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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.