Quayle tries to rebound from being right too early

March 10, 1997|By George F. Will

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Outside the Quilted Bear, a popular breakfast spot, sits the sporty Jeep that Marilyn gave him last month on his 50th birthday. Inside, the former vice president sits at the corner table where he regularly talks with politically interested people passing through Phoenix.

Ralph Reed, head of the Christian Coalition, was here recently. There will be others. Dan Quayle, formerly of Indianapolis, spent much of his youth here -- he went to high school just down the road and ''knew more about the saguaro cactus than about the oak tree'' -- but he is not settling down here. Seventeen years after being elected senator at age 33, he is running for president.

Although there is gray around his temples, he still looks boyish. But if his exterior remains remarkably unmarked by the years, his inner landscape is more severe. He has resolved to seek something like redemption.

He was a diligent, respected, rising senator before his abrupt and unhappy elevation to the Republican national ticket, for which he was ill-prepared. Today, he is more remembered for misspelling ''potato'' during a visit to a school than for being right -- prematurely so -- about Murphy Brown and the nation's most serious social problem.

Whatever happened to Murphy's baby? Has he gone away to school already? Time does fly when you are having fun. It seems like only yesterday that he was born to Murphy, the character in the TV sitcom. Although unmarried, she chose to have a child, and thereby became the toast of advanced thinkers, symbol of Emancipated Woman -- ''our bodies, our choices'' and all that.

Actually, it was May 1992, just before the country awoke to the social unraveling caused by illegitimacy.

Mr. Quayle endured an acid rain of ridicule for arguing that it was irresponsible for the entertainment industry simultaneously to glamorize and trivialize the destructive phenomenon of treating the having of children out of wedlock as just another ''lifestyle'' choice and a matter of moral indifference. Soon, however, he seemed prescient, even to his cultured despisers. An Atlantic magazine cover story proclaimed ''Dan Quayle Was Right.'' Indeed.

According to a spokesman for the show, most viewers wanted the brassy Murphy out and about exemplifying modernity -- more politics and career, less mothering. As the novelty of the child wore off, scriptwriters wrote him into marginality. It is difficult, or at least disreputable, to treat real children that way, but let us not be judgmental.

Mr. Quayle, who came to Congress at age 29, says of turning 50, ''It's halftime for me. I'm going to have a great second half.'' For the next two years he will do what another politician planning a comeback did.

Peripatetic campaigner

After losing the 1960 presidential race and the 1962 California gubernatorial race, Richard Nixon became a peripatetic campaigner for Republicans everywhere, thereby building his base for the 1968 nomination. Mr. Quayle will spend the next two years campaigning for others, with the help of a seasoned prodigy, John Peschong, 35.

Mr. Peschong has been executive director of the Republican Party in California and this month will move here to run Mr. Quayle's political-action committee. Asked if Mr. Quayle can raise the $20 million needed to mount a serious presidential campaign, Mr. Peschong says, by way of saying ''yes,'' that in the 1995-96 election cycle the California party he directed raised $28 million.

Mr. Quayle considered running in 1996 but was dissuaded, in part by the adamant opposition of his daughter, who is now at Vanderbilt and no longer opposed. He plans to campaign in favor of a modified flat tax, and estate-tax reform. He notes that 70 percent of small businesses that fail after the death of the major shareholder fail because of estate taxes.

He also will stress defense against ballistic missiles, school choice and -- ''the biggest applause line when I speak'' -- ending lifetime jobs for judges.

His first speech in Congress endorsed congressional term limits and he believes that when the federal judiciary as well as the presidency is term-limited, the third branch of government will succumb.

Mr. Quayle was first elected to Congress in 1976, together with Al Gore and Dick Gephardt. He hopes that the 2000 campaign will be a class reunion.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/10/97

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