The Magazine

DAN QUAYLE GETS SERIOUS

Mar 1, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 23 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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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.