FAMILY values," it is now universally pronounced, were found wanting as a campaign issue and have been laid permanently to rest. Maybe. But before the last eulogy is spoken, it is important to straighten out what went wrong, so that the right lessons are learned.
Vice President Dan Quayle started all this with his famous reference to "Murphy Brown." (I don't know about you, but I have become so sick of hearing that sound bite that I actually hold my ears and hum when I hear it coming -- something I haven't done since schoolyard days!)
Mr. Quayle had it right. It was a serious speech about a serious problem -- family breakdown and its consequences -- and it was well-received everywhere except Bel Air, Calif., the Upper West Side of Manhattan and other bivouacs of the "creative community." Large majorities of the American public told pollsters that they agreed with the vice president that Hollywood was offering poor role models.
But if Mr. Quayle was serious, his critics were not. The substance of his speech was ignored and distorted in the rush to belittle and ridicule him. He received a torrent of tendentious and dishonest responses from liberals, in Hollywood and elsewhere. "Murphy" had "agonized" over her decision, they proclaimed, and Mr. Quayle ought to be glad she didn't seek an abortion.
Gee, hasn't anybody told them that "Murphy" is a fictional character? They created her pregnancy (for ratings). They could have chosen to have "Murph" use birth control. They didn't. They could have had their character seek marriage to the baby's father. They didn't. Indeed, they went further, insinuating that marriage was an outmoded institution, like segregation.
The producers of "Murphy Brown" maintain (with, believe it or not, straight faces) that their character was "responsible" because she and her ex-husband both had AIDS tests before they got carried away by passion.
Mr. Quayle's critics chose to pretend that he was criticizing single mothers -- when, of course, he was making the point that a more properly ordered society would see to it, though customs, laws and taboos, that more fathers were involved in raising the children they sired.
Here's the part that "smart" opinion utterly misses: Trends for the past generation have been extremely harmful. The poverty rate among two-parent families is 5.7 percent. But among one-parent families, 33.4 percent are poor. In 1960, only 9.1 percent of children lived in single-parent families. By 1989, 24.3 percent did. Among blacks during that same period, the percentage jumped from 21.9 percent to 54.5 percent according to Census Bureau data.
Liberals -- yes, even fictional characters like Murphy Brown -- who gently push society in the direction of welcoming and accepting this trend are nudging us toward a cliff.
The liberals are right that the president has decided to back off the issue of family values as an election-year theme. But it isn't, as they would have it, because the issue fails to resonate with the American people. It's because from the word go, George Bush has never understood it. His towering response to the initial flap over Mr. Quayle's comments was to say he wouldn't want to criticize a "popular show."
Later, he seemed to think the issue amounted to proving that he had more grandchildren than his opponent. Maybe, the president seemed to reason, this will be the flag factory of 1992.
The president's flawed understanding of the issue -- seeing it as a gimmick rather than a profound challenge to our society -- doomed it politically. The coup de grace was delivered by three speeches at the Republican Convention. Barbara Bush drained the words of any meaning by asserting blandly that "whatever family values means to you, that's what it is." And the Pats, Buchanan and Robertson, by injecting gay bashing, made it seem as if the "family values" gambit was little more than a claim of moral superiority. (Though much else in both of their speeches was excellent.)
The issue of what is happening to American families has been mauled by politics, but it remains central to our well-being and cannot long be shelved.
Mona Charen writes a syndicated column.