• U.S.

Dan Quayle vs. Murphy Brown

3 minute read

IF FOR NOTHING ELSE, DAN QUAYLE DESERVES POINTS for audacity. In modern America taking on a popular TV character, even a fictional one, is politically more precarious than taking a clear stand on a substantive campaign issue. And yet the Vice President dared to argue last week in a San Francisco speech that the Los Angeles riots were caused in part by a “poverty of values” that included the acceptance of unwed motherhood, as celebrated in popular culture by the CBS comedy series Murphy Brown. The title character, a divorced news anchorwoman, got pregnant and chose to have the baby, a boy, who was delivered on last Monday’s episode, watched by 38 million Americans. “It doesn’t help matters,” Quayle complained, when Brown, “a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid professional woman” is portrayed as “mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another ‘life-style choice.’ “

Quayle, aides explained, meant to “stir a debate” over “family values” and Hollywood’s treatment of them. And so he did. A New York Daily News headline set the tone: QUAYLE TO MURPHY BROWN: YOU TRAMP! Switchboards at the White House and on TV and radio talk shows lit up with callers, pro and con. Carl Rowan, a liberal black columnist, sided with Quayle, while Hillary Clinton, wife of the Democratic presidential contender, panned him as typical of “an Administration out of touch with America” and its growing ranks of single mothers.

Other critics suspected that the Vice President’s remarks fit into a calculated strategy to suggest that L.A.’s rioters, who were mostly black and Hispanic, have in common with feminists and other Democrats a shoddier moral standard than nice people (who therefore should vote Republican). But Quayle denied any such intention, and the subsequent flip-flopping by the White House looked anything but calculated. Press secretary Marlin Fitzwater at first criticized Murphy Brown for “the glorification of life as an unwed mother,” then later told reporters that the TV character was “demonstrating pro-life values which we think are good.” That in turn brought an angry denial from Quayle, who, in some backpedaling of his own, insisted that he had “the greatest respect” for single mothers.

President Bush, who can read a Nielsen rating as well as an opinion poll, declined to criticize “a very popular television show.” He praised Quayle’s speech in a private call to the Vice President, but failed to adopt the message as his own. Throughout the improbable spectacle of a White House pitted against a sitcom character and her real-life defenders, there was a serious undercurrent. The growth in fatherless families, after all, is encouraged less by television than by welfare policies that punish poor mothers who marry — policies that Bush and Quayle should change if they are serious about this subject.

(See related stories beginning on page 28.)

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