Candidates agree: Mothers know best

Tuesday, May 9th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Sons call Barbara Bush, Pauline Gore powerful influences in political families

AUSTIN - One was born into extreme wealth, lived in a large house with servants and met her husband at a country club dance.

The other was born into poverty, lived for a while in a $2-a-week room at a YMCA and met her husband while pouring coffee as a waitress.

But, in the end, the well-heeled Barbara Bush and the less-affluent Pauline Gore would end up having plenty in common.

Both steered their husbands through the rarefied air of political power, both raised successful families - and now, of course, both are watching their sons jockey for the presidency.

"For my whole career, my mother has given me excellent advice - and passed on the best advice she's received from others," Mr. Gore said earlier this year in a speech at Vanderbilt University. "My mother was much more than a campaigner."

Mr. Bush has been equally effusive about his mother's influence on his political career and even his personal demeanor - he often jokes that he has his "daddy's eyes" and his "mama's mouth."

"Mother has always been the front line of discipline in our family," he said in his autobiography. "I do listen to her, and I am a better person for it," said Mr. Bush, the eldest of five children of George and Barbara Bush.

Some polls have shown that Mrs. Bush, 75, is still one of the most recognizable women in the world. Mrs. Gore, 87, is a legend in her home state of Tennessee - where seemingly her every move is dutifully noted.

If the 2000 presidential race will be as close as all the political pundits are predicting, then the influence of these matriarchs might bear watching.

Given their popularity, and the fact that political analysts have said that voters are more concerned with character than policy, the two women could help swing votes toward their sons.

Toward that end, this year Mrs. Bush has been crisscrossing the country, making speeches and spreading the Bush-for-president gospel.

Mrs. Gore has been slowed by a debilitating heart attack and stroke. She makes only rare public appearances - including an April ceremony in Tennessee where she was granted a bachelor's degree from Union University, the college she had left in the middle of the Great Depression.

Gore speeches

Mr. Gore, his mother's only living child - his older sister, Nancy, died of cancer - frequently refers to Mrs. Gore in his speeches. The official Gore campaign Web site, as well, includes prominent mentions of her.

Mrs. Gore grew up in rural Tennessee, and her father supported the family by running a small country store. She was educated in a one-room schoolhouse in the town of Cold Corner. Along with her blind sister, she attended Union College in Jackson, where Mrs. Gore would take notes for her sibling.

In the 1930s, some students were permitted to attend law school without a college degree, and Mrs. Gore left Union to enroll in the Vanderbilt University Law School. She became one of the first women to graduate from that school.

She worked as a waitress at a hotel, using her quarter tips to pay off her law school bills.

When no Nashville firms were hiring women, she moved to Texarkana, Ark., to open her own practice, specializing in oil and gas law and divorce cases. A year after she started, she married Al Gore Sr. - whom she had first met when she was waiting tables at the Andrew Jackson Hotel in Nashville.

She and her husband studied together for the bar exam and passed the bar the same day.

She was a key presence as her husband moved through stints in the Congress and Senate. "She was my father's closest adviser," Mr. Gore has said.

Mrs. Gore put it this way, when talking about her husband, in 1991: "His career was my career."

In a speech earlier this year, her son echoed what someone else had once said about Mrs. Gore - that "she is the best politician in the entire family."

Her husband, the vice president's father, died in 1998. For the last few years, Mrs. Gore has been slowed by her physical problems.

Active for Bush

Mrs. Bush, on the other hand, has taken an active role in her son's campaign - making a highly publicized show of support at his national campaign headquarters in Austin, as well as raising funds and appearing in key primary states including New Hampshire and South Carolina.

It is something she is accustomed to, having toiled for her husband in campaigns dating back to the elder George Bush's first run for office - a failed campaign for the Senate in 1964.

Back then, Mrs. Bush was renowned for keeping careful lists of thousands of friends who would eventually become the bedrock of the Bush political network.

Raised in the affluent community of Rye, N.Y., Mrs. Bush is a distant relative of former President Franklin Pierce and is the daughter of publishing magnate Marvin Pierce - who oversaw the McCall's publishing empire.

She was educated at the Ashley Hall finishing school in South Carolina, spent summers taking tennis and dance lessons and always seemed closer to her father than to her mother.

She attended Smith College and met her future husband, George Herbert Walker Bush, at a country club dance in Connecticut. With their first child, George Walker Bush, the couple moved to West Texas in the late 1940s to nurture the Bush family's investments in the oil game.

From her days in Midland, on to Houston and then through her husband's peripatetic career in politics, Mrs. Bush has always steadfastly maintained the same thing as Mrs. Gore - that her role was to support her husband.

Vital role

But Mrs. Bush has also always seemed to understand exactly how important she has been to the political prospects of her family.

"Governor Bush and I understand from experience the vital role that Republican women play in winning elections," Mrs. Bush said last year as she was preparing to speak to a national GOP women's group. "Republican women are the true strength of the Republican Party."

Mrs. Bush has been both credited and criticized for being unafraid to say what was on her mind. Her son, for instance, is often asked about her support for abortion rights vs. his opposition. But his mother doesn't mind going on the offense to make sure her husband or sons win elections.

It is, apparently, a trait shared by Mrs. Gore.

In 1988, Mrs. Gore got into a conversation on an elevator with a man who declined to support her son's bid that year for the presidency - to the point of refusing to accept a Gore for President button.

Yet, somehow, one of those buttons magically affixed itself to the back of the man's coat as he walked off the elevator.

"I did warn him," Mrs. Gore later said.