The cue for the comeback of Dan Quayle

Monday Book Review

May 16, 1994|By Frank Rich

STANDING FIRM. By Dan Quayle. HarperCollins. 387 pages. $25.

NOW that Richard Nixon's rehabilitation is over -- having collapsed of its own inflated weight once a self-aggrandizing Henry Kissinger jumped on the bandwagon -- the time is right for Dan Quayle's comeback. For Democrats no less than stand-up comics, this is heartening news.

The cue for Mr. Quayle's re-emergence is his book, "Standing Firm," a surprisingly readable mixture of bitchiness, blame-deflecting and braggadocio in which it turns out that everyone except George Bush and Dan Quayle is responsible for everything that went wrong in their administration and re-election campaign.

To promote this putative best-seller -- 375,000 copies in print -- Mr. Quayle is touring 36 cities, sampling his '96 presidential prospects along the way, and grabbing every free microphone he can in the media he spends much of his book excoriating.

As it happens, Mr. Quayle's comeback unfolds against the backdrop of the latest load of dirty linen from Little Rock.

If Bill Clinton's career suggests that a man of suspect private character can be an effective president -- witness the assault-weapons victory even as the Paula Jones circus raised its tent -- Mr. Quayle reverses that paradox. He proves that it is possible for a man of ostentatious good character to be a dunce in public life.

I am not talking about Mr. Quayle's spelling, though he can't stop talking about it in "Standing Firm," even to the point of playing gotcha with critics like the columnist Ellen Goodman, whom he accuses of once dropping the "e" from "gaffe."

Mr. Quayle's malapropisms are not the problem. Despite his defensive proclamation that he has "a feeling for the big picture," that's pre-cisely what he lacks.

Its Desert Storm chronicle notwithstanding, "Standing Firm" reads like a collection of tiny footnotes and tinier gripes.

My favorite revelation is Mr. Quayle's admission that neither he nor Mr. Bush had ever seen "Murphy Brown," fount of the vice president's family-values crusade, but that they had both pored over Robert Mapplethorpe's controversially homoerotic photographs.

For all the publicity given Mr. Quayle's jabs at James Baker, Bob Dole, Jack Kemp and journalists, it is his obsessive jealousy of Al Gore that leaps most animatedly from the page. Mr. Gore is resented for mangling "e pluribus unum" without press censure, for puffing up his chest and for getting to cast a tie-breaking Senate vote (an honor that eluded Mr. Quayle's vice presidency).

Petty as he can be -- he even drags in the Hollywood director Sydney Pollack, of all unlikely targets, for a caning -- Mr. Quayle does seem admirable in the privacy of his own home.

He draws a persuasively detailed, even moving portrait of his own devotion as a husband, father and son; his religious reflections, though pitched politically to the Christian right, are neither sanctimonious nor boilerplate.

When he signed books at Barnes & Noble in New York last Monday -- to a large crowd, though not as large as those for Norman Schwarzkopf or Magic Johnson -- he suffered autograph-seeking fools more gladly than most mortals would. "If he gets going, he signs 10 to 12 a minute," said one admiring publisher's representative.

On bigger matters, his new media blitz demonstrates, Mr. Quayle remains far less than swift. After an affable puff piece set at his Indianapolis home on a recent "Prime Time Live" -- he and Diane Sawyer, leaning on a fence, looked so chummily Aryan they could have been separated at birth -- he was demolished on substance by Katie Couric of the "Today" show last week.

Ms. Couric left Mr. Quayle's showily brandished but incoherent Haiti policy (no sanctions, no Aristide, no Cedras) looking in more disarray than the president's.

Asked if the fans at Mr. Quayle's book signing were in any way atypical, a Barnes & Noble publicist said, "They're very organized and very quiet, almost abnormally quiet." And perhaps there are many more of them out there -- a Nixonesque silent majority, ready to give Mr. Quayle another shot.

"People who dismiss his chances," George Will writes in a column, "have not contemplated the Republican nominating electorate."

Democrats can only pray Mr. Will is right. Another shallow Quayle candidacy is just the ticket to remind Americans why they decisively chose change over character in '92.

Frank Rich is a columnist for the New York Times.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.