But on Tuesday 16 August 1988, when George Bush announced at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans that the 41- year-old Indiana senator was his surprise choice for running mate, Quayle lost control of his fate. By election time, less than three months later, he was a shaken man with a tattered reputation.
In an interview he agreed that the headline on the story of his 1988 campaign could be: 'Control freak loses control.'
'I just miscalculated,' Quayle said. 'And perhaps overestimated my skills. And did not have a good understanding of what the national political scene was going to demand of me. I didn't handle things as well as I should have.'
Bush's campaign team, left in the dark until the last minute and surprised by his choice, was equally unprepared. The next call to Quayle that Tuesday afternoon came from the campaign chairman, James Baker - afterwards Bush's Secretary of State - who told the Quayles to make their way to the Spanish Plaza, the riverside dock where Bush planned to present his running mate.
Marilyn Quayle recalled her husband telling Baker: 'I'm looking at the Spanish Plaza on TV and there are thousands of people there. There's no way you can get us there.' But 'you know how Jimmy (Baker) is,' she continued. ' 'Trust me. Trust me . . . We'll find you in the crowd. We'll get you in there.'
'They didn't send a soul,' she said. 'Nothing.' It was the first of many complaints the Quayles would have about Baker during the campaign.
Baker's recollection is that outriders were dispatched but could not locate the Quayles. After fighting their way through the mob, the Quayles finally reached the stage for Bush's introduction.
'You can see that I was quite excited. And probably a bit hot,' recalled Quayle, who has watched taped replays of that moment. 'I can't remember with any degree of reflection what I said. I'm sure it was brilliant and to the point,' he joked.
In fact, what he did in his first moment in the national political sun was to tell the story of a man who stopped him in the crowd, and urged him to tell Bush to 'Go get 'em]' Quayle grasped Bush by the arm and shoulders again and again, and cried out to the crowd: 'Let's go get 'em. All right? You got it?' Calming down a little, he said he was 'honoured' and 'humbled', and pledged to fight for what he called 'George Bush's America'.
The media coverage compared Quayle to a cheerleader or a game-show contestant who had just won the Oldsmobile.
Quayle did not need a terribly weighty message for the nation, but he had practically no message at all. There had been no private moments to talk with Bush before the announcement. In fact, he had never had a substantive conversation with Bush about serving as his running mate, or about Quayle's role in a future administration. 'We walked right up on stage,' Quayle said. 'Boom, that's it. And the private moment was in the car on the way back to the hotel.'
Quayle's performance in the 72 hours after his introduction as Bush's running mate etched into the minds of millions of Americans a picture of a stumbling, inarticulate young politician, struggling with questions about his military service, family background, personal wealth and academic record.
After those first three days, American voters did not get another serious look at Quayle until the evening of 5 October when, according to virtually all pundits and polls, he was bested by Senator Lloyd Bentsen, of Texas, the Democratic vice- presidential nominee, in a 90-minute televised debate.
And after that - by deliberate design of the Bush campaign team - Quayle was rarely seen again. A senior campaign official recalled that Baker and Stuart Spencer, a veteran California campaign consultant who managed the vice-presidential effort, decided to 'go out and bury him' by scheduling Quayle only for events likely to generate minimal national news coverage.
The snapshots that remain of the campaign - Quayle's dockside over-exuberance, Quayle staring into the camera like a trapped fawn as he was bombarded with questions the day after his introduction, Quayle enduring the 'You're no Jack Kennedy' rebuke from Bentsen - explain much of the continuing perception of him as a lightweight and, for many, a joke.
Quayle said he had known in advance that there would be shock and consternation if he were chosen. On the final weekend before the convention, while visiting his brother-in-law's home in Paoli, Indiana, he decided to share his worries with Baker in a telephone call.
'Jim,' he remembered saying, 'you know if it's me, there's a lot of education that needs to be done. There's who I am, and all that.' According to Quayle, Baker replied: 'Don't worry about it, we have that all taken care of.'
At a news conference with Bush on Wednesday 17 August, the morning after Quayle's selection had been announced, Quayle was battered with questions about his academic record, and whether family connections had kept him out of Vietnam by helping him to secure a place in the National Guard. Quayle 'looked like he'd taken a bad punch,' recalled the campaign's television consultant, Roger Ailes, who had worked on Quayle's 1986 Senate race and had promoted him for the vice- presidency. 'That's the first time I saw that deer-in-the-headlights look. I had never seen it in 1986, and I thought: 'Oh shit, we'd better get a hold of this thing.' '
That night, in a misguided damage- control operation, Quayle was sent out to give television interviews. In them he said that 'phone calls were made' to ease his way into the National Guard, and his recollections appeared vague enough to suggest that he might be concealing significant details. He had raised more questions than he had answered.
In the early hours of Thursday morning, 18 August, Quayle was called out of bed to be grilled on his past by the campaign's high command. Richard G Darman, a Baker protege, led the inquisition. He later said that Quayle never concealed anything from the campaign and never changed his story, except to add details as they pressed him to search his memory.
'Getting Dan . . . up at three in the morning to discuss things,' said Marilyn Quayle, was 'just stupid, stupid] I think there was a frenzy in the press and that produced a frenzy among people who would normally be a little bit more level-thinking.'
The media pack's next crack at Quayle came on Friday afternoon at a news conference in his home- town of Huntington, Indiana - one of the ugliest confrontations in the annals of press and politics, with repeated and ever-sharper questions on the National Guard. Mitch Daniels, a lawyer- politician who had worked on Quayle's first Senate campaign, called the staging of the event amid a home-town crowd openly antagonistic to the reporters 'a terrible mistake. It poisoned the atmosphere for another several weeks'.
After the Huntington debacle, Quayle returned to Washington for several days of briefings. But by then most of the damage had been done. Back on the road, he fought constantly with handlers who wanted him to give up the off- the-cuff speaking that had worked so well for him in Indiana and stick to the texts they had written.
But when Quayle was allowed to ad lib, he frequently embarrassed Bush with some of his now- famous gaffes. Commenting in a Chicago speech on the need for strong national defence, he noted that 'Bobby Knight (a basketball coach) told me this. He says: 'There is nothing that a good defence cannot beat a better offence.' In other words, a good offence wins.'
A few days later Quayle called the Nazi Holocaust 'an obscene period in our nation's history'. Trying to explain what he meant, he added: 'I didn't live in this century.'
But Darman faulted the handlers more than Quayle's inability to change his customary way of operating. 'He is a youthful, take- off-your-jacket, mix-with-the- crowd (campaigner) . . . His energy level was a plus. His unmanaged style was a plus. They didn't see it that way.' Their approach, Darman said, was: 'Put him in a blue suit. Don't let him take off his jacket in a crowd . . . Keep him behind the podium. Make him look dignified. They tried to make him into something he wasn't'
What lingers for Dan and Marilyn Quayle in their pained recollections of that fall are the humiliations, large and small, that they said were heaped upon them by the handlers.
More than anyone or anything else, more than the reporters whom Marilyn Quayle said were 'truly animals', the Quayles identified Baker with the incidents that caused them trouble.
It was Baker, Quayle recalled, who promised that the inevitable press inquiries about his selection would be handled.
It was Baker, Marilyn Quayle remembered, who said: 'Trust me' about the logistics of the waterside announcement.
It was Baker, Quayle said, who told him he would have handlers assigned to him. 'He said: 'Don't worry. Whoever (Bush's choice) is, we have the best team in place already.' '
Asked who told him to answer reporters' questions in Huntington, Quayle said: 'I think it was Baker . . . Baker was with us, so I presume it was Baker.'
Baker has said that he was involved in all these decisions, but cannot recall whether he gave specific instructions.
When the media reported that Quayle was going to take charge of his own campaign, he got a call from Baker. The message, as Quayle remembers it, was blunt: 'Well, we just read . . . how you're really going to be on your own. Well, now, just, just be careful. You want to listen, you want to listen to us.'
'And I said: 'Look] Forget it] I'm talking to whoever I want to talk to. And I'm basically going to say whatever comes to mind.' '
In the end, it did not matter much. Until election day, the spotlight of media attention never again fell on Quayle.
Quayle said he took some comfort in the cynical interpretation of Bush's campaign manager. 'As Lee Atwater said: 'You were the best rabbit we had. Let (the press) chase you, and (they'll) stay off the important things.' '
Tomorrow: Dan and Marilyn, a marriage of true minds.
'The Man Who Would be President Dan Quayle', by Bob Woodward and David S Broder, is published by Sceptre on Thursday at pounds 5.99.
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