Washington -- Sure, I almost choked on disbelief when George Bush chose Dan Quayle as his running mate. Yes, I, like every journalist in this city, have told dozens of demeaning jokes about Mr. Quayle.
But as I watch every Bush trip to the hospital provoke panic that Mr. Quayle might become president, I begin to believe that the vice president is getting a bum rap. En garde! I'm not going to urge a vote for either Mr. Bush or Mr. Quayle in 1992, but I will say that, despite all the cruel and sarcastic abuse he has taken, Mr. Quayle could turn out to be better for the nation than President Bush has been.
The president vows that he absolutely will not dump Mr. Quayle as his running mate in 1992, a vow stronger than I've ever been able to get from my wife. I don't necessarily believe Mr. Bush. But I do believe that in many ways Mr. Quayle is getting shafted -- by newsmen, Democrats, Republicans and people from every group you can name.
Nature ''cursed'' Dan Quayle with a look of eternal boyhood and a frozen half-smile that makes him appear to be utterly immature, incapable of being serious even about what he wants for dinner, let alone such issues as the budget deficit, how to get out of a postwar mess in the Persian Gulf area, or how to educate America's children. I have embraced the conventional wisdom, now reiterated by our greatest newspapers, that ''Quayle is not qualified to be president.''
But beyond his boyish visage I see a man I don't believe is racist, or mean of spirit toward the poor. I have talked briefly with his wife, Marilyn, a lovely woman who I'm sure wouldn't have married a man who would, as George Bush did, allow the venal use of a racist Willie Horton campaign just to win an election.
Today's heart-pounding fears arise from the belief that Mr. Quayle is a mental lightweight compared with Mr. Bush. I remember when the fear was that Harry Truman was a simpleton compared with Franklin D. Roosevelt. Well, George Bush is no FDR, and Dan Quayle is no Harry Truman. But -- lightning, don't strike this computer -- in the business of invidious comparisons, Mr. Quayle could turn out to be a better president than Mr. Bush.
Mr. Quayle isn't saddled with a wimp image that provokes macho lurches into wars in Panama and the Persian Gulf area which devastate the regions that are supposed to be ''liberated.'' He hasn't made any pretensions of becoming ''the education president,'' while putting no money where his mouth is.
I join others in praying for a long life for President Bush, but not because I think his replacement by Mr. Quayle would be a national calamity. Mr. Bush has not been an effective, force in dealing with our crippling budget deficits, our lack of competitiveness with Japan and Germany, corrosive racial polarization in America, our ecological disasters, a family-wrecking new recession or any of America's greatest domestic problems. His promises have for the most part been hot air -- sugar-coated with appeals to mindless ''patriotism'' over a Persian Gulf war whose wisdom and value are yet to be determined.
I offer the heretical observation that the Quayle in waiting may not be worse than the bird in our Bush.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.