Too Normal to Take Seriously

May 05, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

INDIANAPOLIS — Dan Quayle's new book, ''Standing Firm,'' which is the beginning of his political comeback attempt, expresses retrospective complaints that should, but will not, trouble those he complains about. On the other hand, the book will please those he most wants to please, the conservatives who comprise the Republican nominating electorate.

If President Bush had not chosen Senator Quayle in 1988, Mr. Quayle would be a leading contender for the 1996 Republican nomination. In 1980, at age 33, after two terms in the House, he won a Senate seat by handily beating a former Democratic presidential candidate, Birch Bayh. In 1986 he was re-elected with 61 percent of the vote, the highest percentage ever for an Indiana senator, and continued to build a creditable Senate record on both foreign and domestic issues.

But in the sudden glare of national attention at the 1988 convention he seemed strangely unformed. His soft voice, his blond boyishness, even his normality made him seem unserious. Many Americans assume that neuroses like Richard Nixon's are evidence of gravitas.

In 1988 the media rushed to a contemptuous judgment about Mr. Quayle, but no quicker than did some of Mr. Bush's operatives, those hollow technicians of empty politics who went on to squander the legacy handed to them by Ronald Reagan, another man deficient of neuroses.

Why were the media so hysterically hostile, beginning with the absurd ''reporting'' of Mr. Quayle's service in the National Guard? The former vice president believes young journalists could tolerate a Bush or Reagan, who reminded them of their fathers, but could not abide a conservative their own age who might be a national figure for years. The first baby boomer on a national ticket was not supposed to be someone conservative enough to have voted for Ronald Reagan against President Ford the 1976 Indiana primary.

As part of the ''pampered peahead'' image, the media called him the $600 million man.'' Actually, although some day he will benefit by a lot less than that from a family trust, he says that in 1988 his net worth, including his house, was $854,000. But the pleasures of condescension are intense, as they must have been for the journalist who, preening his intellectual superiority to Mr. Quayle, called him ''super rich, super tanned and about as smart as a houseplant.''

Mr. Quayle believes the Bush administration began to crumble before it began -- in December 1988, when the president-elect's advisers began pushing for a tax increase. By 1992, he notes, President Bush was using Michael Dukakis' playbook from 1988, assuming that the election was about ''competence, not ideology.'' That is as close as Mr. Quayle comes to saying a discouraging word about Mr. Bush.

Mr. Quayle notes approvingly that when a magazine characterized the Bush White House as an ''idea-free zone'' President Bush cited in his defense the Clean Air Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act. But those were two vast inflations of the regulatory state. Mr. Quayle cites President Bush's inaugural statement that the nation has ''more will than wallet'' as proof that ''bold domestic initiatives'' were not possible. But since when do conservatives equate boldness with spending? Mr. Quayle has a truly bold agenda, from school choice through term limits, that does not require much ''wallet.''

His book will not embarrass those who, by their egregiously unfair treatment of him, proved themselves to lack the understanding requisite for embarrassment. Therefore the book should have been less retrospective and more an occasion for him to present his seriousness unmediated by the media.

For example, with his ''Murphy Brown'' speech (in which she was mentioned in just one sentence) he was prematurely right in raising the most important domestic issue of the 1990s, illegitimacy. But we still await his analysis of precisely how public policy is relevant to that, either as cause or cure.

That subject and others will, presumably, be the stuff of his coming presidential campaign, during which, the book makes clear, his rivals for the Republican nomination will be hard pressed to get to his right. People who dismiss his chances have not contemplated the Republican nominating electorate. It is conservative, it detests the media and it is highly seasoned by the activists who saw much of Mr. Quayle in his vice-presidential party-building travels. With those folks, as with many others, familiarity with Mr. Quayle has bred fondness.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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