The Quayle Handicap

Most Americans still wouldn't trust him to run the country. Can he win the public's confidence?

Starting over has become an American birthright. People change their names and spouses, their hairdos, hemlines and hometowns, even their sex. Politicians are regularly made new. Richard Nixon was reborn more times than a tent preacher. In a land of quickie divorces and liposuction, it's never too late. So why should it be for Dan Quayle:

There must be days when Quayle would like to chuck it all and head home to Indiana. Making fun of the vice president has become a cruel cliche. In the first months of this year, according to a nonpartisan research organization, the Center for Media and Public Affairs, Quayle finally lost his standing as the most mocked figure on late-night television. He was replace by Saddam Hussein. Around the country, vendors did a brisk business peddling black humor T-shirts. One was emblazoned "Keep Bush Alive.' Another depicted Edvard Munch's nightmarish painting, "The Scream," over the legend, "President Quayle.'

Then the president's heart fluttered, and the snickering stopped. At the White House last week, aides spoke privately of "the terror factor," the panic felt by voters when they thought of Quayle only a heartbeat away. All very unfair, the president's men protested, but pervasive nonetheless. A New York Times/CBS poll last week showed Quayle with a 19 percent favorable rating. Most voters thought that he should be dropped from the Republican ticket in 1992. So did some 50 newspaper editorial pages around the country.

The dump-Quayle movement cooled off after a few days when the president;s doctors announced that Bush was suffering from Graves' disease, a thyroid condition that could be readily treated (page 27). In a crude way, Bush stood by his number two, threatening to make an obscene gesture to reporters who demanded to know if Quayle would get the heave-ho in '92. "I don't know how many times I have to say it," Bush hotly declared, "but I'm not going to change my mind." Official Washington closed ranks. "I wish everybody would just lay off Dan Quayle," said Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont. "At some point it goes way beyond fairness. He works hard. He has the president's confidence. That should be the issue."

A bit wishfully, perhaps, Quayle's aides thought they saw an opportunity to make voters take a fresh look. The flurry of press attention provided a chance to lay out all the good things done by the vice president. The press, long Quayle's tormentor, could now be used to resurrect him. Quayle's aides fed The Wall Street Journal a long page-one story recounting his achievements. Conservative columnists rallied to the cause. The vice president's men hoped for a public backlash against the Quayle-bashers in the press, and that the media itself would decide that denouncing Quayle was an old story. Quayle was made available to newspapers and news magazines for interviews (though not to "Newsweek'; Quayle spokesman David Beckwith said the magazine was being punished for unfair coverage of the vice president).

Quayle's rehabilitation campaign was on. It is made difficult, however, by the reality of his job. Traditionally, the role of the vice president is to do essentially nothing, at least nothing very presidential. Bush wants it that way. When he was Reagan's number two, he was loyal and discreet to a fault, and he expects Quayle to follow his example. Quayle has tried to be visible, but his actions tell little about what kind of a president he would be. That said, Quayle has not been quite the stumblebum the comics make him out to be.

Quayle meets with the president every morning at 8:15, and more often during times of crisis. While President Bush was off at the Malta Summit in December 1989, Philippine military rebels threatened to overthrow President Corazon Aquino. In the president's absence, Quayle took charge of the Situation Room, recommending that American warplanes buzz the rebel airfields. The White House put out the word that Quayle's cool hand had helped save Aquino. In fact, the man calling the shots was Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, according to Bob Woodward's new book, "The Commanders." Even so, Quayle did have the savvy to instruct a press aide to call CNN every hour to repeat the administration's vow to use air power. Quayle knew the rebels were more likely to be watching the tube than listening to official channels.

In the gulf crisis, Quayle was quick to see the need for a congressional resolution supporting the use of force. At White House meetings, Quayle has been more outspoken than Vice President Bush ever was. Last March, alone among the president's advisers, Quayle suggested that the United States intervene to help the Kurdish rebellion. But he didn't push the idea, and he was quickly rolled by the more cautious Powell.

Quayle is an effective lobbyist for the administration among his old colleagues in the Senate, and he is a valuable go-between with the business community. He is easy company with golf-playing corporate CEOs. He is also relaxed and popular among the party faithful as he travels the rubber-chicken circuit, raising money for the GOP (some $17 million so far). But he still freezes when he peers into a camera. He blames his "handlers" for poor coaching during the 1988 campaign, and resists pleas to take lessons in the art of TV persuasion. Only lately has he agreed to watch videotapes of himself to learn from his mistakes. Quayle's aides concede that he seems stiff and tinny reading from a script. But they are afraid that if he is allowed to ad-lib, out will come howlers such as his statement after the San Francisco earthquake that "the loss of life will be irreplaceable."

Quayle's friends would like to persuade the president to give their man a challenge that would show off his talent. One idea would be to dispatch him to the Middle East to negotiate an arms-control agreement. With his close ties to the Israel lobby, maybe Quayle could cajole hard-line Israeli leaders to give a little. Or Quayle could got to the Soviet Union to meet with leaders of the various republics. As a pro-democracy advocate who is skeptical of Gorbachev, Quayle would have credibility with insurgent leaders. At home, friends suggest, Quayle could use his party contacts to play the role of election czar, coordinating presidential strategy with congressional races.

But there is a reason why the vice president gets stuck running worthy but obscure commissions, like the National Space Council or the President's Council on Competitiveness. Cabinet secretaries are not about to let him stomp on their policy-making turf. Nor is chief of staff John Sununu eager to loosen his grip on the White House political machine.

Bush would have to step in and order his chieftains to move aside for Quayle. He is not likely to, at least any time soon. He doesn't feel the need. For all the clucking about Quayle's low public standing, most polls show the choice of running mate only makes a point or two difference in a general election. As an overwhelming favorite to win re-election, Bush can afford to be loyal.

Aides say Bush is sympathetic to Quayle's travails. As vice president, Bush, too, was dismissed as an empty suit. But the president is also frustrated. An earnest striver, Bush can't quite understand why Quayle doesn't pull himself out of his hole by discipline and hard work. Among friends, when conversation turns to Quayle, the president usually falls silent.

Quayle may be cursed by something he can't change: his face. He has the look of a man who always skated by on boyish charm. But if a brutal public hazing can build character, then Quayle must have grown considerably since 1988. Certainly, he is a decent man, a good father and friend. Quayle's challenge is to find a way to prove to a doubting public that he has grown into a man of presidential proportions.

Though most vice presidents rise in the polls with their chiefs, Quayle scores the lowest approval rating of any vice president in the last 37 years except Rockefeller.

Vice president                            Percent having

(date of poll)                            unfavorable opinion

Quayle (5/91)                                   31%

Bush (4/82)                                     24%

Mondale (4/78)                                  17%

Rockefeller (11/75)                             39%

Agnew (1/70)                                    29%

Humphrey (4/67)                                 30%

Johnson (1/62)                                  19%

Nixon (1/54)                                    17%

Subject Terms: QUAYLE, Dan