Making President Quayle

Russell Baker

May 08, 1991|By Russell Baker

SUPPOSE Vice President Quayle never really wanted to be president. There are plenty of people who don't, including some politicians.

What could be more natural for a civilized person than to recoil from the brutal destruction of privacy, the incessant haggling, the inescapable armed escorts, the constant companionship of sycophants and careerists, the abuse of gossips, the contempt of cartoonists, the cheerless prospect of a life lived in the clutches of poll-takers, economists, lawyers, bomb makers . . .

It wouldn't be shameful if Quayle had not lusted for the presidency. It would speak of him as a civilized man who had his priorities straight. They say he likes golf and is very good at it. Maybe he dreamed of becoming good enough to win the big prizes, amazing all humanity at Augusta, St. Andrew's and similar shrines.

So there he is, moving along comfortably in politics, serving an apprenticeship in the House of Representatives, then on to the Senate. Money and telegenic genes can get you that far, and why not make the trip? The Senate still confers stature of a sort, and maybe he'd started thinking, well, my golf is never going to get up to the Jack Nicklaus level.

The Senate, after all, is something to do that seems honorable if not the thrill that being Jack Nicklaus would be. It's entirely possible the idea of being president has never crossed Quayle's mind up to this point.

If it has, he has probably looked around at the hordes of ambition-sodden, man-eating competitors for the job, some of whom may even have been very competent, and decided he'd stay with the Senate and the golf.

Then, the earth stood still. Put yourself in Quayle's role. One day George Bush asks how you'd like to be vice president. Are you going to say no? Even if every sensible instinct is screaming to say no, you cannot stop yourself from saying yes. The reasons to say yes are overwhelming:

Being vice president is a great honor. It will make your family very proud of you. It will expand your opportunities to meet, even to play with, the top-flight golfers.

All right, sure you don't feel qualified to become president should the big fellow take a fatal turn, which is the one downside of the job, but apart from that it's an office in which inadequacy won't matter because there's no work to be inadequate at.

I don't say this is entirely how Quayle reasoned when Bush made the big offer, but it's the way the average person would probably react, and Quayle exudes a sense of averageness. He was so utterly average, in fact, that the press promptly turned him into a running joke, there being nothing the average American is quicker to laugh at than his own frailties, once they are disguised to look like somebody else's.

This suddenly made him a politician to contend with since Americans who despise the press -- and they are many -- tend to love politicians to whom the press is cruel. A famous case is Richard Nixon, who was loved by millions for the enemies he made, especially the press.

In a twinkling, as political time is counted, Quayle found himself not only located a mere heartbeat from greatness, but also beloved by the masses as a victim of the loathsome media.

At this stage, it's harder to imagine how Quayle might have been responding to the quixotic operations of a whimsical Destiny. We can assume he read the newspapers, which said greatness had been bestowed upon him by Bush because he was an ideological mossback and, therefore, capable of calming certain Republicans so conservative that they regarded Bush as a wanton liberal.

This might have given Quayle the impression he had a political philosophy and that it placed him somewhere to the right of the Duke of Wellington. That it prompted him to read up on the great Duke, I doubt. He's been kept too busy being photographed at historic decision-making events with Bush, who wants to prove Quayle is ready to step into the main job at a moment's notice.

It was comforting to remember those photos when we got Saturday's reminder that Bush, like the rest of us, is mere flesh and blood.

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