I CERTAINLY DON'T REGARD the Bush presidency as a failed one, but when any administration ends up not getting itself reelected and receiving only 37 percent of the vote, historians look for the moment when things went off track. I'm convinced you've got to go further back than the President's own inauguration. To say things were over before they began is a little melodramatic, but I believe that you can find the wrong turn in a meeting that was held during the Reagan-Bush transition.

One day in December 1988 we met at the vice-presidential residence (which was still George Bush's home, not mine) for a discussion of the bipartisan commission to lower the deficit. Dick Darman, soon to head the Office of Management and Budget, wasn't there. But Jim Baker, Treasury Secretary Nick Brady, and Bob Teeter, the President's pollster, were. Baker whispered to me, "Watch these guys [meaning Brady and Teeter]. They're going to try to get him to raise taxes." And sure enough, I remember Teeter saying, "Well, he doesn't have any choice; he's probably going to have to raise taxes."

Whoa! I thought. This was an administration that had gotten itself elected on the read my lips, no new taxes pledge made in New Orleans, and here its own people were, even before the swearing-in, talking about George Bush breaking this central promise. Baker, to his credit, said, "Well, we're not going to do it this year," and I wouldn't say that anyone made any special push to do it. But I could see that eventually they were going to try.

On June 26, with the congressional elections just months off and the prospect of prolonged budgetary bloodletting in between, the President called for a "budget summit" with the Democrats, and he bought the argument that for the deficit to come down taxes would have to go up. I was out in California on a fundraising trip for Republican candidates when I got the news, in the shower, actually. I probably should have looked at the drain, because that's where the Republican Party's best issue was headed.

I would be a good soldier and make a public sales pitch for the package. I told the media that the President had agreed to abide by what came out of the budget summit because he couldn't afford a domestic crisis while he had so much to cope with abroad: Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait and the President was preoccupied with the Desert Shield build-up. There was an element of truth to this, but the essential concession on raising taxes had been made more than a month before Kuwait. I think Mark Shields awarded it his Outrage of the Week accolade on "The Capital Gang," and I probably deserved it.

Three weeks after the Los Angeles riots, I was ready to talk about my own sense of their root causes. I made the speech in San Francisco on Tuesday, May 19, noting how in the last quarter of a century an entirely new black middle class had emerged, but also how an underclass had been left behind without the values of family, hard work, and, above all, personal responsibility.

A single sentence, pages into the speech, would create the real ideological firestorm of my vice-presidency: It doesn't help matters, I said, when prime-time TV has Murphy Brown-a character who supposedly epitomizes today's intelligent, highly paid, professional woman-mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another lifestyle choice.

I knew the line in my speech would be controversial; in fact, we didn't try to get the text over to the White House until a few hours before the speech was delivered. By Wednesday morning the country was plastered with screaming Murphy headlines (QUAYLE TO MURPHY BROWN: YOU TRAMP!, said New York's Daily News) and involved in the kind of loud national quarrel it had over Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill.

I needed to talk to the President. I told him I didn't intend to keep talking about Murphy Brown, the subject of just one sentence in my speech. "There are a lot of nervous people over here," the President said. "The problem I have is that I've never seen Murphy Brown."

"Neither have I."

"You haven't?"

"No. But it doesn't make any difference. Forget about Murphy Brown. The issue is the poverty of values."

"Okay. I'm glad you checked in."

As usual, the President was better than his team. Marlin Fitzwater's first remark was supportive of my values-oriented speech, but when the campaign folks decided that no one should be criticizing a popular show in the middle of an election year, they made Marlin go back out and praise Murphy Brown for exhibiting pro-life values-instead of supporting me and trying to focus the country on an important issue.

Since then, the most significant convert to the family-values issue has been Bill Clinton, who said: "I read [Dan Quayle's] Murphy Brown speech. I thought there were a lot of very good things in that speech." I believe that Clinton is genuinely moved by the plight of all those children so much less fortunate than his daughter, Chelsea. But I predict that whatever solutions he offers will end up involving more government intervention and spending, which won't work.

On June 15, Digger Phelps, just retired as one of Notre Dame's great basketball coaches, took me into a neighborhood where a Weed and Seed program was operating [combining anti-crime and anti-poverty efforts].

"What are we supposed to do?" I asked Keith Nahigian, the advance man. "Just sit there and read these words off some flash cards," he explained, "and the kids will go up and spell them at the blackboard." My aide Bill Kristol asked if anyone had checked the cards. "We looked at them and they're just very simple Words," Keith answered. "It's no big deal."

No one ever actually asked me to spell potato that afternoon. If they had, I imagine I'd have gotten it right, though I wouldn't swear to it. We got to the point where it was twelve-year-old William Figueroa's turn to go to the board and spell whatever was on the next card, which was the word potato, except that the card, prepared by the school, read potatoe, with an e. I can't remember if the spelling struck me as odd or not, but William spelled it correctly on the blackboard-no e. I noticed the discrepancy, showed the card to the other adults with me, and as they nodded in agreement, I gently said something about how he was close but had left a little something off. William, against his better judgment and trying to be polite, added an e. The little audience applauded, and that was it.

If somebody had even nudged me while I was still in that classroom, I could have gone up to William in front of everyone and told him that it had just been pointed out to me how, when it came to potatoes, he was a better speller than both the card preparer and the Vice President of the United States. We could have ended the thing by giving him a much bigger round of applause.

But this wasn't a goof. In the language of media politics, this was the perfect gaffe from four years of the press's patrolling for them. It was more than a gaffe; in the language of Lee Atwater, it was a "defining moment," of the worst kind imaginable. Over the next several weeks, continuing through the Democratic Convention and beyond (to this day, in fact), there was an avalanche of late-night jokes and Democratic sound bites. QUAYLE GETS BAKED, MASHED AND FRIED, said one tabloid headline.

I can't overstate how discouraging and exasperating the whole event was. It put Marilyn into a state of complete and total irritation. Her husband could make five speeches a day for twenty-five months, she explained to a CNN reporter, and never make a mistake; he makes one mistake, it's aired and aired and aired.

In the month between the '92 conventions, our own campaign remained inexplicably complacent. Teeter came in one day, when we were still down by more than twenty points, to tell us we were in a better position than Gerald Ford had been at this point in the 1976 campaign. Oh, great! An appointed President who'd pardoned Nixon, raised taxes and lost in November. And this was the good news. There were times, I thought, when Teeter and Baker would be satisfied with coming close, as Ford did, so political historians would praise them for turning a potential debacle into a squeaker.

I can remember, early on, telling Teeter that the American people knew Bush was a better man than Clinton, but that they needed a positive reason to keep him in charge for four more years. Teeter and the rest of the campaign people would always say not to worry, the reason would be coming in the next big speech, the State of the Union or, as the months went on (each of them wasted), the acceptance speech in Houston. But they never succeeded in concentrating the campaign or the President on a big theme.

It appeared as if the Republicans couldn't wait to lose, so that they could get on with the blame game. Jim Baker told people what an impossible job he had. He set things up so that, if we managed to win, he would look like Houdini, whereas if we lost, as he seemed to expect, nobody would be able to blame him. (It was the same thing he had subtly tried to do with my selection in 1988.) George Bush had actually had to ask his old friend to return as chief of staff. A month before the election, Darman was telling The Washington Post's Bob Woodward why he thought we might lose the election. Here he was, helping George Bush prepare for his debates against Clinton, and already analyzing the President's election defeat!

It isn't easy to campaign when you're pretty sure you're going to lose. We were going to lose because we were unable to argue convincingly that the economy was recovering even though that was true. Another key factor was that, after twelve years of Republican rule, the media was on the side of Bill Clinton. They too wanted a change. A third and perhaps decisive factor was that for too long we had adopted our opponents' agenda: compromise on taxes, run away from our foreign policy accomplishments, and let ourselves speak timidly about family values. This was the most poorly planned and executed incumbent presidential campaign in this century. All the negatives piled up against us overshadowed the first-rate character of President Bush and the extraordinary job he had done leading America into a completely new global arrangement.

Back at the White House the exit polls were showing how bad it was: I was told that, late in the morning, the President, who expected to win right up until Election Day, looked at those polls and asked the people in the room: Do you think we've been kidding ourselves?

My staff had two speeches ready for election night. But I'd long since known which one I'd need to give. In the end, instead of reading it, I spoke in my own words, from the heart, without a text and without a podium. I told people it was Bill Clinton's night, and that "if he runs the country as well as he ran this campaign, we'll be all right." I wanted to be gracious because he had earned that, and I also wanted to set him a high mark for what his presidency should be. I remembered how angry Nixon had been after his 1962 gubernatorial defeat, and even though I had had my own stormy time with the press, I didn't want to go out the way he had. How you exit is important, especially if you're thinking of coming back.

PHOTO: Back home again: The author in Indiana



I WROTE THIS MORE AS A journalist than a politician," Dan Quayle told NEWSWEEK in his first interview about "Standing Firm." "There's no bitterness, no anger. This is not score-settling." But the book at times belies him. A journalistic recap of his much-ridiculed vice presidency, it's more culpa than mea. Before Quayle began writing, Richard Nixon offered this advice: "Do not curry favor with your critics." Quayle didn't. "Parts of the book were very painful to write," he says. "I had to reread all the ugly, unfair, nasty things that were said about me."

"Standing Firm" is Nixonian in another sense. Like RN's "Six Crises," it aims to explain, expiate and learn from political failure-and clear the way for a comeback. Quayle believes that writing the book distilled several critical lessons. One: don't hide from the media, even if you hate them. "You've got to sit down and answer their questions. You can't let others do the talking for you." Two: "Don't hire a pollster to be a decision maker," as the Bush-Quayle campaign did in 1992. Three: value your instincts. "I quit trusting myself," he says with a shudder. The worst doubts came early, in the tumultuous first days after he joined the Bush ticket in 1988. In the book he discloses that he considered quitting-and was talked out of it by his wife, Marilyn.

In tie and shirt sleeves (one cuff bearing a JDQ monogram), the 47-year-old Quayle epitomizes the comfortable Midwestern businessman he has recently become, home again in Indiana after 16 years of living in Washington. Quayle still exudes a boyish ingenuousness, but it is tempered a little by his determination to achieve political redemption.

Quayle will hit the road to sell his book-and talk to folks. "I'm going to go out to the coffee shops, sit down and talk to them, talk to them about me." If he likes what he hears, he says, he may run for the 1996 GOP nomination. If he does, he intends to offer a "bold and radical" conservative agenda to recapture the family-values themes adopted by President Clinton. "He's a good politician, maybe a great politician," says Quayle.

Some friends have counseled against a presidential bid. "He's taken too much of a pounding," says one. Others are encouraging. "He's a party loyalist with conservative credentials," says Republican insider Mary Matalin. "He has a lot of chits and he's vigorous and familiar." It's also an asset to be a media victim these days. Quayle himself is confident, if not serene. "The American people know full well that I have been unfairly treated," he says. "They like an underdog. And they like somebody who's willing to get up off the mat and come back." Richard Nixon couldn't have said it better.

PHOTO: The veep conceding the 1992 election in Indianapolis


"For all my disappointments with him, I saw, on occasion, how impressive Jim Baker could be. He was a skilled negotiator. [But] the longtime Bush-Baker relationship was misunderstood by many. Bush always had the upper hand in it. When you meet Baker, you want to like him-he's quick and congenial and he enjoys jokes-but he socializes with only a select few. On almost every matter that came before him, he'd want to know what was in it for Jim Baker."

"A tenacious infighter, very turf-conscious, and as the years went on he became closer than anyone else in the administration to the President. The advice he gave was unvarnished, and he used his time with the President in a subtle way, moving Bush toward his own position and away from Baker's."

"Maybe the biggest problem with our campaign was having a pollster, Bob Teeter, in charge. Pollsters are trained to give information and advice in response to polling data, not to make the proactive management decisions essential to a good campaign."

"He disappointed me. During Cabinet meetings Jack would cough that nervous cough ... couldn't wait to speak. (Kemp's 'High School Harry' mode, Baker called it.) The President-invariably with trepidation would call on him, knowing that he would sometimes go off on tangents and not make any discernible point."