Friday, August 16, 2013

Dan Quayle's Coming-Out Party

Twenty–five years ago today, Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana was introduced as Vice President George H.W. Bush's choice for a running mate.

And the focus at the Republican convention in New Orleans shifted almost immediately from speculation about the identity of Bush's running mate to skepticism of the choice.

"This was supposed to be his showcase week," lamented Ed Rollins, manager of the 1984 Reagan–Bush campaign that carried 49 states.

Rollins wasn't the only alarmed Republican. About a month earlier, just after the Democrats' convention, Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis led Bush by 17 points.

By the time the voters went to the polls in November, Bush had overtaken Dukakis and wound up winning by 12 points, perhaps the most remarkable reversal in presidential politics in modern times.

But on this day in 1988 — and in the days that followed — there was considerable gloom in Republican circles and considerable glee in Democratic ones.

Most presidential tickets get some kind of bounce — even a modest one — from their party's convention, and the Bush–Quayle ticket did get a lift.

But there were doubts it would happen while the convention was in progress. And even after polls began to report that the shift was occurring, there were those who believed it wouldn't last.

The Republican gathering in New Orleans was supposed to present the "real" George Bush to the American people. With his announcement 25 years ago today that Quayle would be his running mate, the "real" George Bush may well have been revealed — for good or ill.

It certainly showed his sensitivity to public perception.

By 1988, there were growing concerns about the age of the team leading the executive branch. Outgoing President Ronald Reagan was in his late 70s, and Bush was in his 60s.

There were those who said the Republican Party needed to present a younger face to attract younger voters. I always felt that Bush's selection of Quayle was a clear indication that the vice president was listening to those voices.

"I'm proud to have Dan Quayle at my side," Bush would say — and I am certain there were times in the next four years when Bush regretted making that statement almost as much he must have regretted the "no new taxes" pledge he made a couple of nights later.

Although I often disagreed with Bush, I had to admit that I admired the facts that he didn't pass the buck on his tax reversal, and he stood by his vice president in spite of frequent suggestions that what his campaign for re–election really needed was a new running mate.

When Quayle was introduced as Bush's running mate 25 years ago today — and two days later, when he accepted the nomination — he was whooping and hollering and bouncing around like a preschooler on a sugar binge.

His performances invited ridicule from the late–night TV guys and contributed to the general perception that he wasn't especially bright.

That perception hardened as the nominees entered the fall campaign. Quayle had his debate with Democratic vice presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen for which to prepare; that debate is remembered, of course, for Quayle's comparison of his political experience to that of John F. Kennedy when he sought the presidency nearly 30 years before and Bentsen's rebuttal that Quayle was "no Jack Kennedy."

But even before that debate, Quayle was contributing to his own poor public image by making remarks like this — "The Holocaust was an obscene period in our nation's history. No, not our nation's, but in World War II. I mean, we all lived in this century. I didn't live in this century, but in this century's history" — at a mid–September press conference.

In hindsight, it's hard to imagine that Bush reversed his fortunes with that convention. But he did, or at least he began the process, and it really had nothing to do with Quayle. It had a lot more to do with the famous pledge not to raise taxes that he made in his acceptance speech. That was what the delegates wanted to hear.

It had a lot to do with the fact that Reagan was a popular president who couldn't seek a third term. As far as most of the voters were concerned in 1988, the lesser half of the Reagan–Bush ticket was better than nothing.

And it didn't matter to them who his running mate was. Sure, Quayle was a nuisance and a bit of an embarrassment, but that wasn't particularly important.

The Democrats tried to make Quayle an issue in the '88 campaign, but it didn't really take until four years later — after 3½ years of Quayle's verbal missteps in office.

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