Quayle Strikes Back at the Media : STANDING FIRM: A Vice-Presidential Memoir, <i> By Dan Quayle (HarperCollins: $25; 336 pp.)</i>
Dan Qayle’s “Standing Firm” is a fine memoir: briskly written, closely argued, nuanced and persuasive. But reactions from the Beltway have been harsh. The politicos have damned Quayle for underscoring former HUD Secretary Jack Kemp’s grandstanding and occasional public breaks from the Reagan Administration; and for hammering former Secretary of State James Baker for his handling of both Quayle’s selection in 1988 and the entire Bush campaign. And there has been hand-wringing over Quayle’s perceived play toward the Christian right. The former criticisms elevate some asides in the text to an undeserved prominence. The latter’s just plain wrong.
Quayle has, first and foremost, delivered a devastating indictment of journalism. It has teeth. It scores. It cannot, in fact, be answered. And in Round 1 of reactions to “Standing Firm,” that indictment has been ignored. This happens to arguments that cannot be answered.
Journalists, to an extent far beyond any other profession, suffer from a conceit about who they are and what they do. It is bred in their bones. They believe themselves to be gatekeepers, to be the elect, and the collective ego of the profession can only be compared to the hierarchy of the medieval church. They are the anointed, and it is their job to speak, yours to listen.
This attitude condemned Quayle overnight, following his selection as Bush’s running mate, and the machinery of the media then organized itself to confirm the initial snap judgment. Others could gaffe away, including Al Gore, who, without repercussion, once commented that a leopard could not change its stripes. The media’s cheat sheet had judged Gore to be serious and thoughtful. Slips of the tongue could be ignored. And they should be--no public figure can avoid a stumble here or there.
But for Quayle there would be no quarter given. The media coverage of the vice president was more akin to surveillance. And when that surveillance yielded sound bytes supportive of the orthodox view, the gang retailed the clip over a thousand outlets.
To have spoken against this tide would have been courageous. And it would have been right. But courage and ethics are not much in evidence among the exclusive club of opinion makers. Quayle’s reputation was a sacrifice to this abandonment of independence.
It’s likely that some of the commentators didn’t read the book, and went on the air with a quick glance at the excerpts. That is standard operating procedure for folks from whom half-baked opinions are demanded on a weekly basis.
But a larger share appear to have latched on to the trivia in order to avoid responding to the argument Quayle makes with a steady and finally overwhelming array of examples: The country’s opinion aristocracy has become untethered from traditional notions of the media’s role and its standards. This nation’s media elite has abandoned the old virtues of journalism; including objectivity, fairness, balance, context and--critically--any sense of relative import.
Although Quayle does lay out cold some of his colleagues from the Bush campaign and the GOP, the biggest hits are not on other possible contenders for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996. Quayle instead strafes the growing legion of political apparatchiks, including consultants, pollsters and PR spinners. “They (have) no ideology,” Quayle comments. “Their loyalty is to themselves.” The list of names that comes up for evaluation here is a who’s who of opinion page experts.
And, necessarily, Quayle does provide an estimate of the talent of the GOP’s first string. The surprise is not that he found some to be incapable of delivering advice inconsistent with their own personal ambitions, but that so many potential rivals are given their due, including Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Pete Wilson and Bill Bennett. Quayle’s most complete portrait is of former Office of Management and Budget head Dick Darman. Quayle concludes that, on balance, Darman’s strengths and contributions far outweighed his faults, a treatment that should stun the conservative faithful for whom denunciations of Darman are now the equivalent of Cato’s call for the destruction of Carthage.
The political history that Quayle provides of the Bush years does add some critical insights, such as the account of the December 1988 meeting, in which the future Secretary of the Treasury, Nick Brady, campaign pollster Bob Teeter, James Baker and Quayle met with the president-elect to discuss deficit policy. Teeters’ contribution, that Bush would “probably be going to have to raise taxes,” is for Quayle the first signal of the 1990 budget “deal” that would sink George Bush’s reelection.
And Quayle’s thoughtful reconsideration of the defeat of John Tower’s nomination for Secretary of Defense is a crucial opportunity to reflect on what might have been had Tower not been denied.
But Quayle’s lasting contribution to the political literature is in the recounting of his four-year battle with the press. He does not grant his own record immunity. Every one of his gaffes is recounted in unsparing detail, including the “defining moment,” as Lee Atwater would have called it, involving the potato(e). Quayle understood, it seems, that to critique the media would require an unflinching review of his own deposits in the media’s vast reserves of anti-Quayle lore.
And he practices a useful restraint. Where intelligence, balance and perspective were employed by one of the media’s leading players, Quayle acknowledges the performance. He recounts, for example, Dan Rather’s “grasp of issues” on the eve of Desert Storm: “Rather threw all of his political acumen into this conversation, raising possibility after possibility and I left glad that Saddam Hussein hadn’t been able to overhear it, because had he followed Rather’s line of reasoning he might have come closer to outfoxing us.”
In fact, unvarnished contempt for the ethics of individual journalists is rare in this memoir. Certainly the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd--"who’s earned a reputation as the Princess of Creative Journalism . . . doesn’t let the facts get in her way . . . "--will find the book bracing, as will Sam Donaldson, Strobe Talbott, Jane Pauley and Bryant Gumbel, among others.
But Quayle’s argument is not so much founded on the by-now cliched assertion that the elite media is “liberal.” Quayle levels far more serious charges: that media folks are lazy and, crucially, self-interested.
At the highest level of the media food chain, Quayle posits, there is an orthodoxy, a set of assumptions about people and policy, and to break with that orthodoxy is to risk exile from the initiated’s ranks. Unfortunately, orthodoxy forms quickly. The media’s theology on Quayle was arguably cemented in place within 72 hours of his selection as Bush’s running mate.
Throughout the Bush years, very few of the opinion aristocracy were willing to break with the pack with regards to Quayle’s reputation. Three who did, Michael Barone of U.S. News & World Report, and the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and David Broder, stood on such secure ground that they could afford to enter dissents to the otherwise solid wall of contempt for Quayle erected by our opinion barons. When Woodward and Broder committed themselves to an objective inquiry “to find out if Dan Quayle was qualified to be President and they answered yes,” they did so on the reality of his centrality to the Administration and his substantial achievements in forums as varied as the Space Council and the regulatory watchdog unit run by the Veep--the Competitiveness Council. But their evolving evaluation of Quayle was ignored. The vast majority of opinion purveyors “had invested too much of themselves in the caricature,” comments Quayle, and “to change it now would have called into question their credibility.”
Perhaps Quayle is correct. Certainly he’s right that the media’s opinion of him could not be changed. But I doubt the issue was one of concern over credibility. I believe it was rather an overwhelming concern for their status within their peer group. Only the most secure could cross the room and admit that Quayle had been the victim of a thorough bias. The vast majority huddled together, secure in their giggles.
“He’s the guy who tapped the keg,” said one media friend of mine, in disbelief, on learning that I had found Quayle’s book to be compelling reading. “You don’t believe he wrote it, do you?” Well, to the extent that any celebrity politician “writes” a book, yes, I do. I give Quayle the same credit for “writing” this book as I do Gore for his “Earth in the Balance,” or Mario Cuomo for his diaries. The same standard ought to apply.
It is neither productive nor relevant to use “Standing Firm” as a platform from which to speculate about who’s up and who’s down in the race for the Republican nomination in ’96. The book is, first and most importantly, an indictment of the elite media. It should be read for that reason alone.
The book will not dent the opinion industry. As the chattering class has already demonstrated, Quayle’s principal and principled arguments will not even be discussed. But the reading public ought to turn off the background noise long enough to judge Quayle and his book on their own merits, which are considerable. To do otherwise is to be led, and by a group of folks who may command attention, but cannot command respect.