In response to Jonah Goldberg’s Op-Ed on Tuesday, “The wisdom of Dan Quayle": What? It’s been 20 years since the Murphy Brown-Dan Quayle feud, and we’re still talking about this?
I suppose I should be flattered. And not surprised. After all, we’re still talking about glass ceilings and Roe vs. Wade and what constitutes “legitimate rape.”
But because history, like a hit television series, repeats itself, let’s revisit 1992.
For those of you too young to remember (or too old to recall), Quayle was President George H.W. Bush’s vice president. In 1988, he was selected by the Bush camp as running mate because of his youth, his good looks and his conservative values. My show, “Murphy Brown,” debuted just as this new administration was settling into the White House.
It quickly became apparent that Quayle was a comedy writer’s dream. He was the Sarah Palin of his time, minus the wit. His nonstop malapropisms were gifts from the comedy gods. For instance, in attempting to quote the United Negro College Fund’s famous slogan, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” the veep said: “What a waste it is to lose one’s mind. Or not to have a mind is being very wasteful. How true that is.” I’m not making this up. For more of this, just Google “Dan Quayle quotes."
This would all have been very amusing had it not been so frightening. Quayle was a heartbeat away from the presidency, and so I decided to include a Dan Quayle joke in every episode of “Murphy Brown.” After four years of statements like “I love California; I practically grew up in Phoenix,” it was like shooting fish in a barrel.
In the third season of “Murphy Brown,” Murphy became pregnant after a one-night stand with her ex-husband. The point was that even an educated, well-off famous person could make a mistake. Murphy’s dilemma was clear: have the baby or have an abortion. In a particularly sensitive episode, Murphy agonized over her decision. So did the father. But in the end, he made it clear that his mission as a globe-hopping environmental activist trumped fatherhood. Murphy was on her own.
On May 18, 1992, Murphy Brown gave birth to a baby boy, and the millions of Americans who watched made it the No. 1-rated sitcom episode of the week. A day later, Quayle was making a campaign speech at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco. He was well on his way toward making an important statement about the serious responsibility of childbearing and its impact on society when suddenly, he took a hard right turn and squared off against his longtime fictional nemesis by saying that Murphy was “mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it ‘just another lifestyle choice.’ ” Hardly!
Judging by his wildly off-base remark, the vice president had not seen the episode. I was told his staff tried to get him to delete the sentence from his speech. They had followed the fourth season and watched the final episode and knew there was nothing trivial about Murphy’s choice. But Quayle was loaded for bear. And he sensed that by taking aim at one of America’s most popular characters, he was sure to call attention to his message promoting “family values."
As we all know, the tactic failed. Asked at the time to comment, I said that if the vice president thought a woman was incapable of adequately raising a child without a father, he ought to make sure that abortion remained safe and legal. That was the tipping point in a debate that raged on throughout the summer, pitting liberal ideas of an ever-evolving notion of family against the traditional concept of mom, dad and 2.5 kids.
Whenever President Bush appeared before the media, he was asked about Murphy Brown’s baby. Quayle was boxed in by his own anti-choice views. Why condemn Murphy for having the baby? What was her alternative? Abortion? Women who loved and identified with Murphy could feel the disingenuousness. Family values? Whose family were they talking about? Why was the whitest man in America lecturing black people on the disintegration of the family unit when half of all white marriages were failing? Why did his speech not address the underlying issues of poverty, lack of opportunity and underfunded schools? Why was the GOP waging an unrelenting attack on organizations like Planned Parenthood that tried to prevent unplanned pregnancies in the first place?
After 12 years of Reagan-Bush “trickle down” economics, two Americas emerged -- one living in a split level with a white picket fence, and the other living in its car. The rich got richer and the poor got blamed for the fall of Western civilization. The poor and Murphy Brown.
And Quayle’s response? “I am not part of the problem. I am a Republican.”
Diane English was the creator and executive producer of “Murphy Brown.”