Quayle doesn't even know how to play vice president

Bradford Jacobs

September 25, 1991|By Bradford Jacobs

HAMLET" is probably the toughest of all stage roles, but vice president of the United States comes a close second and, the other day, J. Danforth Quayle blew it badly. The poor fellow doesn't know how to play vice president at all.

We all know the script. The veep comes on as an amiable duffer, a combine of Hubert Humphrey and Jerry Ford. He's smirky, irresponsible, a political punching bag. He says something nice about the city. He tells a fairly funny story, preferably on himself. Loyally, he grinds out a little speech slung together for him by the second-string White House speech writer. He tells you what a tremendous job the president is doing, how shockingly The Other Party behaves.

When he exits, he exits wistfully. This character has a lot to be wistful about. So runs the sad old vice presidential script we have feebly relished for years. And J. Danforth, or so we have been lectured almost weekly since 1988, is just the stumble-bum twit to play it with appropriate non-panache.

But look what happens in Baltimore.

Under a moist mid-September sky, the Light Street entrance to the Hyatt Regency quivers with a small excitement. It's an excitement well short of presidential but maybe a cut above foreign secretarial. Outside the hotel, Baltimore police abound in their white hats, officiously shooing visitors to the back or Charles Street entrance.

Inside, a couple of hastily drawn placards shunt incomers up-escalator to the glittering ballroom; here presides the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs, happy host to the luncheon. A handful of Secret Servicemen, solidly type-cast, slip about the lofty Hyatt lobby in buttoned jackets and with electronic stuff in their ears.

All nicely understated, all carefully veepish. Within the banquet room a startlingly large scarlet-jacketed band from Calvert Hall lets go with a muted oom-pah-pah. Whereupon threading his way nimbly past white-topped lunch tables comes either Robert Redford, Mr. Hollywood macho, or -- no! -- it must be Little Danny himself.

There's the shy wave, the clear blue eyes, the neat dark suit. Preppy-looking, yes, but the once-pink cheeks look less boyish than they did three years ago. The Quayle smile is tighter today and carries the lean fixity of the Marlboro man or maybe it's Paul Newman after all.

No, you find it's really Dan Quayle because the chairman introduces him and because, on traditional vice-presidential cue, the vice president tells us your regulation fairly funny little story about being vice president. You settle back for one more re-run ** of the familiar lines, spoken this time by one more hum-drum inhabitant of this half-comic walk-on part.

Just here it was that the comfortable old certitudes began to fall apart. Disconcertingly, Dan Quayle emerged somewhere close to politically incorrect.

He addressed himself formally to foreign policy, this being an audience of several hundred, an audience heavy laden with an exotic mix of foreign biases. Did he mouth a pale, me-too version of the current White House shibboleth, A New World Order? No, he didn't. A breathless echo of right-wing thundering: Beware the Hard-Line Commie Backlash? Not that either.

Was it possible that this new, perhaps-1992 model Dan Quayle stood out there at the Hyatt's speaker's rostrum almost on his own? He did toss the White House polite nods by endorsement of delaying the loans to Israel, of treating Saddam Hussein sternly, of patience with Boris Yeltsin. There occurred, however, no unseemly licking of the presidential cheek. But did he have something of his own to say?

Yes, and this was a near-eloquent rendition not only of the oncoming triumph of democracy, but of its attendant hazards, too. In practiced tones, he drew attention to freedom's birth pangs in Eastern Europe. He spoke knowingly of the power vacuum implicit for the Pacific in a U.S. military withdrawal from the Philippines. He rattled off personal reminiscences of his recent poking about in the difficult corners of Africa. Of Latin America -- its nations, its robust new leaders, even their surprisingly young ages -- he spoke with off-record familiarity.

"That's the only place," he said disarmingly and to general amusement, "where I come off as an elder statesman."

To be sure, all the above can be easily dismissed as glib reading of the written lines, as regurgitation of words patiently poured into him by unseen Washington spoons before he was shipped off gurgling in the big black limousine for Baltimore. But the set speech, however pre-digested, wasn't all there was. Afterward, as invited questions flew from the floor, the outlines of a genuinely thoughtful man seemed to show through the blur of television-commanded spotlights.

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