Quayle said of reports that Ross Perot has...

VICE PRESIDENT

June 25, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

VICE PRESIDENT Quayle said of reports that Ross Perot has investigated people, "Imagine having the IRS, the FBI and the CIA under his control." And you thought Dan couldn't spell!

Actually, the significance of Quayle's performance at that Trenton, N.J., school where he told a student "potato" was spelled "potatoe" has nothing to do with spelling. It has to do with the way politicians communicate with the public. They do it with material prepared for them by others.

Quayle was handed a spelling bee flash card on which "potato" was misspelled with an "e." Without even thinking, he spewed out the information on the card. Just like it was a speech. Just like he did the Murphy Brown criticism.

Fred Barnes reported in The New Republic that while it may have been Quayle's idea to criticize Hollywood for its lack of values, it was a speech writer, Lisa Schriffen, who suggested the Murphy Brown show as a target. Quayle had never seen the show. What he said -- what he read -- about Murphy Brown in his San Francisco speech was unrelated to any direct knowledge he had of the words he was uttering.

His willingness to attack "elites" has prompted some critics to suggest he is doing for George Bush what Ted Agnew did for Richard Nixon. That is, being his hatchet man. Quayle was asked about this last week. He made a joke:

"The president talked to me about that the other day. He said, 'Dan, I knew Spiro Agnew. Spiro Agnew was a friend of mine. And you're no Spiro Agnew.' "

Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Get it? In the 1988 vice presidential debate, Quayle compared himself to John Kennedy, and Lloyd Bentsen shocked him with that "I knew Jack Kennedy . . . . You're no Jack Kennedy" line. (Bentsen said the line wasn't spontaneous. He had tried it out previously in a mock debate. But he, not a speech writer or handler, thought it up, he said.)

In fact, Dan Quayle is no Ted Agnew when it comes to memorable language. Can you quote one phrase verbatim from his Murphy Brown or any other speech? I doubt it.

But Agnew! In the aftermath of his hatchet job speeches in 1969-1972, he was the most quotable pol around. "Nattering nabobs of negativism." "Hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history." "Effete corps of impudent snobs."

Of course, these and other colorful phrases were written for him by speech writers -- William Safire, Pat Buchanan, Cynthia Rosenwald -- but he ratified such language in advance. He wasn't nearly as passive a reader as Quayle seems to be.

Once, in fact, Agnew overruled his speech writers. One had referred to a liberal Republican senator who often voted with Democrats as "the Christine Jorgensen of the Republican Party." Jorgensen was an early recipient of a sex change operation. The writers decided that was not a proper remark for a vice president. But Agnew liked the phrase and used it anyway.

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