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Tipper Gore

Mrs. Gore taking the  VP's Picture

People never quite know how to introduce me. Sometimes they call me the Second Lady. Sometimes they refer to me as the Second First Lady. Once I was even introduced as the Second Lady of Vice. Maybe no one has ever given the wife of the Vice President of the United States a title because the position is so poorly defined. There's no job description, no pay, no career path- and limited opportunities for promotion. The way I see it, this post is an opportunity to further the causes I believe in.

For many years I have been advocating better treatment for those with mental illness, for people that are homeless, and for children generally. The main difference is that as the wife of the Vice President, my voice on behalf of these communities has a broader reach. My priorities are the same too: my husband, Al, and our four terrific children come first.

Mrs. Gore Taking Pictures

I have also tried to keep up my own personal hobbies and interests, such as photography. Al had given me my first real camera in 1973 -- a 35 mm Yashica -- and he and a good friend of mine encouraged me to take a course in photography. I eventually began a part-time job at the Tennessean, doing photo essays. One day the paper ran my picture of an evicted woman sitting in the rain; afterward, scores of people called in offering to help, reinforcing my understanding of the power of photography to inspire and motivate.

While working at the Tennessean, I was also going to graduate school, studying for my master's degree in psychology. I was planning to become a therapist, while Al was considering a career as a journalist or lawyer. That all changed one Friday in March 1976, when the seat of the Fourth Congressional District in Tennessee -- the district where Al grew up and we owned the farm -- was being vacated. Three days later he announced his candidacy, and our lives changed forever.

In Carthage

Without question, the biggest event of my youth was meeting Al. I was sixteen, he was seventeen. We were introduced to each other at his high school graduation dance, and he called the next day to invite me to a party that weekend. I'll never forget it: we put on a record and danced and danced. It was just like everyone else melted away. And that was it. We've been together ever since.

Wedding Day

We both went to college in the Boston area. He went to Harvard, where he studied government. I got a degree in psychology from Boston University, and that spring, after I graduated from college, we got married. He was also serving in the Army and right after the wedding, we moved into our first home -- a mobile home at Fort Rucker, Alabama.

I am something of a crusader at heart, and I worked hard at the causes I espoused. In Tennessee, I started a program called Tennessee Voices for Children, bringing together professionals in the field of mental health to press for more progressive policies. To cite just one example of our achievements, we advocated for a program called Home Ties, which delivers services in the home rather that in an institutional setting. Before that, Tennessee had a disproportionately high number of children with mental illness in state custody. Today, that number has been cut by two-thirds.

I've also spent a lot of time working on the issue of homelessness -- an interest for which I can credit my children. One day in the early eighties, when Al was still in Congress, I was driving the kids home after having lunch with him at the Capitol. We stopped for a light about one block away and saw a homeless woman standing on the curb, talking to herself and gesturing. Homelessness on a large scale was still fairly rare at the time, and the kids were shocked. "Mom, what's wrong with her?" they asked. "Why is she talking to herself?" I told them that she was probably mentally ill and she might be hearing voices. "We can't leave her here," they said. "Let's take her home with us. This is terrible." I had to tell them we would do something.

That evening at dinner, we talked about it with Al, and all of us became determined to help. The children began volunteering by making sandwiches for kids at Martha's Table, a local provider for homeless families. Al held hearings in Tennessee about homelessness and held a statewide conference on the problem. I put my photographer's mind to work and organized a traveling photographic exhibit called "Homeless in America," which put a human face on the numbing statistics. We are now working with the Department of Housing and Urban Development to create a ten-year retrospective of that exhibit.

Over the years, I also volunteer with an organization called Health Care for the Homeless, going out with their van to provide medical care to mentally ill people living on the streets. On one such trip I was in Lafayette Park, which is right across the street from the White House, and came across a woman who needed help. I asked her how I could help and she told me that she needed to get her reality back. We shared the same first name, Mary, which is my given name, and I was able to get her into a wonderful facility in Washington, D.C. for the mentally ill called Crossing Place at Woodley House. Today, she is working and living on her own.

I am a great believer in helping those in need one-on-one. You're much more effective that way, and the satisfaction you get is much greater when you personally give of yourself. If you never do more than write a check, if you never connect directly with the people you want to help, you will do some good, but you will never feel as fulfilled as you will if you take the time to forge a real relationship.

The Principals on a  Tour Bus

I'm often asked how I spend my time these days, and the first thing I say is I'm lucky because not two days are alike. One day, I might make appearances in three different states. Another I might be scheduled to visit schools, homeless shelters, or work sites for mentally ill people. Often, I am called on to perform official duties, like accompanying Al on trips abroad. We do a fair amount of official entertaining, and the Clintons have always graciously included us in state functions.

Many of my speeches are related to my role as the Advisor to the President on Mental Health. This position came about as a result of all the time I spent with the Clintons on a bus during the 1992 presidential campaign, when the President discovered how passionate I am on the subject of mental health. One of the points I try to get across when I speak about mental illness is that treatment actually works. If someone has a broken bone, no one ever questions that with proper treatment it will eventually heal. But people have not yet realized how much progress has been made in managing and curing mental illness. The data show high levels of success in treating everything from substance abuse to chronic depression to schizophrenia. For one thing, new pharmaceutical breakthroughs have made a big difference. When doctors use a combination of medication and therapy, the cure rate for schizophrenia is now over 60 percent. For depression it's 80 percent! If statistics such as these were widely known, the insurance industry would no longer have any excuse for refusing to pay psychiatric bills for people who are suicidal or so depressed they can't work or take care of their children. Parity in insurance is something I have worked hard on, and, I am happy to say that the Mental Health Parity Act is helping many more people to obtain coverage and benefits than ever before.

My interest in the field of mental health goes back to my own childhood, when my mother suffered from serious bouts of depression. This was bad enough, but the situation was made worse by her fears that someone would find out, because at that time the stigma of associated with mental illness was so enormous. Once, when my mother was in the hospital for something else, I wanted to tell the doctors about the medication she was taking. But she was so terribly fearful of someone finding out- even a doctor- that she wouldn't let me tell them. It broke my heart. For decades, she suffered in silence; only in the past year or so has she been able to speak openly about her experience.

As the President's advisor on mental health issues, I am working hard to destigmatize mental illness. One of the things I'm proudest of is having prodded the government to change the way it handles the subject of mental illness in the hiring process. Among other things, applicants no longer have to disclose whether they've had family or marriage counseling. Furthermore, the question, "Have you ever seen a psychiatrist?" is no longer placed next to the one asking "have you ever committed a felony?" In addition, information not relevant to the hiring process must remain confidential. The brain, after all, is a part of the body. Why should we discriminate against a disorder that emanates from the brain? Why should mental illness be put in a completely different category from a disease of the lung, the liver, or the heart?

I am also passionate about fitness, which I believe is a big part of maintaining good physical, and mental, health. I recently became Chair of the National Youth Fitness Campaign of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, and I am working with them to encourage America's youth, and particularly young girls to play sports.

I like to jog, ski, hike and rollerblade. It's also something that we can together as a family, which makes it all the more fun. My husband and daughters are avid runners and just ran in their first marathon together. I was so proud to see them cross the finish line, knowing that part of what helped them accomplish this was that they did it together.

Because I know that no matter what we do in the future, the important thing is that we will always be a family. And, our family is pleased to wish you and yours the very best.

From PICTURE THIS: A Visual Diary by Tipper Gore. Copyright 1996 by Tipper Gore. Reprinted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

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