WASHINGTON -- President Bush pushed aside a Canadian trade dispute and ignored negotiations with Congress on urban aid yesterday to deal with the hottest topic in the nation: a television character's decision to have a baby out of wedlock instead of an abortion.
After Vice President Dan Quayle created a national furor by attacking Murphy Brown, the fictional star of a TV situation comedy of the same name, the White House spent much of the day groping for the right response to the issue.
"I don't favor abortion, and I think that opting for life is a better path," the president told reporters who shouted, "What about Murphy Brown?" at an early afternoon news conference.
But he also said, "I believe that children should have the benefit of being born into families with a mother and a father who will give them love and care and attention all their lives."
Then, he added firmly, "I'm not going to get into the details of a very popular television show."
Not so Mr. Quayle, who started the controversy in a speech Tuesday attacking Murphy Brown for "mocking the importance of fathers" by calling the character's decision to bear a child alone a "lifestyle choice."
The vice president couldn't even find any redeeming value in what White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater had earlier praised as the television anchorwoman's "pro-life" decision to give birth to the child she conceived by a former husband rather than abort it.
"Hey, this is a sitcom. My complaint is that Hollywood thinks it's cute to glamorize illegitimacy. Hollywood doesn't get it," Mr. Quayle said outside a school he visited during a tour of the Los Angeles riot zone.
With some 38 million viewers tuned in to Monday night's episode, in which Murphy Brown gave birth to a boy, it was certainly an issue that caught America's attention.
Yesterday's New York Daily News bannered the story: "QUAYLE TO MURPHY BROWN: YOU TRAMP!" The New York Post countered with: "MURPHY HAS A BABY . . . QUAYLE HAS A COW." The story dominated radio talk shows all day and led last night's network newscasts.
The controversy left Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney feeling so left out during his visit to Mr. Bush at the White House yesterday that he offered to give reporters a "Canadian version" in response to the Murphy Brown question.
Normally Mr. Quayle's practice of speaking more bluntly, and with a more strident conservatism, than Mr. Bush can be finessed by aides, who can distance Mr. Bush from the vice president's remarks.
But Mr. Fitzwater, who calls himself a "Murphy Brown" fan with a lifelong crush on its star, Candice Bergen, had trouble yesterday figuring out just what the distance ought to be.
As usual, the vice president's remarks had not been cleared in advance by Mr. Bush's staff, who woke up to find them prominently displayed in the morning papers.
At a first casual meeting with reporters early yesterday morning, Mr. Fitzwater appeared to have a prepared response in support of the vice president, noting that "glorification of life as an unwed mother . . . does not do good service to most unwed mothers, who are not highly-paid, glamorous anchorwomen."
After meeting with his staff -- and possibly discussing the issue with other White House officials -- the spokesman returned about 20 minutes later to soften the criticism. He noted that by forsaking abortion, the Murphy Brown character "is demonstrating pro-life values which we think are good."
After the president was asked by reporters whom he sided with on the issue, Mr. Quayle or Mr. Fitzwater, the spokesman returned to the press room once more to try to play down any disagreement.
By noon, Mr. Bush had Mr. Quayle on the telephone from Los Angeles to help prepare the remarks he would make at a White House news conference an hour later.
"This is big, television is big, fictional characters are bigger than life," Mr. Fitzwater observed. "Maybe all the candidates should attack fictional characters."
In Los Angeles, where Quayle aides bragged that their man was taking on the entertainment industry in its heart, there was no sign of a cease-fire.
THE 'MURPHY' FLAP
DAN QUAYLE: "Bearing babies irresponsibly is wrong. Failing to support children one has fathered is wrong. It doesn't help matters when prime-time TV has Murphy Brown, a character who supposedly epitomizes today's intelligent, highly paid, professional woman, mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and then calling it just another 'lifestyle choice.'"
MARLIN FITZWATER, 8:20 a.m.: "The concern now is that the glorification of life as an unwed mother. . . does not do good service to most unwed mothers who are not highly paid glamorous anchorwomen."
MARLIN FITZWATER, 8:40 a.m.: "The "Murphy Brown" show is an excellent show. The fact is she is demonstrating pro-life values which we think are good."
PRESIDENT BUSH: "I think we'd have a much more stable environment everywhere in our country if we had more families -- put it this way, if the kids had the advantages of two-parent households. It's not always easy, not always possible. . . . Well, as you know, I don't favor abortion. And I think that opting for life is a better path."
DIANE ENGLISH, "MURPHY BROWN" PRODUCER: "If he (quayle) believes that a woman cannot adequately raise a child without a father, then he'd better make sure abortion remains safe and legal."