He smote down Richard Nixon -- now he elevates Dan Quayle

David Holahan

January 24, 1992|By David Holahan

YOU remember Bob Woodward, the young journalist in shining armor who smote down Richard Nixon almost 20 year ago. Well, Bob is all grown up now and he's gone on to other things. A couple of weeks ago he co-authored a seven-part newspaper series which boosts the political prospects of Dan Quayle.

By itself, virtually regardless of content, a week-long focus on the vice president connotes that Quayle must be some fellow, all right, if that great big newspaper, the Washington Post, and its famous reporter are paying so much attention to him. Add to this unfortunate impression the fact that the articles were essentially favorable to their subject,and the bewilderment is complete. Perhaps it's time someone did an investigative piece on Bob Woodward.

The problem with the series began with the error that most political reporting is infused with these days: It concentrated primarily on the political. The Post reported that the vice president actually wanted to be vice president and lobbied to be President Bush's choice.

On the surface, this seems to reflect well on Mr. Quayle. He must be ambitious and even somewhat savvy. He did get where he wanted to get, after all. It also confirms what any reporter with one good ear and a telephone can find out in Washington: The vice president is viewed inside the Beltway as a legitimate player. What this means to those of us who live outside the Beltway is not clear.

The series went on to report the veep's surprising criticism of Secretary of State James A. Baker, who will probably be vying with Mr. Quayle for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996. Mr. Quayle says Mr. Baker, the president's most trusted adviser, done him dirt in 1988. Like most of us, Mr. Baker thought the president's choice of the exuberant Hoosier was abominable and wasn't shy about saying so. Still, it is no small thing when the vice president, who is generally supposed to be seen but not heard, publicly takes on a person of Mr. Baker's stature.

If nothing else, the vice president has learned a lesson from the president: When things go wrong, blame someone. The veep is essentially trying to blame his dreadful start as Mr. Bush's running mate on aides and handlers.

This is all very juicy stuff, but so what? Are we actually supposed to think better of Dan Quayle because he was able to attain a position for which he is so stunningly unqualified? And now blames others for his own shortcomings?

Lost in all this incestuous political intrigue is what Mr. Quayle has done for the people who elected him lately besides threatening fully half of our remaining wetlands as chairman of the Competitiveness Council. At some level, politics should be about more than what a politician is capable of doing for himself, his cronies and corporate sponsors. We pay Mr. Quayle a hefty salary, and how does he spend his time? Raising money for fellow Republicans and desperately trying to refurbish his image.

And just what is Bob Woodward up to? How did he get such surprising access to the man who makes Yogi Berra appear well-spoken? We all know how companies like Indiana-based Eli Lilly come by their access. What did Mr. Woodward give away for his, besides common sense? Does the reporter get little political scoops, while Mr. Quayle's favorability ratings creep up? It is worth remembering that five of the last 10 vice presidents have wound up living in the White House. Journalists, as well as politicians, have been known to hedge their bets.

We have come a long way, haven't we? The man who saved us from Richard The Crooked-Hearted has become a flack for the new and improved Dan Quayle. With all due respect to Mr. Woodward and his seven-part series, I think it's time the press did some reporting on the selection process that has given us vice presidential candidates like Richard Nixon, William Miller, Lyndon Johnson, Spiro Agnew and J. Danforth Quayle.

And just what kind of a leader is our vice president? Let's have him lay out the three possibilities himself, shall we? In 1988 he gave this account of his summer reading to the New Republic: "Machiavelli had three classes of mind . . . The first class was the person that was creative enough to be able to lead a great nation without much help. The second class of mind was one that wasn't creative but could take ideas, put people around him and be able to lead nations forward. And the third class of people didn't really know much of anything. And they were the worst leaders, because not only were they not creative, but they didn't know what was right or wrong and they just sort of went by whatever they felt like."

With Machiavelli break-dancing in his grave, Dan Quayle wrestled with which "class of mind" he belonged to. "I'm not the first one," he said candidly, adding after a bit of thinking aloud: "I'm somewhere between two and one."

Apparently, there are some people who believe him.

David Holahan, who lives in East Haddam, Conn., is a regularly contributor to Other Voices.

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