Dan Quayle and a lesson for today


It was a throwaway comment, but it said a lot.

It spoke to who we were — and what we have become.

Long ago, Dan Quayle had come to the end of a brutal presidential campaign. This was in 1992, when Quayle was President George H.W. Bush’s vice president.

The race that year had been a rough and ready affair. Invective flew freely on all sides.

The Democratic ticket — Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and Tennessee Sen. Al Gore — had been depicted as the pairing of a lecherous Southern huckster and a New Age space cadet. A third-party challenge from billionaire H. Ross Perot and retired Admiral James Stockdale was dismissed as a link between insanity and dementia. Perot even danced on campaign stages to recordings of Patsy Cline singing “Crazy” to answer his critics.

Bush, the incumbent, wasn’t spared in the flood of vituperation. He was caricatured as an out-of-touch elitist, a weak man who went “wobbly” — to use Margaret Thatcher’s phrase — at telling moments.

Few, though, received worse than Quayle.

During his four years as vice president, almost no part of his life had been spared criticism or attack. His patriotism and courage were questioned, as was his fidelity to his wife and family. His faith had been ridiculed, including his sincere belief in the importance of family values.

Nothing was as savage, though, as the assaults on his intelligence. Even though Quayle had graduated from a demanding college and law school — DePauw and Indiana universities, respectively — he was painted as little more than a moron.

He became a national punchline, a living, breathing man turned into a walking joke. Even the fact that he was handsome played into transforming him into a cartoon character. His good looks just made it easier to portray him as pretty, golf-playing frat boy, one who was not much smarter than the average nine iron.

That’s the nature of life in the public eye. A series of miscues and malapropisms at inopportune moments cemented the perception that Quayle just wasn’t very swift.

There isn’t anything unusual about making such mistakes. I’ve spent a fair amount of my life on stages and in front of cameras and microphones. All people who spend enough time in front of a live audience or mic will end up saying they wish they hadn’t.

That’s what happened to Quayle.

It wasn’t fair, of course.

I didn’t know Dan Quayle well, but I had spent enough time around him to realize that he was capable of serious study and intellectual discipline. He was not — and never claimed to be — one of the great intellects of our time, but he was brighter than most people.

Certainly, he was smart enough to render valuable public service.

And he definitely was wise enough to know that he’d endured some shots that landed well below the belt.

He had reason to feel resentful after the votes were counted on election night in 1992 and the Bush-Quayle ticket came up short.

Quayle could have vented that evening.

Instead, he took another tack. He congratulated Clinton and Gore on their victory.

Then — and this is the moment I remember — someone asked him what the Clinton-Gore win meant for the future of the country.

Quayle said if the incoming president and vice president governed as effectively as they campaigned, the country would be just fine.

It was a gracious gesture.

Quayle had legitimate reasons to feel aggrieved.

But he set those feelings aside for the good of the country.

We live now in an era in which no one, right, left or center, seems to be able to set aside a grievance, just or unjust, in service of a larger good or cause. We linger over insults as if they were gifts to be savored, even nurtured, rather than unfortunate occurrences to be endured and overcome.

We Americans talk a lot about making this country “great again” or “building back better.”

The bet here is that we won’t ever be able to do that if we don’t start remembering how to behave graciously and with dignity in times of disappointment and trial.

Just as Dan Quayle did on that night so many years ago.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. Send comments to [email protected].

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