Well, I guess now we know who John Kennedy is. And who he isn’t.
Dan Quayle he isn’t. No way. Don’t make me laugh. Dan Quayle isn’t John Kennedy now and he never will be.
But, then again, Lloyd Bentsen doesn’t seem to be John Kennedy either. Nor does George Bush. Nor Mike Dukakis.
In fact, we don’t seem to have a John Kennedy out there. Not running for president or vice president anyway.
And if you want to get right down to it, if John Kennedy were alive today he probably wouldn’t be John Kennedy either.
By that I mean he probably would not be elected president in this day and age. He probably would not get his party’s nomination.
Not in an era when reporters stake out the candidates’ homes and examine their private lives under electron microscopes, he wouldn’t.
No, John Kennedy, assassinated 25 years ago next month, was a man for his times. And those times are long gone.
So when the TV stations play and replay what has become the sound bite from the vice presidential debate held here Wednesday night, it is important to remember we are dealing not just with history, but with myth.
John Kennedy is a martyr and therefore immune to ordinary criticism. His record in Congress was not all that spectacular, truth be told. But to invoke his name, especially to invoke his name in comparison with your own, is to invoke the wrath of those who see themselves as keepers of his flame.
So Dan Quayle took it in the chops when he mentioned, with technical accuracy, he has as much congressional experience now as John Kennedy did when he ran for President.
But accuracy was not the point. And Lloyd Bentsen fixed him with a steely stare.
Lloyd Bentsen knew John Kennedy, he said. Served with him. Was his friend. And, by gum and by golly, Dan Quayle is no John Kennedy!
And that got roars from the crowd and earned Bentsen a place in debate history.
But it also begged the question: Which of these guys is John Kennedy?
And we all know the answer to that.
But give Bentsen the best of the exchange. It was dramatic and he won that round. But in the end, I think, he lost the fight.
That’s because the entire thrust of the Democratic attack on Quayle is that there is no way any sane American would want him to become President.
He is too inexperienced, they say, too callow, too shallow, and if you force them to come right out and say it, too dumb.
This guy could not spell cat even if you spot him the C and the A, the Democrats will tell you.
But did Quayle appear that way on national TV? Or did he stand toe-to-toe with Bentsen and bash Bentsen about his Breakfast Club and his PAC money and his differences with his own running mate?
And when Dukakis campaign chairman Susan Estrich came into the press room after the debate wearing a large blue button that asked “President Quayle?,” the joke fell just a little flat.
The idea behind the button is that the thought of a Quayle presidency is so frightening that some voters will be scared into voting for Mike Dukakis.
Except that Quayle really didn’t seem scary enough. Not during the debate. Not to me. Yes, he doesn’t know exactly the first things he would do if George Bush died and he became President.
“I would pray,” he said, “for myself and the country.”
And if he really did become President, I probably would pray, too. But I don’t think the thought is as terrifying as the Democrats hoped it would be.
What America saw during the debate was a brash young man. Not a genius. But not a blithering idiot, either.
What I saw was a supremely confident young man. One who was enjoying himself up there. And one who believes that in some future debate, maybe 25 years from now, one candidate may turn to the other and growl:
“And just remember, senator, you’re no Dan Quayle!”