Laugh is on us as nation quivers, picturing Quayle

ROGER SIMON

May 08, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

None of it seems so funny anymore.

Q -- What were the three toughest years in Dan Quayle's life?

A -- The fourth grade.

None of the jokes are quite the gut busters they once were.

Q -- What's the scariest sentence in the English language?

A -- "Dan, I don't feel well."

It wasn't long ago that we were telling these jokes. And it wasn't long ago that we were laughing at them.

"Did you know that the Secret Service is under orders that if Bush is shot, to shoot Quayle, too?" Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., once joked.

And then there was the vice presidential debate between Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen. Talk about laughers.

Even before Bentsen crushed Quayle with that line about Jack Kennedy, Quayle had already screwed up after being asked about his one really significant function as vice president.

Brit Hume of ABC had asked Quayle: "Let us assume . . . the president is incapacitated for one reason or another, and you have to take the reins of power. When that moment came, what would be the first steps that you'd take and why?"

Quayle was rocked. Shocked. What would he do if he became president? Hey, nobody told him that might happen. They only told him he'd get his own house and his own plane and plenty of time for golf.

And all he'd have to do in return is break a tie in the Senate now and again and attend a few funerals in foreign countries. (George Bush had once ruefully joked about his own duties as vice president: "You die; I fly.")

Dan Quayle could not answer Hume's question in the debate. He stumbled around for words and finally said something about how he would "say a prayer for myself and for the country."

After the debate, Susan Estrich, Michael Dukakis' campaign manager, emerged to meet the press wearing a blue button that said, "President Quayle?" Other Democrats wore a more grisly red button that showed an EKG blip with the words: "Quayle -- A Heartbeat Away."

This was the Democrats' last hope: that Americans would be so scared by the possibility of Dan Quayle's becoming president that they would vote for Mike Dukakis.

It didn't work. Nobody was that scary.

Besides, Americans are not a pessimistic people. We don't consider a guy for president and then say: But what if he dies?

Nor does any presidential candidate really select a running mate with that assumption in mind.

Instead, vice presidents are picked for purely political reasons. George Bush thought he had found a man who would be quiet and loyal and non-controversial for four years. In other words, he thought he had found another George Bush.

The only decision that George Bush made on his own in the entire 1988 campaign was the selection of Dan Quayle. And, though it was unwise, it also seemed insignificant.

Until now.

Until George Bush got a funny heartbeat, which meant he had to go into the hospital. And for those hours it meant we all had to contemplate a nation run by Dan Quayle.

It was not a very comforting few hours.

Yes, the ship of state would continue to float. But can you imagine the power struggle within Bush's inner circle over who would really run the country while Quayle was president? (John Sununu would probably end up with his own air force, let alone free flights.)

Few at the White House think much of Dan Quayle, especially those closest to the president. James Baker, now secretary of state and formerly Bush's campaign chairman, said of Quayle's performance in the vice presidential debate: "When you think about what might have happened, we have to be pretty happy."

Dan Quayle was angry and depressed when he read that the next day. This was his own team dumping on him!

What he never realized was that Bush's people didn't consider him on the same team. They considered him an accident, a mistake, a goof. They considered him a problem to be dealt with. (They mainly dealt with it by keeping Quayle far away from Bush throughout the campaign. On election night, with everybody assembled in Houston for George Bush's victory speech, Dan Quayle was made to stay in Washington.)

I interviewed Quayle a few weeks before his election and asked him whether, if elected, he would have anything special to prove.

"I don't know if it's something special to prove, and I'm really not going to be concerned about that," he said. "I'm just going to go in and sit down with George Bush and figure out what we need to do and go about doing it."

Yeah. Right. Him and George, deciding what "we" need to do.

It didn't turn out that way. What happened is what always happens to vice presidents: They get put on a shelf with precious little to do. (But, as Jay Leno once joked, was Quayle really qualified for a do-nothing job?)

Nobody wants the day to come when the vice president is actually needed. And nobody thought Quayle would ever be needed -- until last weekend.

Dan Quayle had been assured he would be kept on the ticket in 1992. For Bush to dump Quayle would be to admit that the one decision Bush made in his entire campaign was wrong.

And so Quayle was going to stay. And if Bush has no more medical problems, he can stay.

But should Bush have a recurrence of his heart trouble or, worse yet, an actual heart attack, the impulse to dump Quayle may be irresistible.

Even Dan Quayle realizes he can stay on the ticket only if his irrelevance to the nation can be assured.

Once he becomes necessary, he becomes truly scary.

Quayle has already told us the first thing he would do if he suddenly became president. He would say a prayer.

To which comic Mark Russell added: "Oh, wouldn't we all?"

But is anybody laughing?

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