IN THE BEGINNING it was kind of funny, and Americans have always appreciated a good joke.
Dan Quayle for vice president. Who? An obscure senator? A political and mental lightweight? Just another pretty face with a dazed look in his eyes?
At the time, it wasn't clear why George Bush picked Quayle as his running mate.
The political experts said it was because Bush wasn't trusted by right-wingers, so to keep them from screeching during his campaign, he had to choose someone they admired.
That made sense. But there were conservatives who had more to offer than youthful looks and a rich, influential family. How about a conservative who might not be as cute but who had brains and experience?
And maybe someone who had enough character not to duck his generation's war -- a war Quayle fervently supported, but chose to sit out?
Sen. Robert Dole's name had come up. He could be blunt and abrasive, but nobody questioned his intelligence and character.
But the political experts said no. Dole had too much intellectual independence. He couldn't be programmed. Nor could he be trusted to be a passive, go-along sort of flunky and live happily in Bush's shadow. Besides, he had flatly accused Bush of lying about his views during their primary fight.
So the choice was Quayle. And except for the flap about his alleged draft-dodging, he wasn't much of a factor, one way or another, in the 1988 election. For every voter who thought he was a drip, there was an offsetting voter who thought Michael Dukakis was a stiff.
And during his 2 1/2 years as vice president, Quayle has read the speeches that were handed to him, memorized the thoughts the White House told him to think, avoided controversy, smiled vacantly through countless civic luncheons and dinners and drawn his paycheck.
If he's done anything of note, it's been to provide late-night TV hosts with gag material. He may be the only vice president in history to have a fan club that devotes its energies to sending angry letters to comedians, demanding that they stop making jokes about our junior commander-in-chief.
But now Quayle as a funny guy is no longer a joking matter. We've had a case of atrial fibrillation: an irregular beating of the President's heart.
The doctors say it's not a heart attack, and there is no need to worry. But any time a president is in a hospital bed and is taking medication to get his ticker back in sync, that's reason to worry.
And it's especially worrisome when the vice president is someone who has done nothing in his entire life to indicate that he has the brains, character, wisdom or executive skills to lead a nation of 250 million people.
That's not just one man's opinion. A recent poll showed that about 48 percent of those questioned said they didn't think Quayle was qualified for the top job. I doubt if a poll would have that many negatives when Bush was vice president, or Walter Mondale, or Nelson Rockefeller. Even Spiro Agnew sounded like he knew what he was talking about. Spiro may have been a crook, but he was a brainy crook.
I know, I know: People didn't think much of Harry Truman when he succeeded Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But those who had served in the Senate with Truman thought highly of him. They knew that he was highly intelligent, well read, politically savvy and his own man. Nobody has accused Quayle of having any of these traits.
So when he tossed a bone to the far right by trotting out Quayle, Bush didn't do the rest of us any favor.
It would have been asking too much to expect him to disregard politics entirely and reach out for the best mind and qualifications in the Republican Party. But he owed us something more than a guy who had to talk his way into law school because his tests were so feeble.
It's too late to do anything about that now. Bush is being tended by the doctors, and Quayle is one atrial fibrillation away from suddenly having the responsibility of leading a nation that is in a recession and up to its ears in national and individual hock.
But assuming Bush recovers and runs again, he won't be a kid. A second term would take him into his 70s. I think the country would be more comfortable with a vice president who doesn't provide inspiration for gag writers.
President Quayle? The thought is enough to cause a national epidemic of atrial fibrillation.