastating it was to be repudiated by the American people [in 1980], especially after they had such an amazing run in 1976, and to come home to Plains and think, “Now what?” There’s also the comedown, which the Gores would’ve experienced after eight years of having staff at their beck and call. It’s not just that you’re not in the White House but that all these goodies you’ve become accustomed to disappear. Harry Truman talked about coming home after his time in the White House and having to drag his own luggage, though he was the kind of person who enjoyed it. But few of us enjoy going backwards.

Q: Has any other losing candidate for the presidency reinvented himself as Gore did?
A:
No. He hit the celebrity trifecta: bestselling book, Nobel prize, Academy Award. He’s had political impact, cultural impact, international impact—which takes us back to why their separation is generating water-cooler conversations. The Gores remained in the popular mind; they didn’t fade away. But maybe, like Pat Nixon, Tipper had had enough. Once they left the White House, Pat Nixon said, “You can do what you want, but I’ve paid my dues and I’m not going to be a public woman anymore, no more speeches.”

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