The Murphy Brown law

William F. Buckley Jr.

May 27, 1992|By William F. Buckley Jr.

ALL THAT outsiders knew about Murphy Brown was the context supplied by the vice president. What he said, in the course of making the point about the consequences of deteriorated morals, was, "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.' "

Even for those who know absolutely nothing about Murphy Brown beyond what is divulged in that one sentence, one is bound to admit that the vice president proceeded incautiously. He seemed to be saying that a fatherless child ought not to be born. And of course if that is the correct moral position, then it follows that that child should be aborted.

What Dan Quayle obviously meant to say was that the child shouldn't have been conceived. As it is left, he is a standing target for two sets of people: those who are in favor of abortion and know that Mr. Quayle and Mr. Bush are against it; and those others who -- but let one columnist put it in her own words:

"It's always a good idea to put your biases right out on the table, so let's get one thing straight. I am a bastard -- or I was, until I was blessed enough to be adopted by two loving parents, joined in wedlock. The vice president has suggested society employ 'social sanctions' against women who bear babies 'irresponsibly.' I wish there were a word stinging enough to express the man's bumbling villainy."

Oh dear. Poor Dan! It is really unfair to suppose that he meant to say that no bastard should have been born. And of course it is also unfair for him to suppose that the whole world knows what are the ways of Murphy Brown, though one supposes she is what we used to call a "loose woman," and that when she became pregnant, she decided to have the child. One somehow gathers just from the feel of the situation that the next episode of "Murphy Brown" will not have her finding the man of her dreams, marrying him, and giving a father to the little Brown baby.

But Mr. Quayle was saying very serious things with direct relevance to the problem that absorbs California, namely the explosion within Los Angeles. If poverty is something we are all anxious to erase, what are we going to do with the following figures?

"Marriage is probably the best anti-poverty program of all," Mr. Quayle informed those of us who didn't know it already. "Among families headed by married couples today, there is a poverty rate of 5.7 percent. But 33.4 percent of families headed by a single mother are in poverty today."

Professor Thomas Sowell, the black political scientist and sociologist, has said as much confining himself to black Americans. If a black child is reared by a father and a mother who send him to school, the chances are very small that he will be a) poor, b) illiterate, c) unemployed, d) imprisoned or e) a drug user.

But on the business of social sanctions, Dan Quayle is treading on very delicate territory. You see, the situation has changed. Among whites, over the past 20 years, bastardy is up from 6 percent to 17 percent, a rise in percentage more striking than the black rise from 38 percent to 62 percent, though the black numbers overwhelm. It is simply unreasonable to suppose that there is no correlation between these figures and the Playboy philosophy that holds sex to be something you grab at the store as you might select corn flakes or a trapeze.

When Ingrid Bergman first came back to America after World War II she was not invited to appear on major television programs because she was living with an Italian movie director to whom she wasn't married. By contrast, today Elizabeth Taylor would run the risk of being ignored only if she were detected living other than with a man, whether married to him or not.

The Hollywood community, which is ironically a stone's throw from South Central Los Angeles, sets the tone without any sense of responsibility for the consequences of such lifestyles. But of course a Rolling Stone or a Beatle can easily afford what we take to be the lifestyle of Murphy Brown. All you have to do is hire a governess for the kids. Perhaps the Democratic Party platform will accost the problem in the ghettos by a massive federal program to supply governesses to look after illegitimate children.

I say hang in there, Dan Quayle. You need to frame what you say with a little more caution, but you are dead on, and there is no way they can face up to those statistics. They are tracer ammunition spelling out vital truths.

William F. Buckley is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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