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06.02.10

The Gore Marriage: Is It Just Like Yours?

With resiliency and grace, the Gores triumphed over setbacks with extraordinary accomplishment and determination. And it seemed they would never break up. But what happened to their 40-year union could happen to any of us.

There are so many ways a marriage can die.

Some are blown up in a fateful instant; a couple might have been married for years, might appear the ideal couple to everyone who knows them, even believe it themselves—and one day a stranger walks into a room and one partner is struck by a coup de foudre as decisive as a mortal blow. When this happens—and it sometimes does—even the most devoted spouse hasn’t got a chance. Other marriages take years to wither, with love seeping away, bit by bit, as if leaking from a small, fatal hole that can drain an enormous reservoir.

Click Image Below to View Our Gallery of Al and Tipper Gore Through the Years

Still other marriages are the casualty of betrayal, of lies and broken promises and shattered trust. In politics, however, an inordinate number of relationships are doomed by the greed of insatiable appetite—particularly when the husband is One of Those Men, the alpha males for whom nothing will ever be enough. For them, no amount of success, money, glory or sexual conquest can satisfy, and their wives are helpless to fill the ravenous hunger that drives them.

Lloyd Grove: Behind the Gores’ Shocking Split

Mark McKinnon: Blaming Bush for the Gore Split
Was that what happened to the Gores? If any couple seemed destined to go the distance, you’d have thought it would be Al and Tipper, who fell in love at his St. Albans high school prom and have been married for 40 years. They had weathered so many heartaches—his sister’s untimely death, their son’s near-fatal accident, the incomprehensible injustice of winning a presidential election and yet having the presidency snatched away by Supreme Court judges.

With resiliency and grace, the Gores triumphed over such setbacks with extraordinary accomplishment. Al was elected to four terms in the House of Representatives, two in the Senate, and two as vice president before losing the presidency to George W. Bush in 2000. Reeling from such a devastating disappointment, he could easily have been forgiven an embittered retreat from the fray. Instead, he staged a remarkable comeback, going on to win the Nobel Peace Prize as well as an Academy Award and a Grammy for his contributions to the debate on climate change.

But he had wanted to be president virtually all his life, pursuing that dream with a single-mindedness that often seemed laughable when he was young. His fellow baby boomers might be rebellious and hedonistic, but Al was focused on the ultimate goal in a way that made him seem middle-aged long before he actually was.

He never achieved his life’s big dream. Was the death of that hope the cancer that ate away at his marriage, the emptiness that even a loyal wife who had built her entire existence around her husband’s ambitions was unable to fill?

Or was the real culprit something so pedestrian as the passage of time? Many marriages die slowly and quietly as two people change in different ways and drift apart, scarcely noticing the gradual erosion of intimacy, until one day they realize that the bonds that held them together are nothing but fading memories. Initial reports attributed the Gores’ separation to the fact that they carved out separate lives and “grew apart,” as friends put it.

Thanks to lengthening life-spans, the aging baby boomers now face a new challenge: their grandfathers might have retired at 60 and died at 65, but a large cohort of boomers will live into their 90s, and some beyond—longer than any generation in human history. When you reach your 60th birthday and realize you may still have another 40 years ahead of you, it’s hard to not look at your life—and perhaps your wife—and wonder, “Is that all there is?”

After your children are grown and the nest is empty, you’ve collected all the accolades and the applause has died down, and you know you’re never going to run for office again, you don’t have to pretend or dissemble or posture for the cameras ever again. You’re finally free to do whatever the hell you want to do. For Al Gore, who always seemed like the ultimate straight arrow, that kind of freedom must be mind-blowing. Maybe it’s even more so for Tipper.

For so many years, Al’s chosen path was laid out in front of him, clear as the yellow brick road. But life has a funny way of derailing our plans with unexpected detours. Gore turned 62 on March 31. He celebrated his 40th wedding anniversary in the middle of May, and announced the end of his marriage two weeks later. Leaving a marriage at this age is an unsettling experience even for people who haven’t been with the same partner since high school. For those who have, it’s worse than amputating a limb; it means abandoning your entire personal history.

Even before Bill Clinton was elected president, his political career was haunted by rumors of his sexual peccadilloes and the resulting suspicion that his was a fraudulent marriage, held together more by cynical ambition than by love or passion. Next to the many-layered Clintons, the Gores always seemed like the dorky but faithful couple who weren’t exactly cool but deserved respect for being constant.

Two years after Clinton won the White House, the mid-term elections of 1994 swept a record number of Republicans into Congress as self-proclaimed exemplars of family values. Many of them proceeded to indulge in a frenzy of moralistic Clinton-bashing as the impeachment crisis over his sexual lapses with Monica Lewinsky unfolded. In the years since then, 15 of the 73 politicians elected in that GOP landslide have been publicly disgraced in sex scandals, ugly divorces and other embarrassments that included everything from homosexual harassment of Congressional pages to adulterous affairs with staff members to dalliances with an Argentine mistress that redefined America’s view of the Appalachian trail.

Now the Gores, whose passionate embrace at the 2000 Democratic convention became the most celebrated kiss in modern political history, have called it quits. And the Clintons are still married. Go figure.

When it comes to marriage, it seems, you just never know. Especially with the couples, and the marriages, you think you know.

Including your own.

Leslie Bennetts, a former New York Times reporter, is the author of The Feminine Mistake.

Correction: This article initially stated "The Kiss" was in 1992.