ON July 14, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala told a congressional hearing that TV character Murphy Brown, played by Candice Bergen, should not have had a child out of wedlock.
There was little reaction.
Two years ago, then-Vice President Dan Quayle said the same thing. In response, Democrats and Hollywood celebrities excoriated him for allegedly denigrating single mothers. The incident, which occurred during the 1992 presidential campaign, was used by politicians and late-show hosts alike to prove once again that Dan Quayle was a dunce.
The difference is illustrative. After reading Quayle's new book, ``Standing Firm: A Vice-Presidential Memoir,'' one comes away with the feeling that it has been a long time since a public figure has been so badly used by the media.
Hindsight, of course, is always 20-20. But Quayle makes a convincing case that once the press had created a dunderheaded caricature of him, it had a vested interest in maintaining that image. Immediately after George Bush nominated him as vice president, the press put forth a picture of Quayle as an empty-headed child of privilege from a fabulously rich family who used his influence to avoid serving in Vietnam. Even his name, J. Danforth Quayle, seemed to exude this aura (Dan Rather always referred to him as ``J. Danforth Quayle III'').
But as the Washington Post's David Broder and Bob Woodward pointed out in an investigative series on Quayle a few years ago - one for which they took a lot of flak from their peers - the caricature wasn't true. The family wasn't all that wealthy. No influence was used to get Quayle into the Indiana National Guard instead of the regular Army. The ``Danforth'' came from James Danforth, a friend of Quayle's father who was killed in World War II, not from any blue-blooded ancestor.
Quayle had graduated from law school, passed the bar exam, and, after two terms in the House of Representatives, defeated Sen. Birch Bayh (D) of Indiana, one of the Senate's leading liberals, in 1980. No one considered him a simpleton until the days following his nomination as vice president.
So what happened? Quayle blames his unreadiness to face the national press, but more than that, he blames his handlers in the Bush campaign, Stuart Spencer and Joe Canzeri. He claims that they kept him from talking directly to the press and instead fed the media stories about their own prowess and Quayle's ignorance. He blames himself for not dumping them and getting his own campaign people.
Quayle also believes that the press was not expecting Bush to name him, and, caught off guard, reacted with hostility. And he blames James Baker, who he says was never comfortable about the selection of Quayle and wanted to distance himself from it.
After that, Quayle says, the media simply began looking for every gaffe he made and played it up big. He notes, for example, that when Vice President Al Gore Jr. referred to a leopard changing his stripes (instead of spots) it was no big deal. ``If I'd done it, there would have been a week of Quayle jokes on the late-night shows and three dozen editorial cartoons set inside zoos. According to MediaWatch, the famous potato(e) incident received six stories from CNN, NBC, and CBS over four days and thousands of newspaper articles.''
Ah, yes, the potato(e) incident. Quayle says he went into the classroom where a spelling bee was being held and was handed some flash cards with the ``correct'' spellings on them. A boy wrote the word ``potato'' on the blackboard. But the cards, prepared by the school, had the spelling ``potatoe,'' with a final ``e.'' Quayle showed the card to the other adults, everybody nodded, and he told the child he had made a mistake. Only at a press conference did his staff tell him about the error. But it was too late: A legend had been born.
The famous story that Quayle, during a trip to Latin America, said he regretted not having studied Latin harder in high school, was false. It originated as a joke told by Rep. Claudine Schneider (R) of Rhode Island. Even after a Washington Post editorial exposed the story's source, Quayle had to suffer through Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto repeating it at an official dinner.
But there's far more in this book than Quayle explaining his verbal missteps. He discusses his partially successful work as head of the White House Space Council to reform the National Aeronautics and Space Administration; his controversial efforts to trim government regulation as head of the White House Council on Competitiveness; and his role in several foreign crises.
Possibly most interesting, however, is his analysis of where the Bush campaign went wrong in 1992. He lays the blame at the feet of campaign chairman Robert Teeter and poor campaign organization: ``We were going to lose because we were unable to argue convincingly that the economy was recovering - even though that was true.
``Another key factor was that, after twelve years of Republican rule, the media was on the side of Bill Clinton. They too wanted a change. A third and perhaps most decisive factor was that for too long we had adopted our opponents' agenda: compromised on taxes, run away from our foreign policy accomplishments, and let ourselves speak timidly about family values. This was the most poorly planned and executed presidential campaign this century.''
As with most books by politicians, this is not great literature. It is the opening salvo in Quayle's campaign to rehabilitate his image and capture the GOP presidential nomination in 1996. He is an old-fashioned conservative who would be comfortable with much, but not all, of the so-called Christian right's views. He is not shy about talking about his faith, which will inspire some and make others uncomfortable. But the time has come to judge Quayle by his ideas, not by Quayle jokes. This book goes a long way toward helping the reader do that.