For Indiana Senator Dan Quayle, it was a small victory. On a tour last week of the New Orleans factory that had built the external fuel tanks for the space shuttle Discovery he opened his speech with a joke. Marvelling at the size of the 528,000gallon tank he had just circled, he poked fun at Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis—who had ridden an M-1 battle tank for a
campaign photo opportunity last month. Declared Quayle: “I can now say that I have been around a bigger tank than the one Michael Dukakis drives.” What seemed to delight the Republican vice-presidential nominee was not that his quip drew laughter, but that he had come up with it by himself. In fact, he later told Kenneth Khachigian, the former White House speech writer assigned to script his public appearances, including jokes, “Hey Ken, guess what? I did one of my own.”
That incident underlined just how tight a rein aides to Vice-President George Bush have been keeping on the 41 year-old running mate. In the six weeks since Quayle’s nomination first exploded in a controversy oyer his military service in the Indiana National Guard, his verbal misadventures have led his handlers to carefully control his public utterances. Public opinion polls now report that only 29 per cent of respondents think that the junior senator from Indiana is qualified to step into the presidency. And with Democrats sporting buttons saying “President Quayle” and “Quayle—only a heartbeat away,” even his normally courtly Democratic rival, Texas Senator Lloyd Bentsen, claimed last week that if the Republicans won, “I’d pray for the good health of George Bush every night.”
Indeed, as Quayle faces the biggest test of his political career this week—his Oct. 5 televised debate against Bentsen—he has become one of the hottest issues in this fell’s issueless race for the White House. Said Representative Tony Coehlo, a California Democrat: “I think Dan Quayle is the real Achilles heel of the Republican campaign.”
That perception was heightened by reports that Bush has been trying to distance himself from Quayle. So widespread had the rumors become that, on the morning after his Sept. 25 debate against Dukakis, Bush flew to Jackson, Tenn., for his first joint appearance with Quayle since Aug. 21. But many observers noted that even that endorsement seemed hedged with pater1 nalism. At a campaign rally, Bush 5 tried to reassure the crowd about the upcoming vice-presidential debate. “This time, you’re going to see our man in the arena,” he said, “and he’s going to do just fine, you watch.”
But privately Bush’s staff members express worries about what they call Quayle’s “stature problem.” Minutes after Bush plucked him out of obscurity at the Republican convention in New Orleans, a team of seasoned image-makers who had helped groom Ronald Reagan for the national limelight moved in to coach Quayle. However, even Stuart Spencer, the shrewd California lobbyist who became chief
strategist, failed to predict the furore that would quickly engulf Quayle. When news media charged that Quayle’s influential family had used its ties to help him avoid the draft during the Vietnam War, Spencer told Quayle that “it’ll pass.” But protesters still turn up at Quayle’s rallies in chicken suits with placards saying “Hell no, Quayle didn’t go.”
Still, Bush’s aides say that because of the controversy Quayle has no difficulty getting attention in the regional media markets to which they have largely confined him, but which reach so many voters. Said Charles Black, a Bush adviser: “He’s a celebrity wherever he goes. The national press made him a celebrity in 10 days in August.”
Spencer has largely devoted his energies to building the senator’s shattered confidence. But he may have briefly led Quayle to overestimate his own abilities. Two weeks after the
National Guard furore subsided, he jauntily discarded his prepared text for a speech on defence—his specialty—and launched into an extemporaneous ramble that left his audience mystified. He even used a Tom Clancy thriller plot to argue for building the space-based antimissile system known as Star Wars.
Soon after, Quayle’s press secretary David Prosperi decided to stop scheduling news conferences for the senator. And his travelling news corps has nicknamed Quayle’s intelligent lawyer-wife, Marilyn, the “Dragon Lady” for smothering tricky questions by abruptly leading him away with a brisk “Thank you very much.”
Now, the only subject on which Quayle is left to ad-lib from index cards is a federal jobtraining program that he cosponsored in 1982 with Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy. But speaking at an El Paso, Tex., job-training centre last week, he left his audience of Hispan-
ic teenagers clearly puzzled over a garbled attempt to inspire them with a definition of the family. And when Spencer allowed him back into the media section of his campaign plane for an unprecedented off-the-record test run, he appeared not to remember that he had once voted against similar job centres.
At the same time, the easygoing charm that Quayle displays in a relaxed setting seldom surfaces when he campaigns. His quasi-military waves and nervous smirk as he attacks Dukakis, “the man from Massachusetts,” often make him appear to be a caricature of the “pit bull” that Bush predicted he would be. And Republican hopes that he could attract women voters with his blond good looks—which his own campaign literature once compared with those of Robert Redford—may have boomeranged. Women have picketed his rallies with signs saying “But can he type?” And Redford,
campaigning for Dukakis last week, joked, “Hello, I’m Dan Quayle.”
Despite the fact that Quayle was intended to appeal to the youth vote, many students who hear him also seem cool to his generational appeal. Said Peter Sinclair, a 22-year-old senior at Louisiana’s McNeese State University, last week: “He was semisuperficial. It would most definitely scare me if he were president.” But Sinclair says that he will vote for Bush on Nov. 8 because “Dukakis scares me more than Quayle. He’s too liberal.” Indeed, Bush’s aides are counting on the fact that voters cast their ballots not for the vice-president, but the man on the top of the ticket. And in an election that Spencer once noted “is going to get down to who makes the last mistake,” their main concern is to prevent Quayle from providing that fatal, eleventh-hour blunder.
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