Quayle Running Against His Own Image


When the history of presidential politics is written, the laugh’s on Dan Quayle.

At least in New Hampshire.

A quiz prepared for each and every fourth-grader in the Granite State, part of the curriculum celebrating New Hampshire’s lead primary, asks this question: “Do you know the name of the senator from Indiana [that George Bush] chose to be vice president?” The clue: “Potato.”

Talk about your school of hard knocks.

Now Dan Quayle is bidding for the White House, for redemption and, no less, for respect in that uphill fight. He has a resume that easily outshines the competition, the kind of instant recognition most candidates can’t begin to match and the satisfaction of outlasting that famous single mom, TV’s Murphy Brown.


Unfortunately, he also has something of an image problem, to vastly understate the case, and that may be the cruelest Quayle joke of all: Even those who know better are swayed more by perception than reality.

The former vice president is no Rhodes scholar. Nor is he the hapless dolt of wide repute. Intimates insist Quayle is plenty smart enough to be president. “A gifted person” and no more pratfall-prone than any other politician, said former political colleague Rich Bond. “It’s just he had a lot more attention being paid when his gaffes occurred.” (The most famous, perhaps, was making a mash of the word “potato” at an elementary school spelling bee.)

And yet, while many old allies agree philosophically with Quayle, like him personally, admire his character, defend his intelligence, when it comes to voting for the guy, well . . .

“There’s no doubt in my mind that Dan Quayle has what it takes to be president,” said Briane House, a past supporter from Quayle’s old home state of Indiana. “But I think 2000 is a year when Republicans need to pull out all the stops they need to win.”

And so House is backing Texas Gov. George W. Bush, but not without first absolving Quayle of any blame for his predicament. “He’s just been hit so hard,” House said. “It will be very difficult for him to be viewed in an appropriate context on the national scene.”

Thus, it sometimes seems as if Quayle is not so much running for president as running from the past. “It’s this thing, ‘Well, I don’t know whether he can be elected,’ ” says Quayle, who is mired near the bottom of the 10-candidate field in both polls and campaign cash. “Because there’s no question about my experience, there’s no question about my qualifications, there’s no question about my preparation.

“The last question is electability, and I will not be able to bring finality to that question until we win a primary. Once we win a primary, then it’s answered.”

Which presents this chicken-egg quandary: Quayle needs to win--and win early--to dispel doubts about his electability. But how do you win when so many people have doubts?

“The two are inextricably linked,” said Marshall Wittmann, a political analyst at Washington’s conservative Heritage Foundation. “If he’s successful, he wipes away the image. But he can only wipe away that image by achieving success.”

Once, Quayle commanded legions of Republican faithful in the early skirmishes of the nation’s culture war, taking on libertine lifestyles and Hollywood’s louche morals. Now other presidential candidates battle alongside, fighting for “family values” and contentious causes Quayle has championed--others with a lot more money, in the case of Steve Forbes, and a lot less baggage, in the case of everyone else.

History matters little in these most pragmatic times. “A lot of social conservatives I know like what he says,” said Marvin Olasky, a Bush backer and editor of World, a Christian-oriented newsweekly. “They say the knock on him as dumb is not fair at all. But that’s the reputation he has, and it’s not easy to shake.”

To retrieve Quayle’s old reputation, one has to go back 11 summers, back when he was the wunderkind of Indiana politics, a respected member of the U.S. Senate and a rising Republican star. Today, after all the gaffes and all the laughs, it is hard to think of Quayle’s selection as vice presidential running mate as anything but a monumental goof by the elder George Bush.

But there was a case for choosing Quayle, a skilled campaigner who bested incumbent Democrats to first win a House seat, then move to the Senate. A baby boomer, he was expert in arms control and job retraining, two issues of growing import as the Cold War ebbed. Moreover, Quayle boasted strong ties to the Republican right, which then-Vice President Bush sorely lacked. His selection “seemed very well reasoned at the time,” said Bond, who helped run Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign.

That reasoning was lost, however, the moment Quayle--acting like a hopped-up sweepstakes winner--made his arm-flapping debut on national television. He was immediately consumed in controversy over his Vietnam War-era National Guard service, and soon his image as a tongue-tied, pratfall-prone bumbler was irretrievably cast. Quayle “got a very raw deal,” Bond now believes, citing the utter lack of preparation Quayle got before being shoved into the national spotlight. “We let Dan Quayle down.”

Quayle, for his part, allows that he might have been better off staying put in the Senate. No regrets, he insisted. But, “Yes, I’d like to have that introduction done over.”

Today, at age 52, Quayle appears strikingly different from the smooth-faced naif who bounded onto the stage--and into stand-up comedy hell--at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans.

He is still handsome, but in a roughhewn way. Deep crow’s feet edge his blue eyes; his sandy-blond hair is fringed with gray and slightly thinning up top. He carries a slight paunch, a result of his weakness for Dairy Queen sundaes and chocolate doughnuts at breakfast.

Working a room, he is deft with a touch on the elbow here, a slap on the back there, as facile campaigning in small settings as he is before convention-size crowds. For all the slings and arrows, he seems almost preternaturally good-natured; set upon by a group of drunken revelers at dinner in Des Moines (“Hey, Dan, good luck, man!”) he weathers their boozy blandishments and inevitable potato jokes with admirable grace and aplomb.

“He’s extremely thick-skinned and a good sport,” says no less an authority than Jay Leno of “The Tonight Show,” who has used Quayle like a whetstone for his wicked wit. “Unfortunately, once you’re saddled with something, it’s tough to shake.”

To many Republicans, however, Quayle remains a hero, a martyr even. If anything, they view his battered reputation as the selfless price he paid in meritorious service of their conservative ideals.

Many Republicans believe Quayle missed his best shot at the nomination by skipping the 1996 race (he cited family reasons) and blew his best chance at redemption by failing to run for Indiana governor once he passed on the presidential contest.

“Dan would have showed his electability and established an executive record of his own,” said Ken Khachigian, who was a Quayle advisor in the 1988 campaign. “What’s missing here is running something by himself, and being governor of Indiana would have gone a long way toward filling that gap.”

Quayle, who has since moved his political base to Arizona, understands that thinking. He frankly admits, however, that after being vice president, “to go back and argue with highway contractors and the state Legislature . . . was something I just didn’t have my heart in.”

Which leaves an obvious question about Quayle’s presidential bid, given the long odds, meager crowds and his paltry fund-raising: Is he seeking to win the White House or simply achieve a kinder judgment from history by waging a respectable valedictory effort?

“I can see how people say that,” Quayle replies. “But I wouldn’t be campaigning five, six, seven days a week, 16 hours a day if I didn’t think I could win. You don’t do that just to reestablish yourself and say, ‘See, I was a lot better than you thought.’ ”