DAN QUAYLE GETS SERIOUS
Mar 1, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 23 • By TUCKER CARLSON
There is nothing in the world more jaded than a New Hampshire Rotarian, so by the time Dan Quayle steps down from the podium after a speech to the Manchester Rotary Club most of the audience is already on its way out the door. A few linger for grip and grin photo-ops. The rest seem to realize this won't be their last chance to get a picture with Quayle. Within a few minutes all that remains is a knot of reporters. Pressing in against the former vice president, notebooks out, they bark questions, many of which turn out to be variations of the same question: Are you serious about running for president?
Quayle smiles. He's been expecting this one. "I'm totally focused on this campaign," he says. How focused? Well, says Quayle, "I've basically quit playing golf." The reporters scribble. Quayle's announcement may not make for a compelling campaign slogan -- Dan Quayle: He Gave Up Golf For You -- but it isn't meaningless either. Quayle spent much of his childhood living on the 11th hole of a country club course in Scottsdale, Arizona, went on to become captain of his college team (his teammate and friend at DePauw University, Mark Rolfing, is now a golf announcer for NBC), and continued to play passionately, often several times a week, throughout his career in politics. And he almost always played very well. Even during the darkest days of his vice presidency -- when an entire magazine, the Quayle Quarterly, was founded simply to tell jokes about him -- Quayle received respectful treatment from sportswriters. "Anyone who knows Dan Quayle," his wife once reportedly said, "knows that given a choice between golf and sex, he'll choose golf every time."
Now Dan Quayle has chosen something else entirely, and for a moment it's hard, standing in the back room of the Puritan Restaurant in Manchester at 8:15 in the morning, not to see Quayle's retirement from golf -- the great undisputed success of his life -- as almost noble, or at least poignant, like Bob Dole's giving up his beloved career in the Senate before going doomed into battle against Bill Clinton. But Quayle has a long way to go before his sacrifice pays off. First he must defeat his reputation.
If you're Dan Quayle's campaign manager, there are three ways you can respond to the fact your boss is widely considered dull-witted and shallow. You can ignore it, refusing even to dignify such ludicrous slurs with a response. You can advise the candidate to laugh along, in hopes the public will find his sense of humor more endearing than self-incriminating. Or you can try to turn the entire caricature to your advantage. Sure Dan Quayle is the butt of one out of every three jokes told on late-night television, you might say. And that's exactly why he should be president. Because of all the candidates, he's the one who has proved he's tough enough to handle the job. Or, in the words of Quayle's actual campaign manager, Kyle McSlarrow, "He's the most experienced. He's the one who has taken the shots and kept going."
It's a clever approach, and there is also some truth in it. Quayle is nowhere near as slow as he has been portrayed. (For one thing, he is smart enough to have hired a talented staff.) Nor, unlike a number of others running for president this year, has he softened or backed away from his core political beliefs over the course of his career. The Dan Quayle of 1999 is a lot like the Dan Quayle of 1992, except more so. Out of office, Quayle has flowered into the conservative ideologue his enemies in the Bush administration always suspected him of being. If he becomes president, Quayle tells audiences, he would push for school choice and a national missile defense. He would fight abortion, affirmative action, greedy lawyers, and U.N. control of American troops. He wouldn't simply cut taxes, he says, he'd slash them "30 percent, across the board." Asked for his opinion of the Lewinsky scandal, Quayle doesn't hesitate or hedge. In a perfect world, he says, Clinton should have been tossed from office. Ultimately, however, even the unsuccessful effort to remove the president "will be a plus for the Republican party."
Among Republicans these days, Quayle's take on impeachment is considered an eccentric opinion. But then, as those around him frequently point out, a lot of Quayle's positions were unfashionable when he first took them, and a lot of them have subsequently been vindicated. Consider his famous "Murphy Brown" speech. Delivered in May 1992 at the Commonwealth Club of California, the speech was in many ways a public relations disaster. Comedians mocked the vice president's attack on a fictional television character's childbearing choices. Much of what Quayle had been trying to say was lost in the ensuing laughter. Polls showed the public considered him dumber than ever.
What does Quayle's staff think of the Murphy Brown speech today? "I would venture to say it is the single most important speech a vice president has ever made in the history of our country," says campaign manager Kyle McSlarrow. Ever? In the history of the country? That's right, says Jonathan Baron, Quayle's press secretary. "Name another speech by a vice president that was more significant."
Good question, and not just because vice presidents rarely say anything important. Read the Murphy Brown speech today and it seems not only strangely familiar -- a number of the themes in it have subsequently been appropriated by the Clinton administration -- but also, and this may be more surprising, pretty good, even eloquent in places. For those who've forgotten or never knew, the speech, apart from a single throwaway line about Murphy Brown, actually has nothing to do with sitcoms. Rather, it is a thoughtful attempt to explain how the disintegration of black families has made life miserable in the inner city, and what to do about it. Almost seven years later, the speech holds up well.
The strategists at Quayle 2000 certainly think so. This May, Quayle plans to give another speech at the Commonwealth Club marking the anniversary of the Murphy Brown address/flap. The theme of the event -- the theme of the entire campaign, really -- will be "Dan Quayle was right; Dan Quayle is right." To make the point even clearer, Quayle's pollster, Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, is encouraging him to reuse entire portions of the original speech. The press may still side with Murphy Brown, Fitzpatrick says, but this time it won't matter. "People will see that her sitcom has been canceled and that he's back on the scene."
Of course, some people might ask, Why exactly was Dan Quayle ever off the scene? What did he do between the day he left public life in early 1993 and the day he showed up again wanting to be president? Kyle McSlarrow, like everyone around Quayle, has a quick, if slightly defensive answer. "He's been working his tail off for Republicans, just like Nixon did, under the radar screen," McSlarrow explains. "Nobody in the Beltway saw it, but he was out there on the hustings where it mattered."
In fact, Quayle didn't need to stay in Washington to do something that mattered. He could have run for governor of Indiana in 1996, won, and spent two years simultaneously running the state and rebuilding his image before beginning a presidential campaign. A number of friends urged him to run at the time, but, says one, "He said he just wasn't interested in it. I guess he'd already been to the mountain-top." Quayle himself half agrees, admitting that he "was not really interested in it." The deciding factor, Quayle says, was a conversation he had with former president Richard Nixon, who "was very discouraging of my running for governor. He advised very strongly against it."
It's hard to know which is a more telling fact about Dan Quayle, that he took the advice from Nixon, or that he so freely admits he took it. Quayle has long been famous for saying odd things to reporters. ("There is really nothing quite as terrifying as sitting in the green room while Dan Quayle is on live television," says Pat Griffin, a media consultant who worked for Bush-Quayle '92 and has since signed on with Lamar Alexander. "It's like watching the flying Wallendas cross two buildings on a wire.") And though it has been years since he has really embarrassed himself, there remains something nervous-making about watching Quayle in public.
Quayle's speaking style is considerably more polished than it once was -- he talks more slowly, for one thing -- but his hands are still a mess. On the stump, Quayle punctuates almost every point he makes -- from "Good morning," to "On to victory!" -- with wildly exaggerated hand motions that are sometimes disconcertingly out of sync with what he is saying. At times, he looks like an actor in a badly dubbed martial arts film.
Happily for his campaign, in Quayle's case the cliche is true -- he is much better in person. And in the Republican primaries -- true to yet another cliche -- in person matters. As Bobbie Gobel will tell you.
Gobel, who owns an employment agency in Des Moines, is chairman of the Iowa chapter of the Christian Coalition. A mother of seven who attends an Assembly of God church, she is precisely the kind of politically active evangelical that liberal Republicans are always accusing of having disproportionate influence in the party, particularly during the early months of presidential campaign season. The liberal Republicans are onto something. Several contenders have already stopped by to see Gobel, and by the time the Iowa caucuses are held next year, she'll likely be on a first-name basis with every Republican in the race.
A couple of weeks ago, Quayle's Iowa office called Gobel to arrange a meeting. Gobel agreed to see Quayle after a Rotary Club speech in Des Moines, though she admits now she was suspicious of the candidate. Aware that Quayle had campaigned for New Jersey governor Christie Todd Whitman in 1997, Gobel wondered if he would be as committed to conservative social values as he claimed to be. Then she met him.
Quayle immediately suggested they pray. Gobel and the former vice president pulled their chairs together, held hands, and bowed their heads. Quayle began. "He prayed for the healing hands of Christ to touch the nation," Gobel remembers, and he did it with compelling sincerity. "You do not pray the way Dan Quayle prayed unless you are a born-again Christian," she says. "That guy is drenched in the blood of Jesus Christ." Quayle went on to lay out the major planks of his platform, and to talk about his personal faith and family life. Gobel was particularly impressed by his marriage to Marilyn Quayle. "Dan Quayle," she says, "will have what no other Republican president has had: a wife who shares his belief that life is from the moment of conception to natural death."
Gobel's concerns about the Christie Whitman connection disappeared almost instantly. During his time in New Jersey, Gobel says, Quayle did much more than campaign for the famously pro-choice governor. He also spent time trying to change Whitman's position on abortion. Quayle, Gobel says, was "witnessing and planting seeds. He simply told her, 'What you are doing is breaking one of the Commandments, Thou Shall Not Murder.' He did it in a very loving way, and that's the way Jesus would want us to rebuke a sister or a brother. He was not harsh. It was a quiet boldness."
Gobel's enthusiasm for Quayle since their meeting has been anything but quiet. "I was so honored I was able to sit in a room and be with a brother of the Lord and to pray with him," she says. Pundits and consultants may write off a Quayle candidacy as a long shot, but Gobel sees a higher power at work in the race. Quayle, she says, "knows he has his work cut out for him, and he knows that it is the light of God that will see him through all of his endeavors. And he does not have fear because he knows that he can draw power from that light, that through Christ anything is possible. Those are the words that Dan Quayle spoke in that meeting."
As for the other Republicans currently trying to woo conservative Christians? Gobel speaks highly of Gary Bauer, whom she met earlier this year. On the other hand, he didn't pray with her. In January, Gobel sat down with Steve Forbes, and for a while it was rumored that the bespectacled publisher had won her vote. (The Forbes campaign even issued a statement announcing Gobel's endorsement.) But her encounter with Quayle seems to have changed everything. "Forbes didn't quote any scriptures when I spoke with him," Gobel says. Instead, he talked about his tax reduction plan -- a plan, she points out, that now seems mediocre "in comparison to Dan's. Dan's covers a wide spectrum. Forbes's helps the rich."
Quayle's campaign is betting that his appeal will extend not just to Bobbie Gobel's friends, but to at least some of Christie Whitman's as well. "He's the only one who can put the complete Reagan coalition -- economic and social conservatives -- back together," says Kyle McSlarrow. Here's the reasoning: While there are a number of candidates who might appeal to religious conservatives (Gary Bauer, Bob Smith, and Pat Buchanan, should he enter the race), all are either underfunded, not well known, or have never been elected to office before. After eight years of Clinton, says Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, "Republican voters aren't going to take their chances on an unknown commodity." Which leaves Quayle.
On the other side of the party -- Christie Whitman's side -- there is no candidate who has both Quayle's experience with foreign policy and his enthusiasm for tax cuts. Moreover, says McSlarrow, wealthy, pro-choice Republican donors aren't afraid of Quayle the way they would be of other social conservatives. "They know him," McSlarrow says, "they know he's not a nut." Which, again, leaves Quayle the obvious choice -- except for George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole, neither of whom has been through a national campaign, and both of whom Quayle is privately confident of beating, if he can get them one-on-one.
Quayle doesn't seem worried -- not about raising the money, or about being away from home, or about riding from one ugly little New England mill town to the next for days on end in a white minivan full of 23-year-old volunteers whose names he doesn't know, and all for the privilege of answering nasty questions from badly dressed reporters who think he's a joke. None of it seems to bother Dan Quayle a bit. Not the sneers of the pundits or the skepticism of the political world. Not even giving up golf.
Tucker Carlson is a staff writer for THE WEEKLY STANDARD.