Before Palin, Republicans had Quayle

Times Staff Writer

If anyone knows what it is like to be Sarah Palin right now, it is James Danforth Quayle.

“It sure sounded familiar,” Dan Quayle chuckled, his voice coming over the telephone line from Phoenix, 20 years and a lifetime away from the explosion of shock and negative news stories that greeted his ascension to the vice presidential nomination, as it has hers.

The parallels from two decades ago are eerie: The Republican nominee, older and distanced from the shock troops of his own party, threw aside caution to embrace an unlikely running mate. Just as Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was plucked from obscurity by John McCain, Indiana Sen. Quayle was delivered by George H.W. Bush.

Quayle, like Palin, was supposed to hook Bush to his party’s conservative wing, as skittish then about Bush as it is now about McCain. He was supposed to usher in a new generation of Republicans -- he was 41 to Palin’s 44 -- and the strategy was supposed to work particularly well in the industrial Midwest. He was supposed to splay the Democrats and their cultural elitism with his small-town authenticity, just as Palin is supposed to do now.


It worked well for about 10 seconds. He bounded onstage in New Orleans to accept Bush’s offer, kissed Barbara Bush, wiped off her lipstick, grabbed George H.W. Bush by the arm and started talking and sweating, as excitable as a new puppy. Things rapidly headed downhill.

As with Palin, few in the campaign hierarchy expected Quayle to be selected, so Bush supporters were unprepared to counter the tornado of stories that immediately swirled out.

Quayle, the first candidate of the Vietnam generation on a ticket, was accused of pulling strings with his prominent family to get into the National Guard. His educational credentials were questioned. His experience was debated -- although, with four years in the House and eight in the Senate and as an expert in Soviet missile systems as well as job training programs, he was a grizzled veteran compared with Palin.

He holds little affection for the news media, although even in the worst of times he had friendly relations with the reporters covering him.


“Normally, you build up and then tear down,” he said. “I never got the buildup. It never really was communicated or written about -- why George Bush picked me.”

He said it without audible rancor, for the 1988 campaign had a positive punch line. “The fact is: We won 40 states,” he said.

If the campaign was rough, his vice presidency was rougher, in terms of public opinion. His travel to 47 countries got less coverage than a series of gaffes, crowned by an episode during the 1992 campaign in which he incorrectly corrected a 12-year-old about the spelling of “potato.”

His advice for Palin is born of the internal pride on which he leaned in 1988.

“Just be yourself,” he recommended. “You got to where you are because of who you are. And he wanted you and you are there.”

Asked where he stands on one of the debates of the week -- whether Palin has the experience to be second-in-command -- Quayle offered a politic answer. “She will have a lot of knowledge by Jan. 20,” he said, referring to inauguration day. “She will not have practical experience on Jan. 20, but she will gain that starting on Day One.”

For all the late-night comics’ monologues Quayle has launched, you would expect a bitter man. But as he did in 1988, Quayle looks forward rather than backward.

He admits it was “very disappointing” when he had to bow out of the 2000 presidential race, which some thought might update perceptions of him. These days he is chairman of an international investment firm and living in Phoenix.


His children, preteens when they splashed into the public eye, are in their 30s, grown and successful. He has been married to Marilyn Tucker Quayle for 36 years and has two grandchildren. He still keeps in touch with the elder Bush.

“I had a good political career, and I have a good business career,” he said. “I didn’t get the brass ring. But I did very well.”

As for how he will be remembered?

“I just don’t pay any attention to it,” he said. “I know what I accomplished. I know who I am. I know what I want to accomplish.”