The night that Dan Quayle seemed real

MICHAEL OLESKER

July 26, 1992|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Because, for one brief, confusing moment, Dan Quayle spoke from his heart and not from his briefing papers, he is now undergoing a barrage of the thing that clings to him like a second skin: the ridicule of most of a nation.

"Gotcha," say all those who want freedom of choice on abortion.

"I've been misunderstood," says Quayle, since he cannot say he was misquoted.

In an interview Tuesday night on CNN's "Larry King Live," with America listening to the words, the vice president was asked: "What if your daughter grew up and had a problem, came to you with that problem all fathers fear? How would you deal with it?"

"Well, it is a hypothetical situation," said Quayle. "I hope that I never do have to deal with it. But obviously . . ."

"What would you do?"

"I would counsel her," said Quayle, "and talk to her and support her on whatever decision she made."

"And if the decision was abortion, you'd support her, as a parent?"

"I'd support my daughter," said Quayle. "I'd hope that she wouldn't make that decision."

Memo to Larry King: This is where the "Gotcha" arrives.

It's where King, sensing the breathtaking contradiction, should have said, "But Mr. Quayle, you've just taken a position diametrically opposed to what you've been saying for the last four years. Are you, in fact, advocating choice for American women? Or are you saying abortion should be outlawed for all women except those who are Dan Quayle's daughter?"

Instead, King said, "Let's go to the phones," thereby cutting short the abortion discussion and giving both Quayle and his frantic handlers a chance to regroup.

And there's the pity.

For a moment, Dan Quayle seemed to have been caught in a truth, which is sometimes unfamiliar territory in a political season.

The politicians make their alliances, and then cannot extricate themselves without risk.

George Bush was once a moderate on abortion, but then came the alliance with Ronald Reagan.

Quayle is a staunch conservative who suddenly finds himself having to personalize abortion, loses his way, and has to scramble back to safe ground the next day.

The Republican Party platform advocates a constitutional amendment to ban abortion.

Both Quayle and President Bush have taken strong anti-abortion political stands. No choice, they've said; abortion is immoral.

But now, here was Quayle, looking pensive, looking troubled at the thought of his own daughter in trouble, and for this one brief, confusing moment he spoke from a place in his heart and not his political platform.

"Dan Quayle's position on this issue reflects the position of most Americans," Stacie Spector, campaign director of Maryland For Choice, was saying at week's end. "He is pro-choice, not pro-abortion.

"We respect the vice president's belief that this is a highly personal issue that should be discussed and handled within the family. Now we ask that he return that respect to the rest of us."

Her words were covered in a kind of delighted sarcasm.

They arrived after Quayle, wife Marilyn and a variety of Republican handlers were attempting to throw a new spin on the vice president's remarks, assuring everyone that he was still as jTC staunchly anti-abortion as ever, and never mind what he said, it's what he meant (whatever that is) that counts.

What we got for a moment, though, was a snapshot.

And it was a pretty flattering one, at that: a picture of a father, and not merely a politician; a picture of a troubled man, and not someone reflexively protecting his career; someone with sensitivity, and not this dim, vacant figure programmed to take specific positions who keeps tripping over his own language whenever he ventures beyond the intellectual shoreline. In that moment, you almost had the feeling that he finally got it: No one's in favor of abortion; it's just a humane way out of a desperate situation.

It's a tough, painful call. And, while it's easy to take a philosophical position against it, the issue gets terribly muddied when it's your own daughter who is threatened.

Then came the dawn after the TV interview: Marilyn Quayle, the next day in a radio interview from Iowa, declaring: "If she becomes pregnant, she'll take the child to term."

"You will make that decision?" she was asked. "We will make it with her," said Marilyn Quayle, apparently invoking the royal "we."

That was Wednesday. By Thursday, a furiously backpedaling Dan Quayle was declaring: "We are pro-life, and we are opposed to abortion."

Memo to the Quayles: Everyone is pro-life. No one is pro-abortion, just pro-choice. Pay heed to the distinction. Choice is an attempt to give the same rights to the already-born that the Quayles would give the not-yet born. For a moment, the vice president seemed to get it in spite of himself: His own daughter's rights were at stake, and so he would "support her on whatever decision she made."

It sounded so nice, hearing this man speak from his heart instead of some political position.

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