In the annals of serious campaign issues, Vice President Quayle's misspelling of "potato" probably doesn't mean squat.
But in the six days since Quayle insisted it was "potatoe" at a Trenton, N.J., spelling bee, the gaffe has reverberated through the popular culture with gale-force intensity. Most newspapers initially dismissed the incident as a light item on an inside page, but television has run the footage over and over, and late-night comics are again slicing up their favorite target.
"Maybe the vice president should stop watching 'Murphy Brown' and start watching 'Sesame Street,' " cracked Jay Leno.
David Letterman immediately booked William Figeroa, the 12-year-old who had spelled the word correctly ("He needs to study more," the student said of Quayle). MTV ran a brief spoof with Pink Floyd singing, "We don't need no education."
"Quayle Opens Mouth, Inserts Toe," the Atlanta Constitution tittered.
"Quayle Gets Baked, Mashed and Fried," the New York Post announced.
Newsday columnist Robert Reno even lamented "an inane conspiracy to pretend that Dan Quayle is a serious man who makes an occasional ass of himself."
How can the media make so much of something so silly -- especially when Quayle was repeating a misspelling on a flash card provided by a volunteer teacher?
The answer is that Quayle is vulnerable to the slightest misstep that feeds the popular caricature of him as a dim bulb. The press has a weakness for the simple metaphor that appears to stand for some larger character flaw -- especially if it has been captured on videotape.
Thus, Bill Clinton's "didn't inhale" comment about marijuana seemed to underscore his reputation for slick evasiveness. And the disputed incident in which President Bush appeared unfamiliar with a supermarket scanner brought Bush weeks of ridicule as an out-of-touch patrician.
"Incidents like this, because they seem to reinforce a candidate's weakness, tend to be blown way out of proportion," said Thomas Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution. "People just laugh and laugh. It overwhelms the message Quayle has assiduously been trying to convey over the last month."
Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, said, "Quayle is getting beaten up because a lot of people are upset that he's being treated much more seriously. This puts him back in the court jester mode. . . . If Bill Clinton fails to spell potato, it wouldn't have done anything. If Quayle fails to spell potato, he gets a barrage of jokes and snide remarks."
David Beckwith, Quayle's spokesman, said he has seen the spelling-bee footage on CNN at least 10 times. The clip shows Figeroa properly writing "potato" on the blackboard while Quayle, smiling, says, "Add a little bit on the end there."
"The story managed to keep going," Beckwith said. "I don't want to imply it was a plot or anything. . . . There are a lot of people who sized him up one way in 1988 and are extremely eager for any straw they can grasp that will confirm their erroneous preconception."
Quayle's wife, Marilyn, expressed her "complete and total irritation," telling CNN that "Dan can give five speeches a day for 25 months, never make a mistake; he makes one mistake, it's aired and aired and aired and aired." Quayle said he should have caught the error, but admitted on the PBS "MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour" that it was "too good of a story to pass up."
Even Quayle's effort to laugh off the incident brought out the gaffe patrol. Quayle joked that "as Mark Twain once said, 'You should never trust a man who has only one way to spell a word.' "
The Associated Press, quickly surveying Twain experts, rushed to report that "Twain may never have said that." After Quayle's office said he got the quote from the "Dictionary of Humorous Quotations," the AP moved a second story saying the quote was cited as being Twain's in two other books as well. CNN reported Quayle's explanation but said it still could not verify the quote.
"The press is a lot more reluctant to admit its errors," Beckwith said.