Quayle stands knee-deep in flaws of the vice presidential condition

May 29, 1994|By Paul West

For a campaign book, Dan Quayle's "Standing Firm" is pretty good reading. The plot is a familiar one: It's the story of a man in a trap.

Not a sand trap; a political trap. It was sprung on the unsuspecting Mr. Quayle on the day he was picked as George Bush's running mate in 1988, and he has yet to escape.

This memoir of his vice presidency was designed, at least in part, to get him out. Judging by the unfavorable publicity that has greeted its publication, it seems unlikely to do the trick.

Precisely how Mr. Quayle got trapped -- or ensnared himself -- has never been fully explained. In "Standing Firm," he tells us little about the subtle personal campaign he waged for the job. Nor does he provide new clues to why Mr. Bush chose a lightly regarded senator from Indiana who was completely unknown outside his home state.

While Mr. Quayle is largely silent on the origins of his present dilemma, he has plenty to say about his maddening political situation and, especially, the people he blames for putting him there: the liberal news media and his own "handlers," who, he says, were more interested in advancing their careers than his.

In some ways, vice presidents and vice presidential candidates are like children. They're supposed to make a pleasant impression but say nothing that would upset the grown-ups (the president or presidential candidate). When they do make big news, it's usually by accident, such as when they commit a gaffe. One consequence of all this is that, once the vice president's image becomes fixed, there are few, if any, opportunities for him to change it (as "robot-like" Al Gore has discovered).

Mr. Quayle refers to those times when the public develops an impression of a politician as "defining moments," and in his own, unhappy career as a national figure, they've virtually all been bad.

His bungled introduction to the nation was the first, and in many ways, worst. It was a colossal political screw-up caused in large part by President Bush's obsessive concern with the news of his choice from leaking prematurely. He kept his own aides in the dark until the last moment, thus preventing them from planning a proper rollout of the GOP's new vice presidential model.

The initial wave of news reports out of the 1988 convention

painted a picture of Mr. Quayle as a "pampered peabrain," as he puts it in "Standing Firm." Within days, the 41-year-old candidate found himself in political free fall. He briefly considered quitting the ticket, he reveals, but decided to stay on at the urging of his closest adviser, his wife Marilyn.

From that moment forward, Mr. Quayle's life was forever changed, and not necessarily for the better. His four years as vice president became an endless, and ultimately futile, struggle to overcome his disastrous debut and somehow repair his image. His every public appearance became a high-wire act, putting unrealistic pressure on Mr. Quayle to perform flawlessly. When the gaffes came, they were welcome material for the late-night TV comics.

With almost painful candor, Mr. Quayle recalls a string of these subsequent "defining moments" (all bad): greeting the Samoan natives in Pago Pago as "happy campers"; purchasing an anatomically correct, pornographic doll in Peru; and -- the mistake that clinched his reputation -- teaching a 12-year-old how to spell potatoe.

He even goes so far as to repeat far-fetched Quayle jokes that, because of his abysmal image, were accepted as the truth by millions of people (did you hear the one, circulated by a Republican congresswoman, about how Dan Quayle said his frequent travels to Latin American made him wish he'd learned ** to speak Latin in school?).

In preparing this book, Mr. Quayle undertook what he describes as a serious attempt to understand the reasons for his rocky relationship with the press. He interviewed several journalists who covered his vice presidency and came up with a number of conclusions, some more persuasive than others, about what

went wrong.

He describes one of the most crucial problems he faced -- that the reporters covering the '88 campaign knew nothing about him at the time he burst on the scene as Mr. Bush's running mate. Mr. Quayle blames himself and Bush aides for failing to prepare him for the scrutiny he would face. But he then leaps from this fact, and many of the incidents that followed, to conclude that there was a media conspiracy to defame him, hatched by liberal journalists who could not stomach his conservative views.

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