This being the political silly season, I thought it would be appropriate that today's look at the '80s feature the time Dan Quayle walked into a rhetorical right cross.
Or left hook, as the case may be.
It happened here in Omaha at the 1988 vice-presidential debate, and I probably was about four blocks away at the time. Let's step into our time machine -- the pastel one with the little alligator on the fender -- and travel back to Wednesday, Oct. 5, 1988:
Dan Quayle made a promise to the American people before the vice-presidential debate: "You're going to see the real Dan Quayle. " Until Wednesday night, many Americans thought the real Dan Quayle was a sunny, overconfident, high-spirited young man who had spent more time on the golf links than in the library. But the Dan Quayle at the debate was a different person: a grim, wooden, frightened fellow who had stayed up late memorizing answers for the big test. So nervous were Bush's handlers that they denied Quayle any chance to be spontaneous, transforming him instead into an automaton searching for prepackaged answers that he could drone out safely.
The central issue of the Omaha debate was whether the 41-year-old Senator from Indiana had the intellect, temperament and judgment necessary to move into the presidency. Three times Quayle was thrown off balance when asked what he would do if he had to take over from George Bush. Quayle could only sputter bland inanities before falling back on his script about his congressional accomplishments. On his third try, he compared the length of his experience with that of John Kennedy in 1960. It proved a fatal flirtation with one of America's most enduring myths. With precision and rhetorical balance, Bentsen uttered four terse sentences. "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."
"That remark was uncalled for, Senator," Quayle interjected. Replied Bentsen: "You're the one that was making the comparison, Senator . . . Frankly, I think you're so far apart in the objectives you choose for your country that I did not think the comparison was well taken." It was as though a respected uncle had reprimanded his young charge for cheekiness.
Afterward, few seemed to care or remember that Bentsen had been evasive in answering questions about his policy differences with Dukakis. Or that many of his responses too were recited verbatim from his stump speech. But never mind. Lloyd Bentsen looked and acted presidential -- indeed, to many he seemed more presidential than either George Bush or Michael Dukakis.
Bentsen also pressed the hot populist buttons that ignite Democratic voters. He played on nationalist sentiments by criticizing the trade practices of foreign countries and by ominously warning of their taking over American businesses. He raised the specter that Republicans are out to slash Social Security -- never acknowledging that he, like Bush and Quayle, had voted for a freeze in cost of living increases. And dusting off a line he had used at the convention, Bentsen articulated the Democratic case against the apparent success of the U.S. economy: "You know, if you let me write $200 billion worth of hot checks every year, I could give you the illusion of prosperity too."
Though Bentsen claimed that his J.F.K. line was spontaneous, it had been germinating for days. The weekend before the debate, the Bentsen camp descended on Austin for practice sessions. In a vacant basement bar adjacent to the Four Seasons Hotel, they set up a mock debate stage. Congressman Dennis Eckart, a golf tee stuck jauntily behind one ear, played Quayle. But Bentsen was nervous; he was not having fun. (They did not realize it at the time, but Bentsen aides mistakenly positioned him at the wrong lectern.) Then at one point Eckart, playing Quayle, compared himself to Kennedy. Bentsen became irritated. According to press spokesman Mike McCurry, he responded, "You're no more like Jack Kennedy than George Bush is like Ronald Reagan." No one commented on the line, and Bentsen's handlers did not even review it on the videotape. But when Quayle cited Kennedy in Omaha, Bentsen was primed.-- Time magazine,
Oct., 17, 1988