"Be careful what you wish for," the old saying goes. "You might get it." That bit of folk wisdom must be running through the minds of the two most prominent dropouts from the Republican presidential field of 2000 -- Dan Quayle and Lamar Alexander.
A little more than a decade ago, they would have been on any short list of the most promising GOP politicians under 50. Alexander had turned in two successful terms as governor of Tennessee and was serving as president of the University of Tennessee; Quayle had beaten an incumbent Democratic House member in his home district of Indiana, had upset the best Democratic vote-getter in Indiana, Birch Bayh, to move to the Senate, and was beginning to make a name for himself there as a defense expert and author of manpower training legislation.
Both of them were eager to move up, and both found their wishes fulfilled by George Bush. The irony that they have been bested by Bush's son, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, in part because of the favors the elder Bush granted them has not been lost to either man. Quayle, who was barely into his second Senate term in 1988, later confirmed to Bob Woodward and me how he had contrived that spring to bring himself to the attention of then-Vice President Bush -- dropping by Bush's Capitol Hill office and chatting him up on the national security issues both men found fascinating. His reward came that summer when Bush astonished the political world and dismayed some of his advisers by picking Quayle as his running mate at the New Orleans convention.
Alexander, who, like Bill Clinton, had been a prime mover in the National Governors' Association efforts to spur education reform in the early 1980s, was one of many eager Republicans passed over for the V-P spot when Bush chose Quayle. But he received a consolation prize when Bush brought him into the Cabinet in 1990 as education secretary.
Both the Bush choices backfired on the chosen ones. Quayle was ill-prepared psychologically and inadequately staffed when Bush, on three hours notice, introduced him to a disbelieving Republican audience and an unbriefed press corps as the man who would be just a heartbeat away from the Oval Office.
Quayle choked and stammered his way through a chain of interviews, unable for agonizing days to put to rest rumors that family influence had gained him a place in the safe haven of the Indiana National Guard during the Vietnam War. That the charges ultimately appeared to be shaky did him no good, because he furnished the late-night comedians so many opportunities to ridicule his spelling, his grammar and his whole persona. Even when he beat Al Gore on most scorecards in their 1992 vice presidential debate, the press corps seemed unable to forget how badly Quayle had been routed by Lloyd Bentsen in a similar debate four years before.
The vice presidential years not only ruined Quayle's reputation, they inflated his ego -- to the point that he rejected urgings from his Indiana friends to come home and run for governor in 1996. He was beyond that, he thought. This year, much too late, he realized what a mistake that had been. Having beaten incumbents in his earlier races, he told me he thought incumbency had no particular value. But running against a sitting governor, he confessed, had taught him "the value of having a current title in front of your name."
For Alexander, the Bush administration years proved to be a different kind of burden. The president he served had no interest in education policy, so the crack team Alexander assembled in his department was constantly thwarted by White House indifference and budgetary hostility.
Instead of running in his first presidential bid in 1996 as a man who had accomplished great things for Tennessee in education and economic development, Alexander tried to disown his Washington experience and position himself as an anti-Washington candidate. His professions of scorn for both the White House and Congress (Remember his slogan "Cut their pay and send them home") seemed hypocrisy coming from a man who had spent years on the banks of the Potomac.
If you matched Alexander's ability as a speaker and his accomplishments as a governor and a leader among governors with those of Gov. Bush, the comparison would not be damaging to Alexander. It was the years of futility in the elder Bush's Cabinet that spoiled his resume.
Both Quayle and Alexander ran honorable campaigns this year. They left the race with their heads high, and both may have further opportunities for public service.
But they'll think twice before asking another president to fulfill their wishes.