DAN QUAYLE'S remarks last week about the TV sitcom "Murphy Brown" were a boon for pundits and comics. The implied parallel between Murphy's decision to have a child and the single motherhood experienced by poor women in South-Central L.A. was tenuous at best. Beyond that, the vice president's words about restoring "order," both in families and on city streets, were enveloped in election-year politics.
Still, his call for frank debate about moral values and their role in shaping society should not be lost in the snickers and sniping. Events ranging from the Wall Street scandals of the late '80s to the rampant looting during the Los Angeles riots raise questions about Americans' ability to distinguish between right and wrong. The moral values crystallized in the Golden Rule and the Biblical injunction to "love one another" undergird a civil, livable society. They too easily get pushed into the backgroun d at a time when self-gratification and material gain are widely glorified.
Last Friday, our Opinion pages carried an article by former Harvard president Derek Bok calling for a social philosophy for the '90s that moves beyond self-serving individualism. He argued that political leaders have a responsibility to direct the country toward a commitment to public service and helping others.
Mr. Quayle's plea for "family values" and President Bush's praise for "thousand points of light" volunteerism touch on such commitment. But strong families and civic-mindedness won't be fostered by words perceived as little more than political tactics. Attacks on the welfare system's incentives against marriage, for instance, have electoral appeal. But how does one restructure the system in a way that encourages employment and family formation? Can such reform work unless it's teamed with stronger public
education, job-training programs, and family-support services?
If the Bush-Quayle ticket persists in making campaign themes out of welfare's impact on family values and out of the decline of moral values generally, all the better. Bill Clinton and Ross Perot, if he runs, should seize the chance to move these subjects beyond catch phrases to useful discussion.