Vice President Quayle spoke at a luncheon in San Francisco last week. His theme was the necessity to return to old moral values of right and wrong. His speech ran to 50 paragraphs. This was Paragraph 43:
''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 calling it just another 'lifestyle choice.' ''
The American press reacted as predictably as the dogs of Dr. Pavlov. Mr. Quayle rang a bell and mouths watered. Platoons of sociologists, pressed for timely quotes, fired their little popguns. The Washington Post curled its editorial lip. The crackers-and-brie set sneered and snickered. Predictably, the Bush White House came down with the impotent dithers.
In all this commotion, Mr. Quayle's serious message scarcely could be heard. Forget Murphy Brown. In the other 49 paragraphs Mr. Quayle spoke with clarity and force. He said:
''When I have been asked during these last weeks who caused the riots and the killing in L.A., my answer has been direct and simple: Who is to blame for the riots? The rioters are to blame. Who is to blame for the killings? The killers are to blame. . . .
''There is simply no excuse for the mayhem that followed the Rodney King trial. To apologize or in any way to excuse what happened is wrong. It is a betrayal of all those people equally outraged and equally disadvantaged who did not loot and did not riot. No matter how much you may disagree with the verdict, the riots were wrong. And if we as a society don't condemn what is wrong, how can we teach our children what is right?''
Mr. Quayle spoke for all those who believe that casual fornication, out of wedlock, is wrong. He made a valid point: The media profoundly influence the shaping of contemporary conduct. If this were not so, we would not have beer commercials. Of course the media's glorification of sex has consequences. Among the consequences:
''In 1965 the illegitimacy rate among black families was 28 percent. In 1989, 65 percent -- two-thirds -- of all black children were born to never-married mothers.''
The vice president did not even remotely suggest that Murphy and the media are solely responsible for illegitimacy among blacks. Neither did he blame such Great Society programs as general welfare and public housing. The responsibility is personal. Just as rioters produce riots, and arsonists produce arson, so do irresponsible couples produce families without fathers.
''Unless we change the basic rules of society in our inner cities,'' Mr. Quayle said, ''we cannot expect anything else to change. We will simply get more of what we saw three weeks ago. New thinking, new ideas, new strategies are needed.''
Government has a large part to play. Governmental policies, said Mr. Quayle, must be premised upon such values as ''family, hard work, integrity and personal responsibility.'' It is government's obligation to restore law and order. Those are ''code words for safety, getting control of the streets, and freedom from fear.''
Government, said the vice president, can encourage the residents of public housing to become homeowners. Enterprise zones will create jobs in inner cities. The parents of poor children must be given a choice of public or private schools. Policies of public welfare must be reformed to create incentives for saving and to remove the penalties for marriage.
''Empowering the poor will strengthen families. And right now, the failure of our families is hurting America deeply. When families fail, society fails. The anarchy and lack of structure in our inner cities are testament to how quickly civilization falls apart when the family foundation cracks.
''Children need love and discipline. They need mothers and fathers. A welfare check is not a husband. The state is not a father. It is from parents that children learn how to behave in society; it is from parents above all that children come to understand values and themselves as men and women, mothers and fathers.''
This was the speech that the Washington Post mocked as ''a pretty comic performance.'' The speech was ''hardly original.'' The Post found it ''morally klunky.'' For my own part, I thought Mr. Quayle was squarely on target. Such unsophisticated talk of old-fashioned families may bore the finger-bowl crowd. The rest of the country won't be bored at all.
James J. Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.