What's Vice President Quayle got against Murphy Brown?

Glenn McNatt

May 26, 1992|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Glenn McNatt is a Baltimore Sun editorial writer.

Do we really need a serious discussion this election year about the plight of families in America and what government can do to support and strengthen them? You bet we do.

It's a subject that has been ignored for the past 12 years by three successive Republican administrations. The consequences of that neglect for America's children have been profound.

Yet it's also a subject that doesn't seem to interest Vice President Quayle much. He would rather prattle on about TV sitcom characters who have babies out of wedlock and who "mock the importance of fathers." That's what he recently said about TV character Murphy Brown's decision to have a baby even though she is not married. The New York Times reports that all America is talking about it over the water cooler at work.

This is Mr. Quayle's idea of a serious debate. He still just doesn't get it.

Mr. Quayle is against single women having children. He's also on record as being against abortion. What would he have an unmarried woman do if she found herself pregnant? Give the baby up for adoption? But then suppose a single woman wanted to adopt the child; would he oppose that on moral grounds, too?

Mr. Quayle insists he is raising serious issues. Let's take him at his word. No one denies television exerts a powerful influence. So of course it's legitimate to ask whether seeing a TV character have a child out of wedlock might influence other women to do the same.

Now, pay attention to the answer: The consensus among people who have studied this issue is that peer group pressure, family background, socioeconomic status and other factors all play a much larger role in shaping such decisions than do media images. The tube may be powerful, but it's not that powerful.

Mr. Quayle knows this, or he ought to. That is why his recent remarks seem so fatuous. There's little enough connection between what happens on "Murphy Brown" and the day-to-day reality faced by the poor and minority women who are most likely to be single parents. It's a sociological non sequiter.

So why is Mr. Quayle pushing this tenuous link? Apparently because for him "Murphy Brown" is just another code word for all the things this administration intends to run against in the November election: the "liberal" media, the decline of "traditional values" and the idea that government ought to do more than simply pay lip service to the pressing needs of America's children.

Mr. Quayle evidently thinks this is clever politics. But then, he's the same sharp fellow who the other day visited a school in south-central Los Angeles where most of the students came from single-parent homes and told them that poor people lacked moral fiber. It never seemed to occur to him that those students might be smart enough to figure out that he was talking about their mothers.

That's the trouble with Mr. Quayle every time he dives into these debates that inevitably end up making him look like he got in over his head. You'd think no one could be that dim. Then you look again at what Mr. Quayle has said - and you just have to wonder.

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