BACK in the fall of 1970 a vice president quickly emerged from relative anonymity when he took on the press, charging them with being "nattering nabobs of negatism" and "effete intellectuals." That was Spiro T. Agnew blowing off steam over what he saw as warped news coverage from journalists whose values he disdained.
Now comes Vice President Dan Quayle with his attack on the media, academia, and Hollywood, calling them members of a "cultural elite" bent on destroying the old-fashioned "family values" held by most Americans. His theme is much the same as Agnew's, although his target is a little bigger. And he is stirring up a national debate over what America's values should be.
I was on the Agnew plane to the West Coast when he exploded in anger at the press. The alliteration in his words came from speechwriters Bill Safire and Pat Buchanan. But the ire was Agnew's - and President Richard Nixon's.
In a few years, of course, that Agnew critique on the values of others became patently hypocritical as he left office in shame after pleading nolo contendere to charges of dishonest dealings while governor of Maryland.
And we all vividly remember what happened to Mr. Nixon as the nation now looks back 20 years to the political scandal that forced him from office.
Does Mr. Quayle enter this debate about proper conduct with clean hands? Well, there are those charges that he asked for and received preferential treatment in gaining a place in a National Guard unit not headed for action in the Vietnam War. But both the Quayle and his wife, Marilyn, are widely perceived, I believe, as honest, family-oriented, churchgoing "good folks" by most Americans.
The chief rebuttal to Quayle's position on morality comes from those who say they have a different view of "family values." Bearing on this is an op-ed piece in the New York Times by John E. Frohnmayer, who holds a master's degree in Christian ethics and, until recently, was chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts.
To Quayle's statement that "We need to have a discussion among ourselves on moral values," Mr. Frohnmayer replies: "Yes ... Let's talk, publicly and rationally, about abortion and homelessness and poverty and education and quality of opportunity." Thus, Frohnmayer echoes the liberals' position on morality: that it should focus on compassion.
Quayle stirred a storm by faulting the heroine of a TV sitcom, Murphy Brown, for choosing to have a child out of wedlock. He also criticized abortion, homosexual parents, sex education in elementary schools, and the handing out of condoms in some high schools.
Of his critics, the vice president has said: "To appeal to our country's enduring basic moral values is to invite the scorn and laughter of the elite culture ... I wear their scorn as a badge of honor."
I believe there has been a glaring omission in much of the media coverage of the Quayle morality speeches. It leaves out Quayle's contention that his position is not simply a defense of the traditional family - that it goes far beyond that.
"We are for all Americans," he said. "We are for compassion and tolerance. We are, after all, commanded to love our neighbor. But we do not believe that being compassionate and tolerant means abandoning our standards of right or wrong, good or bad. We do not think that tolerance requires abandoning our belief in the family."
Quayle says this of the "cultural elite": "But when the tragic consequences of their moral cynicism become apparent, do they pause to rethink their views? No. Do they even acknowledge the consequences - an ever-increasing rate of illegitimacy, youthful promiscuity, 1.6 million abortions every year? No. They deny that values have consequences."
Well, this ideological battle now has become central to this year's presidential-election campaign. Personally, I cannot see why there should be any implied choice between old-fashioned family values and compassion for others in society - why we cannot hold to those beliefs and still reach out to others with tolerance and love.