Fourty-fourth U.S. vice president John Danforth Quayle was a figure of mild controversy from the time he was announced as running mate through his 1989-1993 term with President George Bush. On the summer day in 1988 when Republican presidential nominee Bush declared his choice for a running mate, it was difficult to assess who was more surprised—the journalists covering the convention, Bush's advisors, or the junior senator from Indiana himself.
Quayle was a graduate of DePauw University and Indiana University Law School. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1976 with a campaign emphasizing conservative issues and was reelected in 1978. He was elected to the Senate in 1980, reelected in 1986, and was identified as a spokesman for the New Right wing of the conservative movement. He had married Marilyn Tucker in 1972 and was the father of three children.
Bush selected Quayle as a running mate for several reasons: it was thought that Quayle, who bore a slight resemblance to actor Robert Redford, might help Bush with the "gender gap" the polls were warning him about—Bush was far more popular among men than women; further, Quayle was politically to the right of the moderate Bush, and his selection might help to reassure conservative Republicans, who had never found Bush a kindred spirit; Quayle also provided the geographic balance that the ticket needed—Bush had roots in both the Northeast and Southwest, and believed that some connection to the Midwest would be helpful in the election; in addition, Quayle was part of the "baby boomer" generation, and Bush advisor Lee Atwater was convinced that this group would prove crucial to the campaign.
Upon being introduced as Bush's choice for a running mate, Quayle was immediately the subject of a media feeding frenzy. As with most modern conventions, the Republican National Convention of 1988 was dull; Bush's nomination had been a foregone conclusion for months, leaving the assembled journalists with little of consequence to cover—until Bush gave them Dan Quayle. The Indiana senator was not well known outside his home state, but the reporters made up for lost time quickly. Quayle's life and record were under the national media microscope within hours, and it did not take long for the blemishes to appear.
There was Quayle's academic record, for example. Professors at DePauw remembered Quayle as an indifferent student, more interested in golf and fraternity life than his political science courses. There was also a story about a golfing trip that Quayle had taken to Florida a few years earlier. He had stayed at a rented house with two other men and Paula Parkinson, a beautiful Washington lobbyist of reputedly easy virtue. But most damaging was the account of Quayle's military service. A strong supporter of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Quayle had nonetheless joined the Indiana National Guard instead of a unit more likely to see combat. Further, some said that Quayle's influential family had pulled strings to get him into the guard ahead of other applicants.
Unused to the national spotlight, Quayle became flustered easily and tended to be sloppy about details, sometimes contradicting himself from one interview to the next. Bush's staff helped Quayle work out acceptable answers to the questions about his grades, marital fidelity, and patriotism, but considerable damage had already been done to the young senator's credibility. Many people, both in the news media and among the public, had developed the impression that Quayle was an intellectual lightweight who had benefited greatly from his family's money and connections. Privately, there were some in the Bush camp who shared that assessment, but Bush's choice had been made, so damage control became the order of the day. It was decided that Quayle would spend most of the campaign in small towns, away from the major media markets and among audiences who shared his conservative values. This strategy worked well, but it could not protect Quayle from the national exposure of a debate between himself and the Democrats' vice presidential candidate, Senator Lloyd Bentsen of Texas. Quayle worked hard in preparation for the debate, and he committed no major gaffes, but he appeared nervous, and did, at one point, give Bentsen an opening for a devastating retort. In response to a question about his limited experience in the U.S. Senate, Quayle compared his term of service with John F. Kennedy's. Bentsen, in response, shook his head, saying, "I knew Jack Kennedy. I served with him in the Senate. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine." Then, with a scornful look at Quayle, he concluded, "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."
Quayle may be said to have had the last laugh, since he and Bush were elected. But, election results notwithstanding, Quayle had become a national joke. He was a favorite topic in the nightly monologues delivered by Johnny Carson, David Letterman, and others (example: "Have you heard about the new Dan Quayle savings bond? It has no interest and no maturity"). Unfortunately for Quayle, he was often his own worst enemy. While it must be admitted that a mistake by Quayle received more media attention than a slip by other public figures, Quayle managed to misspeak on a regular basis. It was even possible to buy videotapes containing footage of the vice president's flubs.
During the 1992 campaign, Quayle staked out a position on the "family values" issue by publicly criticizing the TV series Murphy Brown, in which the lead character, played by Candice Bergen, had a baby out of wedlock. "Fathers are important," Quayle declared, "and shows like Murphy Brown are sending the wrong message." But Quayle's ethos was such that few were inclined to take him seriously. A few nights later, David Letterman described the controversy, then sneered to the camera, "Vice President Quayle, sir, Murphy Brown is a fictional character!" When the new season of Murphy Brown began a few months later, the entire first episode was devoted to making fun of Quayle.
As the 1992 political race became tighter, Bush considered asking Quayle to step down but decided against it for fear of appearing unappreciative of Quayle's loyalty. The Bush-Quayle ticket lost to Clinton-Gore, and Quayle disappeared from the limelight. He continued to act as a spokesman for conservative issues and published his book Standing Firm in 1994. In the late 1990s, Quayle indicated a desire to run for president in the 2000 election.
Goldman, Peter, and Tom Mathews. The Quest for the Presidency 1988. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1989.
Quayle, Dan. Standing Firm: A Vice-Presidential Memoir. New York, Harper Collins Publishers, 1994.
Queenan, Joe. Imperial Caddy: The Rise of Dan Quayle in America and the Decline and Fall of Practically Everything Else. New York, Hyperion, 1992.
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