George Bush has little reason to take my advice. So it was no surprise that there was little reaction when I suggested he get rid of Dan Quayle. My argument, which appeared in this space after the August convention: Quayle was what pols call “a bleeder"--an open wound with so many problems that he would eventually drag the ticket down. Last week’s vice presidential debate opened another vein.
Quayle is now the Democrats’ top issue. Until the election, Bush will never be mentioned by the loyal opposition without Quayle. The Wednesday debate revealed to a national audience what Washington insiders have known for years: The kid’s a lightweight, a .200 hitter with a hole in his glove who made it to the major leagues because his family knew the team’s owners. Or, to switch to the sport of choice, a kid more comfortable with his hands around a 9-iron than the nuclear button.
Some examples from the debate. Given three opportunities to say what he would do if a tragedy propelled him into the presidency, the kid never could go beyond prayer and meeting advisers. Certainly in the event of a real President Quayle, prayers would be in order all around. But beyond that, any college student, perhaps profiting from the classes golfer Quayle played through, could have touched on the bases of power a new chief executive would need. Reassuring phone calls to U.S. allies, publicized meetings with the leaders of Congress and an address to a worried nation are just three early steps a vice president like Lyndon B. Johnson or Gerald R. Ford would, and did, take. But they were grown-ups.
Even my good friend Stu Spencer couldn’t program Quayle well enough to think on his feet. The kid looked like a windup Ken doll trying to remember what Barbie had told him. One thing someone should have warned him about was the opening he was giving the enemy by using his John F. Kennedy comparison. Quayle has been using the line for weeks and his programmers should have prepared him for trouble. Instead, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen could lay in wait to deliver the single most memorable line of the campaign, a response planned word for word.
“Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” has meaning for Democrats beyond a slashing one-liner. After being trounced in the last two elections by a Ronald Reagan quoting freely from Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and Kennedy to back his positions, the Democrats were putting Republicans on notice. They want their heroes back. Let the GOP use Herbert Hoover and Richard M. Nixon for support.
Maybe Republicans can also rely on Quayle’s grandmother and the advice Dan cited as having the most influence over his political philosophy. Her maxim--you can get whatever you want with the right attitude and hard work--is an uplifting if somewhat incomplete description of her grandson’s career. She really should add something about the value of family, especially a powerful one with a large trust fund, friends on the local draft board and connections in law school, state government and a few newspapers. These all helped boost the kid when his attitude sagged a little. Maybe grandma didn’t mention more because the kid already took for granted the kind of opportunities 240 million other Americans only read about.
Whatever granny may think, Quayle’s options for the next month of campaigning are limited. To the degree anyone running for the second-highest elected office in the land can be kept hidden, his handlers will hide Quayle. He will only be presented to pre-warmed Republican crowds, and he will not be shown anywhere near Bush for fear of haunting the vice president with the shadow of his first presidential decision.
Cries of “Where was George?” may soon give way to “Where is Dan?” The answer is similar. He’s being cared for and protected. As always.