In Her Own Image: Marilyn Quayle's New Appeal

It seemed like a bad joke. Marilyn Quayle selected federal disaster relief as her first cause while all around her disasters were constantly occurring. Her beleaguered husband remained a target of ridicule despite his efforts to prove himself as vice president. Her children were struggling to adjust to life in the Washington fishbowl. Even her desire to return to her law career--or fill the seat Dan Quayle had vacated in the Senate--prompted public criticism and private frustration. At somber lunches with friends, tears welled up as she recounted the travails of her new life.

But then, suddenly and to the surprise of many, a softer, more appealing Marilyn Quayle emerged. After friends teased her about her 1950s hairdo, she switched to a gentler perm. Disaster relief continued to dominate her public calendar, but Mrs. Quayle found her voice in a more poignant cause: early detection and treatment of breast cancer. At a Dallas luncheon to raise money to fight the disease, she let down her guard in public, shocking even her closest friends. Recalling how a woman of 56 had died of cancer after she ignored a lump in her breast, Mrs. Quayle began to weep. "That woman was my mother," she said. Mrs. Quayle now gives the same emotional speech across the country, each time touching the audience with her own feelings and winning new supporters along the way. The surest sign of her rehabilitation came when some of Quayle's more paranoid aides began to worry that the new Marilyn would overshadow the old Dan and make him look even worse by comparison.

'Blowtorch': To refurbish her image in the press, Mrs. Quayle first needed to change her attitude. The 1988 campaign left her with an enduring hostility toward the media, and in her early months as Second Lady she was openly antagonistic to the press. Watching the White House staff trying to herd a group of unruly photographers, she was overheard to mutter, "What you need is a blowtorch." But confidants quietly argued that her feud with the press was harming both Quayles. Eventually, she agreed, and recently made a conciliatory speech to the National Press Club. "At times I felt misunderstood, misrepresented, very angry and terribly vulnerable. I worried about my children . . . So I put on my armor to do battle for my family, and, in the process, I froze some of you out. I regret that."

Even the warmed-up Mrs. Quayle can be cool in public, seeming stiff and ill at ease. Despite 13 years as a political wife, she has not mastered the art of chatting vivaciously with strangers. But out of the limelight, friends say, Mrs. Quayle is relaxed and ready to enjoy herself. When a constituent sent her a risque cartoon from a men's magazine--depicting sexual high jinks in the Oval Office--Mrs. Quayle delighted in showing it to her staff, embellishing the joke with her own punch lines.

Like Barbara Bush, Mrs. Quayle arranges her life to put her family first, often choosing to stay home instead of working the chicken-and-peas circuit or embassy row. When the Gorbachevs came to Washington four weeks ago, she begged off the arrival ceremony and private tea with Raisa to attend the graduation singing recital of her daughter Corinne, 11. (Her golfnut husband long ago learned that he had to save Sunday for the family. "He doesn't dare," says a friend.) Mrs. Quayle still revels in piling her kids and their friends into a government van and car pooling them to dances and other school events. These days, of course, a Secret Service agent drives while Marilyn rides in back with the kids.

Real force: After the press portrayed Mrs. Quayle as the real force behind her husband during the 1988 campaign, she lowered her profile in staff discussions. Even so, her influence is substantial. Administration officials say Mrs. Quayle has urged the vice president to spend more time with local reporters, whom she regards as less hostile than the national media.

At once a homebody and an ambitious lawyer eager to resume her career, Mrs. Quayle represents a politically appealing mix--especially for a party in search of young women voters. She can articulate the tensions felt by many women today. "I know a lot of women are struggling to be perfect," she says, "and I share their frustrations and their pain." GOP operatives are so confident that the mellower Marilyn will attract women voters that they plan to have her campaign for men, including Texas gubernatorial candidate Clayton Williams, who are in tough races with women this fall.

The vice president's staffers are watching Mrs. Quayle's resurgence warily. Some of the Second Lady's views may anger her husband's conservative supporters. In her breast-cancer appearances she says bluntly that boyfriends and husbands are often more likely than the women themselves to detect changes in their breasts. She advocates teaching boys and girls about the breast in sex-education classes so both will notice any sign of the disease. Quayle's staff also worries that their man will be upstaged; one vice presidential aide has urged Mrs. Quayle and her staff to refuse to cooperate with reporters seeking to do profiles of the new Marilyn. Her own advisers ignored this advice. "A lot of male politicians think a strong woman equates with a weak man. It's about time they learned," said one adviser. Barbara Bush's popularity has done nothing but help her husband. If the vice president is lucky, Marilyn Quayle's improving image will do the same.