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First Friends

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THE FRIENDSHIP WAS BORN OF Political necessity but blossomed with physical proximity. For days, while their husbands traveled the road to the While House together, Hillary Clinton and Tipper Gore found themselves sharing seats and confidences on bus journeys across the country. “Just imagine being two couples on a bus for four or five days. It’s really been very intimate—very intimate” says Tipper, adding emphasis with a humorous and knowing look. “It’s a major double date. We each have our own bus. We go to their bus. They come to ours. They come to lunch on our bus. They invite us to dinner. We all get together and just talk. I said one day, I know why this is so much fun: it reminds me of college.’ ”

Sometimes, Tipper, 44, and Hillary Clinton, 45, seem like twins. Their hair is virtually the same length, cut in nearly identical blond bobs; their suits—similarly tailored, long over the hips and short above the knees—are in intense Crayola shades. They laugh at the same jokes; they know just when to mug for the cameras. At the climax of the Democratic Convention in July, they spontaneously embraced on the rostrum and danced an impromptu boogie as speakers blared Fleetwood Mac’s Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow). On the slump with their husbands, Tipper often glanced at Hillary, catching her eye and giving her winks. Hillary. Tipper has said, is “my long-lost sister.” Tipper, says Hillary, is “a real partner, somebody I can talk to, somebody who sees the world as I do.” Clinton and Gore are gal pals of the top order, future First and Second Lady in rank but friends first and foremost.

Not since Rosalynn Carter and Joan Mondale’s close working partnership has Washington seem anything like the camaraderie between the spouses of the President-elect and his Veep. The ties between Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush were cool and businesslike. The warmth between Barbara Bush and Marilyn Quayle was nearly undetectable. But Tipper Gore and Hillary Clinton, two quite different women who barely knew each other in July, are virtual best buddies even before their husbands take office. And the roles they eventually play may grab almost as much public attention as the deeds of their elected spouses.

Tipper and Hillary connected almost immediately. Says Al Gore: “They just hit it off really well, right away. There seem to be several dimensions to their friendship. One is that they are both mothers and have children roughly the same age. [Chelsea Clinton is 12; Kristin and Sarah Gore, the second and third of Tippers four kids, are 15 and 13.] They talk about that all the time.” In 1988, when Al was running for President, Tipper joked that she looked forward to having the Secret Service keep a watchful eye on her daughters. But now Tipper says that one of the things she and Hillary discussed that most concerned them was how to give their children as normal a life as possible.

With Hillary, Tipper also shared concerns not only about their children but about harsh criticism both have sometimes received. Says Paul Begala, a Clinton strategist: “They’ve been burned—some by the media and some by opportunistic politicians—and caricatured in a really unfair way. What’s interesting to me is that Hillary has been savaged by the kook right [at the Republican Convention] and Tipper has been savaged by the kook left [for her concern about violent and sexually explicit lyrics in pop music]. They both have not only survived it, they have thrived.”

“There are very few people who can understand what you’re going through,” says Tipper’s friend Chris Downey, wife of New York Rep. Thomas Downey. “Everyone thinks, “Oh, how glamorous, oh, how wonderful being a candidate’s wife.’ But those looks [that Hilary and Tipper exchange] are very comforting. It’s nice to know that there’s somebody there to help you through it. Its not like “I think I know what you’re going through.’ It’s ‘I know I know what you’re going through.’ ”

When Hillary was attacked at the Republican Convention as an advocate of antifamily values, Tipper was up in arms, says a Clinton aide. She wanted to do everything possible to defend Hilary. “When Tipper is your friend, she’s your friend forever,” says her pal Natilee Duning, while of Frank Sutherland, editor of The Tennessean. The Washington Post said the intensity of the attacks surprised Hillary, leaving her sad and then hurt. But, said Clinton, “You have to learn to take political attacks seriously but not personally, so that yon don’t let them interfere with what you are.”

As much as Tipper and Hillary have in common, they remain very different people. Clinton is a high-powered litigator; Gore is an activist and a homemaker. Yet the working mom and the stay-at-home parent admire each other. Hillary has publicly praised Tipper, presenting her to audiences as an advocate for children, the homeless and mental-health services. (Tipper has a psychology degree from Boston University.) Meanwhile, “Tipper has told me she loves hearing Hillary speak,” says Hillary “s friend Brooke Shearer, “and learned a lot by listening.” In fact, Tipper may have acquired a bit of stage composure from Hillary. Tipper is sometimes greeted by scattered boos from elements of the MTV crowd. Gore, however, professes not to have heard any boos. “I don’t notice it,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve been booed at all.”

The most serious barbs have always been directed at Hillary and may continue now that her husband has triumphed at the polls. “Hillary as first Lady may well be the subject of much more conversation in average households than her husband,” says Ruth Mandel, director of the Center for the American Woman and Politics at Rutgers University. “We’ve never had a First Lady who met her husband in law school and who in her marriage developed a parallel professional career. I don’t think she’ll simply move into the job description of First Lady as written and handed down. She’ll take it and redo it to suit her.”

But what exactly will she do? She is unlikely to continue playing the part of virtually mute, adoring spouse that she assumed during the latter stages of the campaign—a role she has jokingly referred to as “designated wife.” Yet even in that role, she exercised significant control over her husband’s campaign. Bill Clinton’s traveling companions included Hillary’s representative, Deborah Sale. A former Carter Administration arts-and-humanities chief, Sale, 44, was resented by some Clinton staffers but, according to one source, went along on his trips because “Hillary thinks the young people around Bill might be goofing off.”

Indeed, some people in Arkansas trust Hillary’s judgments more than her husband’s. Says Arkansas Democrat-Gazelle editor John Robert Starr, a longtime antagonist of the Governor’s: “She is as tough as he is weak and as direct as he is wishy-washy.”

What one can expect from Hillary, however, is a warm, informal style. At the Governor’s Mansion in Little Rock, she often opened the front door to greet guests herself—in blue jeans. And while she is not into haute couture, Hillary isn’t indifferent to fashion. Hillary, says her press secretary Lisa Caputo, will often stop acquaintances to comment, “I love that dress. Where’d you get it?” She adds, “Hillary and Tipper have talked about different places to shop.” Says Tipper’s friend Natilee Duning: “When Tipper and I go shopping, we hit the sales racks first. When she’s at home, she’s most comfortable in jeans and barefoot.”

And while she is still primary concerned with her family, Tipper enjoyed taking to the hustings. She says, “I thought, ‘Oh, a campaign, this is going to be hard,’ but this has been a very pleasant surprise. It’s the most positive, exhilarating experience I’ve ever had.” Unquestionably she was touched by the determination of people to meet her. “People on oxygen, parents bringing their children in wheelchairs—the emotionalism of the people that do come,” she explains. “I remember one woman who said, I changed my chemotherapy appointment so that I could be here at this rally.’ ” She told her aides, “I don’t want to spend all my time shaking hands with lawyers.”

The campaign provided quick sketches of Gore and Clinton: Tipper soaking reporters with a water pistol and flirting anonymously with her nonplussed husband by phone on the Larry King show; Hillary standing stoically against her critics even as supporters hinted of her formidability—”Nobody tells Hillary what to do.” The next four years promise fuller portraits of these complex women, a double feature of friends and partners in power. As Al Gore says, “You can see the relationship forming right now.”