• U.S.

The Tory Texan and the Indiana Kid

6 minute read
Alessandra Stanley with Quayle

Politicians are suckers for the Schwab’s drugstore myth. So when George Bush plucked Dan Quayle from obscurity and made him his running mate, he no doubt thought he had discovered a raw young talent who could be molded into a Lana Turner sensation, a blue-eyed Everyboy who could appeal to conservatives, baby boomers and women alike. But Quayle may turn out to be the Marion Davies of the 1988 campaign; like the young, little-known comedienne William Randolph Hearst tried to impose on the public as a Hollywood glamour queen, Quayle does not fit the grandiose role that has been foisted upon him.

Generational themes are becoming as rare for Quayle as impromptu public remarks. Nowadays Quayle mainly echoes Bush’s assaults on Dukakis, playing to the hard-core conservatives who make up the Republicans’ base. Bush aides claim that rallying the party faithful is all they ever expected out of the Indiana Senator. “When you judge him,” Bush adviser Rich Bond told reporters, “all I ask for is some perspective on what is the traditional role of a vice-presidential nominee.”

Quayle’s role has been anything but “traditional.” Protest signs reading VERY PRETTY, BUT CAN HE TYPE? are almost as common along the Quayle trail as those reading CHICKEN HAWK. His wife Marilyn, a lifelong Quayle handler, told reporters her husband tries to reread Plato’s Republic once a year. She sounded like one of the oldtime MGM publicity men who, whenever a starlet got into trouble, churned out a press release announcing her enrollment in correspondence courses at the Sorbonne. Ridicule is as contagious in politics as it is in show business: even a few Bush aides privately call Quayle the blond bombshell. He needs a chance to show some gravitas. Quayle is not exaggerating when he describes his debate with Bentsen as “the most important event in my political life.”

The public loves an underdog, but Quayle does not quite fit that description. He gained sympathy from the remorseless media hazing he underwent immediately after it was revealed that he pulled family strings when seeking a spot in the Indiana National Guard during the Viet Nam War. That fact, coupled with his shoddy college record and shortcut into Indiana University law school, underscored his image as a coddled son of privilege. Even after eight years on the Armed Services Committee, he still mainly comes across as an avid golfer and fun-loving Deke. The large enthusiastic crowds that show up at his ; rallies are not rooting for Quayle so much as showing loyalty for Bush.

But Quayle is not as vacuous as his critics and some of his odder statements (“I’m not a yuppie, I’m a Senator”) suggest. He is knowledgeable about weapons systems and deserves praise for his work on the Job Training Partnership Act. His problem is that he has not figured out his limitations or how to overcome them, a process he is now conducting in the glare of the campaign. He is sunnily self-confident and accustomed to the leeway accorded good-looking, engaging men. At the G.O.P. convention, when Republicans were debating whether to dump him from the ticket, Quayle wanted to wing his acceptance speech without a text or TelePrompTer. “Good Senators,” he explained, “don’t speak from prepared texts.” He was overruled.

In the first days after the convention, Quayle was so gung-ho that his cautious advisers often looked like dog walkers being pulled along by an overexcited puppy straining on a leash. Quayle no longer strays from his carefully crafted texts. His exuberant gestures have grown more stately. Privately, Quayle remains irrepressibly boyish. While visiting a NASA installation in Louisiana, he pointed to a gigantic external fuel tank for the shuttle and said, “I can now say I’ve been around a bigger tank than the one that Michael Dukakis drives.” He bounded onto the staff bus and jauntily informed his aides, “I just wanted to show you I could do a joke on my own.”

Quayle prefers to speak off the cuff. When he goes before small groups and on topics he knows well, his handlers indulge him. They are a patient lot. Talking to young, mainly Hispanic Job Corps students in Amarillo, Texas, Quayle tried for an inspirational touch and came off like a LifeSpring instructor. “Don’t forget the importance of the family. It begins with the family. We’re not going to redefine the family. Everybody knows the definition of the family.” He paused meaningfully. “A child.” He paused. “A mother.” Another pause. “A father.” Perhaps realizing that many in his audience came from broken homes, he rushed to conclusion. “There are other arrangements of the family, but that is a family and family values.”

Under pressure, Quayle seems to register only two emotions, fear and pleasure. When his boyhood hero Barry Goldwater crabbily turned on him at an Arizona stop and growled, “I want you to go back and tell George Bush to start talking about the issues,” Quayle flushed, and a helpless look of panic flashed across his eyes. Finally, with a nervous laugh, Quayle answered, “I wish Barry would just say what’s on his mind.”

The deer-caught-in-the-headlights look, more than his careless phrases, has marred his encounters with the press. Since reporters, like attack dogs, lunge at the first hint of fear, Quayle’s handlers wisely keep him as far as possible from the baying press corps. Quayle “sightings” are so rare that TV crews on his plane call him Elvis. The good-natured Quayle laughed when he was told.

Quayle is likable. He mingled easily in the cushy, cozy club-car politics of Capitol Hill. Even Lloyd Bentsen used to play tennis with him now and again. But affability goes only so far. Although there is no entrance exam for Vice Presidents, Quayle does not demonstrate the expected seriousness of purpose. As he prepares for Wednesday’s debate and tries to gain enough stature to avoid remaining a drag on the ticket, time is running out. And perhaps for the first time in his life, all the friends and string pullers in the world cannot help him.

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DESCRIPTION: Percentage of voters more inclined or less inclined to vote for Republican ticket because of Dan Quayle.

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