When Ronald Reagan was felled by the bullet of the nut case John Hinckley that stopped an inch short of his heart. the office of the most powerful nation on earth was temporarily shifted to the auspices of Vice-President George Bush. Once the early danger to the President was over, the sports-crazy Bush played his usual game of tennis at his residence, pedalled back for an overhead, lost his balance, fell and hit his head on the concrete surface. Mildly concussed, he went to bed and slept the afternoon away. For several hours, the United States of America was technically without anyone in charge.
That incident was not publicized at the time, and the American public had no reason to be alarmed. Such was not the case, as we know, when the jogging-crazy Bush encountered his heart problems and the nation—not to mention the world—had to contemplate the prospect of Dan Quayle in the Oval Office.
The subject of Dan Quayle forever fascinates political groupies and still puzzles George Bush’s close friends. The choice of this hollow man to be within a heartbeat (or a bullet) of the White House reveals a lot more about Bush than it does about Quayle.
Your tireless agent happened to be on a dock in steamy New Orleans one summer day in 1988 when a sweaty Quayle pushed his way through a throng of waiting Republicans towards a stem-wheeler bearing Bush across the Mississippi. Quayle had been sightseeing in the French Quarter with wife and children when his beeper informed him to hie quickly to that pier.
Bush, confiding in no one until the campaign plane ride down from Washington that morning, had decided that Dan Quayle was worthy to be the second-most-important man on earth. When the presidential nominee announced his choice of running mate to the puzzled throng and the shocked press alongside the stemwheeler, Quayle, like an excited puppy, rushed from the sidelines and, in attempting to embrace Bush, knocked his glasses off.
His performance since then, as we know, has been similarly gauche. It is not just the buying of anatomically correct dolls in South American markets, or his foot-in-mouthisms, or his vacuous deer-caught-in-the-headlights looks that bother. It is why Bush picked him in the first place. Bush is the issue, not Quayle.
It was John Nance Gamer, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first vice-president, who is always quoted as saying that the post “wasn’t worth a pitcher of warm spit.” That isn’t what he said, actually. He said it wasn’t worth “a pitcher of warm piss”—the press in those days being squeamish—but you get the idea.
That sentiment had some value, until the day F. D. R. died. By then, he had a case-hardened and fearless little veteran politician by the name of Harry Truman as his stand-in. Good thing, too. Truman had to make such historic decisions as dropping the atomic bomb on Japan as a means of ending the war swiftly, and later, firing the grandiloquent Gen. Douglas MacArthur. The soundness of the first decision will forever be debated, but Harry never hesitated over a decision, and slept soundly.
Since then, the vice-president has not been regarded as such a joke. Ike Eisenhower selected a chap named Nixon, who later won a record electoral victory. John Kennedy had as his No.
2 a man he detested, but who happened to be the most experienced and wily politician in the United States: Lyndon Johnson.
Johnson had a chap easily qualified to be president himself, Hubert Humphrey. Reagan, as a backstop, had a fellow who had been head of the CIA, envoy to China, chairman of the Republican party, ambassador to the United Nations, a mature Washington veteran. Fellow by the name of George Bush.
The reason the stock markets quavered at the Bush heart tremors was the contrast between these predecessors and Dan Quayle, who was known before his selection as “the third senator from Florida” for his predilection for the golf courses there.
There are the insider Washington jokes that the Secret Service has standing orders that if Bush is shot, they are immediately to shoot Dan Quayle. It is called the “second-bullet joke.” The late-night comedians feed on Quayle lines. Last week, four columnists in two days in The New York Times worried over “the Quayle factor.”
When Bush had the nomination wrapped up in 1988, his pollsters worried about his “gender gap”—the finding that he reminded most American women of their first husband. Roger Ailes, the cynical image maker who made Willie Horton the major feature of the campaign that destroyed Michael Dukakis, was the one who pushed Quayle onto Bush, arguing that he could overcome the female distaste for the candidate by acquiring a young and good-looking running mate.
The feminists replied with their banners at Quayle rallies: “He’s pretty, but can he type?” We still don’t know, let alone whether he can think. But George Bush, with his basic insecurity, with his desire to have the spotlight alone after spending his life as the second banana, persists in his stubbornness in keeping him, insisting during his recent illness—bugged by media questioning—that he will keep Quayle through his second term.
Bob Woodward, in his new book, The Commanders, tells us that Bush, in private, is more vindictive and less amenable to advice than his public image indicates. His insecure ego will not allow his quixotic Quayle choice to be questioned. The worrying point is not the Quayle factor. It is the Bush factor.
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