Satire on the vice president also bashes the office

October 25, 1992|By Susanne Trowbridge

IMPERIAL CADDY: THE RISE OF DAN QUAYLE IN AMERICA AND THE DECLINE AND FALL OF PRACTICALLY EVERYTHING ELSE.

Joe Queenan.

Hyperion.

232 pages. $22.95.

Joe Queenan is a political satirist in the P.J. O'Rourke mode -- cynical, ironic, irreverent and occasionally offensive. In his first book, Mr. Queenan takes aim at every humorist's dream target, the much-ridiculed Dan Quayle, as well as his position: "What is the meaning of this unfathomably strange public office he holds, and what does Quayle's occupation of it say about the society that put him there, yet keeps acting as if it didn't?"

There are some very funny moments in "Imperial Caddy," such as the chapter called "Cleaning Up on Quayle," which takes a look at the many entrepreneurs who have tried to make a buck off the vice president's foolishness by selling Quayle watches (the numbers are in the wrong order), T-shirts and anatomically correct dolls.

Many other segments fall flat, however; one in which Mr. Queenan goes in search of a psychic to find out whether or not Jim Morrison, the late rock singer, has heard of Mr. Quayle strongly resembles a David Letterman comedy sketch, only not as funny. And joshing about Republican operator Lee Atwater's death from a brain tumor is just plain tasteless.

In his effort to shed light on the Quayle phenomenon, Mr. Queenan presents several historical (and rather far-fetched) parallels to the vice president, including Pope John XXIII, Alexander the Great and Henry V ("Like Henry, who wasted his youth playing tennis, Quayle wasted his youth playing golf"). Another chapter pays tribute to Mr. Quayle's home state of Indiana by saluting such famous Hoosiers as riot-provoking Guns 'N Roses front man W. Axl Rose, Ku Klux Klan leader D.C. Stephenson and People's Temple guru Jim Jones.

The book's most intriguing chapter deals not with Mr. Quayle but with his wife, Marilyn, deemed "mean-spirited, vindictive [and] temperamental" by the author. He delves into her family's fascination with the eccentric preacher, Robert B. Thieme Jr.; in a 1988 interview, Mrs. Quayle revealed that she had grown up listening to tapes of his sermons, which basically proclaim that Armageddon is right around the corner. Then, for good measure, Mr. Queenan deftly dismisses the popular theory that Marilyn is highly intelligent (exhibit A: her "disarmingly moronic" thriller, "Embrace the Serpent").

If Mr. Quayle does become president, would he be the worst chief executive ever? Not likely, Mr. Queenan says; just look at Franklin Pierce, arrested while in office for trampling an old woman while riding his horse. Or the corrupt Warren Harding, or Millard Fillmore, who "grew up in a house that only had one book, just slightly more than the Quayle household."

Despite such jabs, "Imperial Caddy" deserves kudos for being more than a mindless exercise in Quayle-bashing (there are only a couple of "potatoe" jokes, thank goodness). Mr. Queenan's point is that Americans don't necessarily want their politicians to be too smart, and even though many of our leaders have been total dimwits, the republic survives. After all, "If twenty-four lawyer presidents and thirty-two lawyer vice presidents couldn't destroy it during its first two centuries of existence, nothing can."

Ms. Trowbridge is a writer living in Baltimore.

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