DAN QUAYLE: Late Bloomer

Dan Quayle spent much of his life blissfully AWOL from history, a huge handicap even for a faster learner than he has given evidence of being

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Can one, at this point, disentangle Dan Quayle from Dan Quayle jokes? He seems to induce a short attention span in others, leaving them stunned with a serene vacancy. The New Republic has penalized with mock awards people who are foolhardy enough to speak well of him. Can anyone be taken seriously who takes Quayle seriously?

As the polls show, Quayle has not recovered from the way he was shoved into the public arena under a rain of blows. Gallup reported last month that 54% of the public -- including 43% of Republicans -- said he is not qualified to be President; 49% thought Bush should pick a new running mate for '92. "My skills," Quayle said recently, "have always been in negotiating and conciliating." That sounds like wishful thinking from a man so long under assault, including the deadly assault of laughter. Like Charlie Chaplin in the ring, what can he do but crouch behind the referee and wave his gloves in vague call-it-off gestures? Yet he practiced conciliation even before he stood so badly in need of it.

When he was elected to the Senate in 1980, Quayle told political scientist Richard Fenno, "I know one committee I don't want -- Judiciary. They are going to be dealing with all those issues like abortion, busing, voting rights, prayer. I'm not interested in those issues, and I want to stay as far away from them as I can." Yet Quayle was not raised among people who shied from extremes. He is the coeval of the cold war: the year of his birth, 1947, also gave us the CIA, the Attorney General's list of subversives and the internal-security program. When Quayle was five years old, Dwight Eisenhower carried Indiana with the help of Quayle's grandfather, publisher Eugene Pulliam, and William Jenner, who were, respectively, the right and the far right of the state Republican Party. When the John Birch Society was set up in 1958 with the thesis that Eisenhower had collaborated with communism, Quayle's parents became enthusiastic supporters of it. James Quayle compared Birch Society founder Robert Welch to the legendary prophet Nostradamus.

When Dan Quayle was starting high school in Arizona, his neighbor Barry Goldwater was beginning his race for the presidency. When Richard Nixon ran for re-election in 1972, Quayle's father decided that Nixon, like Eisenhower, had betrayed the conservative movement -- so Quayle pere supported the insurgent Republican right-wing candidate John Ashbrook. When Quayle entered the Senate, it was as the beneficiary of a conservative political-action- committee blitz that knocked off five liberal Senators that year (including his opponent, Birch Bayh of Indiana). Quayle's whole (short) adult life was spent cocooned in the modern conservative movement. He should have spread his butterfly wings as an ideologue, yet he came out talking compromise. That is the most striking thing about his intellectual formation.

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