The US Presidential Elections: The Veep that the President deserves

Click to follow
The Independent Online
'HAWAII is a unique state,' said Vice-President Dan Quayle. 'It is a small state. It is a state that is by itself. It is a - it is different from the other 49 states. Well, all states are different, but it's got a particularly unique situation.'

It is for comments like this that the press and television journalists accompanying the Vice-President were waiting last week as he campaigned to save George Bush's presidency. Ever since his misspelling of 'potato' when visiting a school earlier in the campaign, he has never escaped from the hope in newsrooms across America that he will make a boob of similar dimensions.

All this is a little unfair. On topics he knows about Mr Quayle is often eloquent, though even here he tends to become entangled in his efforts not to commit some further blunder. In Atlanta on Tuesday, for instance, addressing successful pupils who had just completed job training courses, he said: 'If you give a man a fish he will fish for a day.'

The pupils looked perplexed and the press interested. What he meant to say, it later emerged, was a proverb: 'If you give a man a fish he will eat for a day. If you train him to fish he will eat for a lifetime.' The rest of his speech, about his only significant legislative achievement as a senator, the job-training bill of 1982, was forgotten as journalists debated where this verbal slip rated on the Richter scale of Quayle malapropisms and whether it should be the subject of a separate news story.

Outside the building a crowd of Bush-Quayle supporters had been infiltrated by a few protesters, one of whom was holding up a notice which said: 'Dumpe Quayl'. But there is little enough animosity. An anti-abortion campaigner says the Vice-President is the best of a bad lot, but hypocritical in wanting to permit abortions in the case of rape or incest.

The Vice-President knows his duty at this stage of the campaign. He is what the White House is offering to the Republican right wing, visiting the rallies using a small plane landing at obscure airports. In the actual business of moving through the crowds he is as effective as Bill Clinton or Al Gore and much better than George Bush. He not only shakes hands with his right hand but uses his left to grasp the elbow of whomever he is talking to and sometimes follows this up by slapping them gently on the back.

All this is invariably accompanied by a gentle smile and Mr Quayle looks happy and relaxed. But tension usually increases as he starts to speak, not least because he continually dwells on past humiliations. In almost every speech there are references to the famous putdown of himself - 'you are not Jack Kennedy' - by Lloyd Bentsen, the running-mate of Michael Dukakis, in 1988 and his 'potatoe bloomer'. His staff has presumably convinced him that the way to defuse these incidents is to refer to them frequently in a spirit of self-deprecation, but there is also a sense that he still finds these bruises painful.

Yet the comic aspects of Vice- President Quayle divert attention from the fact that his political views do not sell in 1992 as they did in 1988 when he was Mr Bush's surprise choice as running- mate. Four years ago Mr Quayle's anti-abortion views did not lose votes. Today they do because an increasingly conservative Supreme Court has chipped away at the right to abortion, creating a powerful political reaction.

This year it has become difficult for any candidate for political office, however lowly, to win election in states like Illinois and New Jersey, both of which voted for Mr Bush in 1988, if he or she is known to be anti-choice.

President Bush never seemed to take this on board. Right up to the Houston Republican convention he was primarily concerned with conciliating the Republican right. Pat Buchanan was allowed to give an unedited speech declaring war on a variety of cultural enemies. Mr Quayle attacked the media and Hollywood.

The emphasis on family values proved an electoral mistake but the Republican right, in common with other sections of the party, do not want to be saddled with the responsibility for defeat. William Bennett, the former education secretary and a friend of Mr Quayle, says: 'George Bush is where he is politically because of George Bush.' No doubt Mr Bush did underestimate the political impact of the recession. He was also hamstrung by one of his more attractive qualities: an almost obsessive loyalty to those around him which stopped him getting rid of Dan Quayle, just as he had kept on John Sununu, his much detested chief of staff, long after he had become a liability.

Could Dan Quayle be the Republican candidate in 1996? Mr Quayle's speech to the convention in Houston and his combativeness in debate with Al Gore were all directed towards laying the groundwork for some future presidential bid, whoever wins on 3 November. The press was respectful of his efforts on both of those occasions, but one former Republican strategist believes his name on the party ticket is worth 3 per cent of the vote to Democrats. This is probably true. If Mr Bush fails to win a second term it will be because of Bush, not Quayle, but the fact that Mr Bush ever appointed him Vice-President is a measure of why Mr Clinton is so close to victory.

(Photograph omitted)