Slowly, a New Image for Quayle

By , Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

THE 1992 political year has given those who still regard Dan Quayle as a lightweight the shocking reminder that every vice president since 1952, with the exception of Spiro Agnew, has become the presidential nominee of his party.

Further, the Washington Post's Bob Woodward and David Broder point out in their widely read series on Mr. Quayle's political odyssey that five of our last nine presidents had once been vice president.

That may reassure supporters of Quayle who believe their man has the stuff to lead the country. They say the still youngish vice president has come a long way from the days when he was a mediocre student at DePauw University who spent his most joyful hours on the golf course. They will tell you their man has grown in office - enough to be fully ready to succeed President George Bush in 1996, or earlier should that become necessary.

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The Woodward-Broder assessment does not give Quayle that much. But it portrays a husband and wife team that has been, and continues to be, politically formidable.

The Post writers found in Quayle a superb tactician who expertly positioned himself to be tapped by President Bush as his running mate and who, along with wife Marilyn, is already preparing to run for the presidency.

Mr. Woodward and Mr. Broder didn't discover much depth in Dan Quayle. But they did find a man who stretches his mental muscles in an effort to grasp issues and deal with problems. Their Quayle is a politician that voters should take seriously.

Woodward and Broder interviewed more than 200 persons for their series - people who grew up with Quayle, who served with him in Congress, who ran campaigns for and against him, and who work with him in the Bush administration.

These people, according to the writers, agreed that Quayle would bring to the White House a basic decency and an even-tempered disposition, that he would bring in an able staff, and that he would bring to the presidency "Ronald Reagan-like conservative convictions about the evils of bureaucratic regulation and high taxes."

"But," they wrote, "even many of his friends and close associates expressed doubts about Quayle's intellectual depth, his knowledge and understanding of history, and his appreciation of the social forces that have shaped his own generation."

Even among Quayle's closest associates, Woodward and Broder found, doubt existed about his readiness to become president - whether he had the needed leadership qualities.

To assess accurately how far Quayle has come in the last three years, one must recall how far down he was in the estimation of most Americans immediately after being picked for the No. 2 spot. "Who is he?" everyone asked.

Within hours came disclosures about Quayle's C-grade academic record and the charges that he had avoided serving in Vietnam by using family clout to nab a National Guard slot.

Only a few hours after Bush picked Quayle, I walked around the floor of the Republican National Convention in New Orleans and talked to at least a score of delegates about that astonishing selection. Some I interviewed were moderate Republicans; most called themselves conservatives. All deplored the choice. Some thought it would cost Bush the election.

During the campaign the intense criticism of the selection - and of Quayle himself - continued unabated. Since the election, the Quayle-bashing has gone on and on. He's tried hard to get up off the mat - but to little avail, at least until recently.

But of late I see the vice president making some headway in reshaping his image. The ridicule is dropping off. The public is beginning to view Quayle as a human being, with good points as well as bad. Walter Mondale calls him "Midwest nice." Woodward and Broder take him seriously. The ugly days for Quayle may be at an end.

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