WASHINGTON — PRESIDENT BUSH, coming to the defense of his beleaguered vice president, told reporters the other day that Dan Quayle has been "getting a bum rap in the press . . . when he's doing a first-class job." Bush said he told his stand-in that "you're talking to a guy that went through something like this for about eight years, maybe not quite as intense."
While it's true that as Ronald Reagan's vice president George Bush took his share of ribbing as an unvarnished yes-man -- just as Quayle has been to Bush -- there is a distinct difference in the criticism being heard about Quayle, and not just from the press either.
In Bush's case, the rap against him was essentially that he was too fawning toward Reagan, not that he was not qualified to take over the presidency if destiny dictated. Bush had, after all, run respectably for the Republican presidential nomination in 1980 and had a job resume of presidential caliber.
Regarding Quayle, the centerpiece of the criticism is that he is simply not up to assuming the presidency. That is why the focus swung quickly toward him last week when the president suddenly was hospitalized with what at first was diagnosed as a heart problem of uncertain severity.
In the first weeks of the Reagan presidency in 1981, when the new chief executive was shot by a would-be assassin, the reaction toward his vice president was generally quite different. Although Bush at that time had his detractors, few raised the matter of his succession with anything approaching the trepidation that greeted the possibility that Quayle might have to take over the duties of the presidency, even temporarily.
The re-emergence of concern over Quayle, despite Bush's assurance that "he's doing a first-class job," underscores how ineffective Quayle and the Bush administration have been in utilizing the vice president's 27-month tenure in office to repair the negative image that has haunted him ever since Bush plucked him from relative obscurity in 1988. Polls indicate Americans actually think him less qualified now than they did before he had spent a single day in the vice presidency, where Bush has said he has been involved in policy-making and implementation.
It is true that a vice president, by the standby nature of his job, is hard pressed to demonstrate leadership ability. Predecessors such as Bush, Walter Mondale, Nelson Rockefeller and Gerald Ford all had leadership track records on assuming the office on which the public could base confidence. Quayle did not, and his penchant for verbal gaffes has kept fueling the first impression that he was, intellectually anyway, an empty suit.
The fact is that for months on end, Quayle has gone about his business without committing a gaffe. But when he does the public reaction, in the old Reagan phrase, is: "There he goes again." It doesn't require more than occasional foot-in-mouth relapse to get the late-night television comics on his case once more.
Asked whether he was thinking of giving Quayle a more visible role "that might allow him to shake this image that he seems to have formed," Bush said he could "think of a lot of things that maybe I could emphasize more, because I want to help." But Quayle has not exactly been in hiding. He was active on the party fund-raising circuit last year and in the midst of the Persian Gulf strategy meetings, according to photographs released. His problem may not be exposure. It is in the nature of the news business that when he performs routinely, he gets little coverage; when he slips, the spotlight hits him.
The whole business of the last week may be not be all bad for Quayle, however.
Bush more categorically than ever has locked himself into keeping him on the Republican ticket for next year. "I don't know how many times I have to say it, but I'm not about to change my mind . . . when I see his performance and know what he does," Bush said.
Even before this statement, there were few who know the president who believed he would, in effect, admit he had made a mistake in picking Quayle in the first place by bouncing him the second time around.
If the heartbeat that separates the vice president from the Oval Office remains sound and regular, that isn't likely to happen. If it doesn't though, we will be hearing more of The Quayle Factor.