The resurrection of Mr. 'Potatoe' Head Quayle spells trouble for the English language

July 26, 1998|By Andrew Marshall

WASHINGTON - Politics is a little dull in America at the moment, but help is at hand. J. Danforth Quayle, the former vice president, is emerging from the shadows to get his campaign for president on the road.

The man who taught American students how to spell "potatoe" is back in the saddle again.

Quayle has a serious chance of winning the Republican nomination for the presidency in the 2000 election. He was, after all, a congressman at 29 and a senator at 33, as well as vice president. He is a favorite of many conservatives, especially on the religious right, and he scores well in opinion polls.

But what will count against Quayle, inevitably, is his startling verbal track record.

It is not just the word "potato" that he has managed to mangle. In the annals of American politics, Quayle has delivered some of the most astonishing sentences and paragraphs.

His legendary ability with language comes close to brilliance, producing quotations that are a parody of the pol-speak that every American politician must learn.

He has come up with little gems that echo the empty rhetoric of his colleagues, but with far greater simplicity. "If we do not succeed," he said once, "we run the risk of failure."

Sometimes, his utterances have been near misses at important truths. "I believe we are on an irreversible trend towards more freedom and democracy - but that could change," he said on another occasion.

At times, it is hard to divine what exactly is going on in his head. As he himself once said, "Verbosity leads to unclear, inarticulate things."

Or, even more riveting: "What a waste it is to lose one's mind. Or not to have a mind is being very wasteful. How true that is."

Lest we believe that this habit has been exorcised in the years away from the spotlight, Quayle popped up on television recently to demonstrate his insight into the political process.

"Let me just be very clear that the Republican Party will select a nominee that will beat Bill Clinton," he said. This is an admirable aspiration. But Clinton, sadly, is prohibited by the Constitution from running in the next election.

An opinion poll in May by CNN, USA Today and Gallup showed Quayle as one of the top four possibles alongside the Texas governor, George W. Bush (son of the former president), Elizabeth Dole (wife of former candidate Bob Dole) and Jack Kemp, another former candidate.

Quayle is discreetly putting his hat in the ring. He has a political action committee gathering funds, Campaign America, based in Arizona.

He recently made a campaign swing through Iowa, a key state, using the opportunity to take a poke at Bill Clinton and his team, which he called "the most scandal-plagued administration in the history of our republic."

He is quietly recruiting friends and associates to work on his campaign, which is likely to gather steam in the next few months.

He is distancing himself from his one-time patron, George Bush, and will put himself forward as an anti-establishment candidate - an odd position for a man who has spent most of his adult life in Washington.

The front-runner for the Republican candidacy at the moment is George W. Bush, who is, by the standards of the Republican Party in 1998, a relative moderate.

Other candidates will try to snatch the support of the religious right, but none has Quayle's name recognition, and few have his fund-raising potential and contacts.

The jokes about him will not exactly help, but Quayle has become better at deflecting them and even capitalizing on his image.

"How can you shake this image that you had during your vice presidency as sort of a bumbling vice president who couldn't spell?" he was asked on a recent television show.

"I'll tell you what," he replied. "I'll let all the perfect spellers support Al Gore and those who have trouble spelling should support me." On that basis, he could be on for a landslide victory.

Andrew Marshall wrote this article for The Independent, London, where it first appeared.

Pub Date: 7/26/98

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