Quayle: President in His Own Mirror
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 14, 1999; Page A1
Dan Quayle doesn't see himself as others see him.
That's the key, according to his friends and close advisers. It's why Quayle will announce today, in his boyhood home of Huntington, Ind., that he is running for president of the United States. In interviews he says quite confidently that he is going to win. Pay no attention to those early polls that show him drawing single-digit support, miles behind the early favorites. Quayle says he likes being the underdog.
Dan Quayle, the human punch line, scorned on scores of Internet sites, shoo-in for the late-night talk show Hall of Fame -- enshrined somewhere between Joey Buttafuoco and Kato Kaelin. The man who said:
"I didn't live in this century."
And, at an AIDS clinic during the early days of the drug AZT: "Are they taking DDT?"
And, "What a waste it is to lose one's mind." (He was trying for "A mind is a terrible thing to waste.")
That is not the way he sees himself. The Dan Quayle running for president is another character entirely, the dashing hero of a drama only the candidate and his most faithful followers still remember. Before the taunting and the ridicule, there was a young, bold, never-beaten Indiana super-pol. Elected to Congress over an entrenched incumbent in 1976 at the age of 29 . . . conqueror four years later of liberal stalwart Birch Bayh to enter the Senate . . . victorious as vice president in 1988 at a mere 41.
This Dan Quayle decided to go flat-out for the vice presidency in '88 because he was at roughly the same age that Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt made their vice presidential bids. That's how Quayle sees himself. Having climbed so many steps so quickly, Quayle can't imagine stopping short of the top.
"He doesn't buy the media image of him," says Quayle's former chief of staff, William Kristol. "And if you don't buy the image, why wouldn't you run? He's the former vice president, he's been a successful politician all his life, and he sees no one else in the race to whom he should defer."
So it is that Dan Quayle, now 52, is sitting for an interview in a hotel suite overlooking New York's Central Park, laying out with calm self-confidence his plan for winning the Republican presidential nomination. The American people are, he insists, fundamentally fair, and when he offers them his experience and his foreign policy expertise, they will consider him anew. He will explode to an early victory -- a dazzling debate performance, perhaps, followed by a win in the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary and then, zoom.
"I have to win early," he says. "The question right now is: Can he win? I've done it before. I've come from behind. I've been an underdog. I know what it takes. . . . And when I win early, then the question is answered. The glass ceiling is broken and we're on to victory."
It's not easy chasing the White House. Some people run because opportunity knocks, some run to champion a particular agenda, and some -- maybe most -- run because when they look in the mirror they see a president. Quayle is this last type. "I think he's had it in mind since he left office," says longtime friend and aide Mitch Daniels. That's a cautious estimate -- Quayle says he began weighing a presidential bid in his thirties.
And why not? His mirror reflects a president straight from Central Casting. Quayle has aged into an almost unbelievably handsome man, slim and tan with clear blue eyes and graying hair -- he no longer has the air of a fading frat boy. If passing 50 were like this for all men there would be no more market for red convertibles.
While he still shows no sign that he will ever become an orator, in his maturity Quayle speaks with some poise and produces fewer blunders. He can deliver a sound bite with efficiency: "Milosevic has a better claim on Kosovo than Ho Chi Minh had on Vietnam," he says, culminating an attack on President Clinton for blundering toward another possible quagmire.
As former vice president, he is the highest-ranking elected GOP official still in the fray. He has strong conservative credentials without a tinge of the extreme. He has three children and just one wife.
"He feels he's up to the job and he trusts his political abilities," says Daniels. "Every time he's run in his own stead, he's won -- often when people said he wouldn't win."
But in the calculus of the Republican elite, those pluses can't offset the One Big Minus. GOP money people, strategists, policy wonks, local officials and apparatchiks have stampeded past their former vice president to embrace Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Quayle has "a semblance of support" among Christian conservatives, according to a leading Washington Republican, "but do you hear a hue and cry out there for Quayle to run? It's hard to find any hue and cry."
Another GOP insider puts it more strongly: "I am still waiting to meet someone who says, 'What we need is Dan Quayle.' I'm not saying that's fair, necessarily. But it's the truth."
"Sure, he's a logical nominee," says another party leader, "except that 80 percent of Republicans think he can't win."
Quayle was never the darling of the party core. "I think it's fair to say that at the time he got picked" to run for vice president on a ticket with Bush's father, "there was a fair amount of wondering, why Dan Quayle?" says a senior Senate aide of the period.
When Quayle began the 1988 campaign with one mistake after another -- bouncing like a cheerleader as his selection was announced, bumbling the explanation of his Vietnam-era service in the National Guard, botching speeches and mangling news conferences -- few in the party rushed to his side.
As a result, the normal Republican process -- a plodding, reliable machine that seals the nomination of the man who is Next in Line -- has skipped over Quayle. But he isn't taking the hint. Quayle's hope is that Bush will be all show and no substance, and, in a complete reversal of his current image, Dan Quayle will emerge as the candidate of ideas.
Quayle takes obvious pleasure in recalling the Bush White House, where George W. and his younger brother Jeb -- now governor of Florida -- were fixtures. Jeb was the guy with substance, Quayle says, while George W. cared only for politics. "If anyone was going to run for president, we thought it would be Jeb."
Sooner or later, Quayle says, the Texas governor will have to end his stay-at-home strategy and hit the trail. "He's got to get out there and campaign," Quayle says. "The nominee is going to have to go to the people and ask for their support. I think what some [of the party establishment] are doing is that they are substituting polls for an agenda. That to me is a recipe for disaster. I'm prepared to go out and fight for my ideas."
Those ideas are gold-plated Reagan: low-tax, small-government, muscular but not humanitarian foreign policy. Quayle has as good a claim as anyone in the race to the Reagan philosophy, but he is getting low marks for the quality of his campaign so far.
The announcement early this year by Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.) that he would not run for president left the religious conservative vote up for grabs. By all accounts, Quayle has not done much to seize this bloc, even though it is probably his best hope for a firm base.
"If you look back, say four or five months ago, everybody was saying don't discount Quayle -- he's the candidate for that wing of the party," a GOP strategist says. "I don't think you can honestly say that now, given what [Malcolm S. "Steve"] Forbes is doing."
Forbes, the multimillionaire publishing heir making his second presidential race, has spent most of the past three years wooing the party's evangelical voters. One analyst after another contends that Forbes -- with his lush, self-funded campaign -- has become Quayle's most formidable foe. He can, if he chooses, pour vast sums into dealing Quayle some early defeats, and early defeats might be fatal.
But Quayle seems surprised by the very suggestion that he should worry about Forbes. "I would not anticipate that he would trash me," Quayle says. "I've said before that he is the candidate closest to me on the issues."
Financially, Quayle is second-tier. So far, Bush has outraised him roughly $6 million to $2 million during the first quarter, according to preliminary reports. And Quayle has no plans for reversing that pattern. While the Bush camp boasts of plans to stockpile $50 million by year's end, Quayle speaks of "$20 million -- including matching funds" and adds that "you could get by with less."
"I know virtually nobody in Republican financial circles who doesn't like him, feel he's been mistreated, and wish him well," says a party leader in corporate circles. "I also know very few who are prepared to go to war for him."
Even old friends of Quayle are shaking their heads over his performance in recent weeks. From the first glimmer of his campaign, he has hoped to exploit his foreign policy experience -- both as vice president and on the Senate Armed Services Committee. But when the Kosovo crisis erupted into view, the candidate who stepped forward was Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
When Quayle did surface, in several interviews late last week, he presented a sprawling analysis that ranged from "I'm passionately, passionately opposed to ground forces," to "Ground troops, as much as I'm opposed to it, may be inevitable." Quayle seemed more comfortable raising questions than supplying answers.
"This was a possibility," says a former Quayle adviser. "He could have been out front."
A year from now, the nominees will be chosen. A year can be an eternity in politics -- or it can be the last eye-blink. By his own calculation, Dan Quayle has been pondering a White House bid at least since 1987, even before he ran for vice president. The coming year will resolve a quarter of this man's life.
"The experts and the pundits and the self-anointed -- they've counted me out before," Quayle says. "So go ahead and do it again."
© 1999 The Washington Post Company