Connection didn’t keep Quayle out of crosshairs



Indiana native David Letterman signed off the air amid waves of nostalgic adulation hailing him as the comic genius who changed late-night television.

At least one fellow Hoosier knows that Letterman also had the power to galvanize national opinion.

Vice President Dan Quayle was an early political target of Letterman, suffering an outrageous fortune of slings and arrows painting him as a vacuous, plastic politician.

When the vice president suffered a slip-up in 1992, publicly misspelling “potatoe” while monitoring a grade-school spelling bee, Letterman fueled the public frenzy and helped turn the gaffe into a long-running joke.

Letterman invited on his show the 12-year-old student who’d spelled the word correctly, only to be incorrectly corrected by Quayle.

The boy asked Letterman, to his glee: “Do you have to go to college to be vice president?’’

Democrats turned that into a campaign weapon in that year’s election.

By then Quayle — a lawyer twice elected to the U.S. Senate by Hoosiers — had been a frequent subject of Letterman’s acidic “Top Ten” lists. He was the target of no fewer than a half-dozen “Top Tens” in 1988, the year President George H.W. Bush chose him as a running mate, and he was mentioned in many, many more.

The litany included this reason why Quayle would make a good president: “Would not seem like brainy egghead when visiting nation’s injured professional wrestlers.”

Yet, Quayle, who now lives in Arizona, eventually made the best of it.

In 1999, just as he was making the painful decision to end a brief campaign for the 2000 presidential election, he appeared on Letterman’s program.

“It was fun,” reflected Quayle, two days after Letterman’s finale. “I actually enjoyed being on the show. Why wouldn’t I?”

Quayle said he learned some lessons from the years of Letterman’s taunting. Among them: Don’t count on a hometown connection for cover.

Quayle’s wife, Marilyn, had gone to high school with the comedian in Indianapolis.

“I sort of figured I’d get a pass from Letterman,” Quayle said. “Instead, he doubled-down on me.”

Maybe tripled-down.

Feigning a Midwestern politeness that hid a brutal bite, Letterman included in his Top Ten reasons for electing Quayle as president: “Would satisfy little-known constitutional requirement that Chief Executive be ‘dumb as a tree.’ ”

Having suffered through that and more, Quayle went on Letterman’s program at the suggestion of Republican media strategist Fred Davis.

“It’s commonplace now for politicians to get on late night TV,” said Davis from his home in California. “At that time, it was a very dicey proposition.”

The candidate’s staff was skeptical about Davis’ idea.

“There was great gnashing of teeth,” he said. “I thought we had nothing to lose.”

Quayle agreed. He was gracious and funny in his banter with Letterman. He was applauded by the audience when he told Letterman: “I’m here for my apology.”

Quayle said this week, “I never did get it.”

Not long ago, Gov. Mike Pence found himself the subject of Letterman’s mockery after signing into the law the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“It may be legal but it ain’t right,” Letterman said of the legislation widely criticized as a license to discriminate against gays and lesbians. A Letterman “Top Ten” likened Pence to, among other things, the “guy who makes his dog sleep outside.”

Davis said Republican clients from all over had already been calling him, frantic about how to respond to Pence’s bungled performance just days earlier on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos.”

“To leave it as a lingering national joke is no good,” Davis said. “You need to fix it at the time the problem occurs.”

“Hindsight is 20/20,” Davis said, before offering what his counsel would have been — had Pence asked.

“My advice would have been to call Letterman’s producer and ask, ‘Do you want me on tomorrow?”

“He’s no fool,” Davis said of the governor. “I think he could have acquitted himself well.”

Mirroring advice he once gave to Quayle, Davis said Pence would have had nothing to lose but much to gain had he used some self-deprecating humor to turn the narrative.

“To leave it as a lingering national joke is no good,” Davis said. “You need to fix it at the time the problem occurs.”

Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for CNHI newspapers. Send comments to [email protected].

Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for CNHI newspapers. Send comments to [email protected].

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