Politicians are people too -- and that can put them in a tough spot. When Vice President Dan Quayle spoke as a father first and indicated to talk show host Larry King this week that he would support whatever decision his 13-year-old daughter would make about abortion, he found himself the center of another media feeding frenzy.
And no wonder. The remark, a response to a hypothetical question, stood in stark contrast to the political platform he represents.
Predictably, it triggered a barrage of ridicule from one side of the abortion debate and a responding round of defensive explanations from the other. That's too bad, because the incident could have provided a constructive pause in this endless war of words.
It's worth remembering here the reply Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis gave to a similar hypothetical question in a 1988 campaign debate. When asked how he would feel about capital punishment if his wife were raped and murdered, he delivered a stiff, impersonal response that left voters with an uneasy feeling about a man who could take a cerebral approach to such an unnerving possibility.
Mr. Quayle's response to Larry King has been treated largely as another unrehearsed gaffe. But it says something worth remembering about Dan Quayle that his instinctive reaction is to speak as a father first. And it speaks well of Governor Bill Clinton, who hopes to send Mr. Quayle to the unemployment lines this November, that he recognized Mr. Quayle's dilemma and refused to join the chorus of ridicule.
This newspaper supports the right of every girl and every woman to make these intensely personal decisions without undue interference from the government, a position with which the Bush administration disagrees.
But we also support a concept that seems even more difficult to communicate in the supercharged climate that surrounds abortion -- the importance of giving each American, politician or not, enough freedom from restrictive labels to consider a difficult issue in deeply personal terms.
Only when that happens will this country be able to move from the hypothetical to the real and come to terms with a very human issue that, so far, has produced divisions that seem impervious to reconciliation.