Quayle tries to change image while sticking to his script On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

June 05, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

Budapest -- AS DAN Quayle wends his way through central and Eastern Europe on a five-nation tour, he has the customary mission of a vice president abroad -- spreading American good will.

But in the wake of recent concern over President Bush's health, the man who is his constitutional stand-in has a private agenda, as well -- demonstrating to a doubting world that he is up to the task of the presidency should it fall to him.

This trip was scheduled before Bush's irregular heartbeat a month ago sent ripples of consternation through the American body politic. It is a prime opportunity, however, for Quayle to project confidence and maturity in the international area and begin to mend his much-tattered public image.

In his public appearances so far before U.S. troops in Germany and at ceremonial events here in Budapest, the vice president has most often been a study in control. He routinely gives measured, wooden remarks in a fashion that conveys a concentration on sure-footedness rather than innovation or independence. His demeanor suggests the unspoken admonition of apprehensive aides: Don't screw up.

While these aides are quick to express their own confidence in their boss and a belief that he has borne the brunt of unfair press coverage, they are all too aware that a stray or incautious remark can overshadow any positive impression Quayle otherwise creates.

That, after all, has been the history of Dan Quayle since that eventful day in 1988 when Bush named him his running mate. In his 28 months as vice president, Quayle has been plagued by stories of his verbal gaffes, although more recently they have been few and far between. But it only takes one to revive the recollection of a bungling, immature Dan Quayle.

It is an image he is capable of countering when he is relaxed and off-stage or is speaking with obvious conviction. In conversation with reporters in his Air Force Two cabin en route here from Bonn, where he conferred privately with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Quayle demonstrated a solid grasp of the complexities involved in the American effort to overcome German reluctance to reduce agricultural subsidies as part of long-negotiated international trade talks.

And, contrary to his past rigidity toward the Soviet Union and skepticism toward Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, Quayle struck a somewhat more conciliatory tone as he discussed Gorbachev's trustworthiness. At one point, he repeated former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's characterization of the Soviet leader as "somebody you can do business with."

At the same time, Quayle emphatically knocked down the notion that some sort of massive economic aid to the Soviet Union is in the works. He said that to ask American taxpayers "to subsidize an inefficient, bankrupt economic system like the Soviet Union, I think that may be a tough proposition." Later he called it "a non-starter."

As a man whose views toward the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were formed during the Cold War, Quayle has been conspicuously wary about hailing the new situation. Now, however, in his first visit ever to member countries of the old communist bloc, he is being obliged to question his own old hard-line attitudes. He appears to recognize that necessity while retaining his old reservations, especially about the Soviet Union.

Quayle says one of his prime tasks here and in later stops in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria is to assure leaders that as the United States contemplates economic aid to the Soviet Union, it retains a great interest in their economic problems as well. To this end, the vice president disclosed here several small grants to Hungary totaling more than $2.5 million for economic and environmental projects.

But the burden of his message is that democracy and a free market economy is the real answer to economic development in these countries as well as in the Soviet Union, not some grand latter-day Marshall Plan.

In a press conference Quayle delivered this message with a forcefulness not notable in his scripted speeches, in which he seems excessively programmed in a manner that does little to demonstrate he is more than a robot. The programming is in part the lot of any vice president, who above all is not supposed to make waves on such a trip.

Sticking to the script while changing his image presents a dilemma that Quayle has not yet solved. But he is working on it.

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