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How ‘Murphy Brown’ became a target for Dan Quayle’s moralizing

Left: Vice President Dan Quayle speaks during the vice presidential debate in 1992. Right: Candice Bergen plays Murphy Brown, holding her character's baby on the show. (AP, CBS/Getty Images) (AP/CBS via Getty Images)

At a recent taping for the rebooted sitcom “Murphy Brown,” which premiered Thursday night, ushers handed out “Make America Murphy Again” hats to the studio audience. The show about a tough female political journalist has positioned itself to make the same kind of waves it did during its original run.

The debut included Murphy mixing it up with Donald Trump, and delivering a familiar dig at Dan Quayle.

On May 19, 1992, the campaign for President George H.W. Bush’s reelection was heating up, while the fires of the Los Angeles riots were cooling down. Vice president Dan Quayle was in San Francisco to deliver a speech at the nonpartisan Commonwealth Club of California.

Quayle began by acknowledging the riots that had raged downstate only a few weeks earlier, after the acquittal of police officers caught on video beating Rodney King.

“What happened? Why? And most importantly, how can we prevent it in the future?” he asked.

First, he made clear that only rioters are to blame for riots. But, he added, there was an “underlying situation”: the breakdown of the “traditional” family structure and the “narcotic of welfare.” For the vast majority of the 3,000-word speech, he explained his view that a poverty mind-set is what held back mostly black, urban residents.

And then, toward the end, Quayle added: “It doesn’t help matters when prime-time TV has Murphy Brown, a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid professional woman, mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.”

The night before, 38 million viewers had watched the season finale of the hit show, as acerbic, unmarried journalist Murphy Brown, played by actress Candice Bergen, gave birth and tenderly sang “Natural Woman” to her newborn son.

So with Quayle’s single sentence, a speech primarily about black poverty was forever dubbed the “Murphy Brown Speech.”

Reaction was swift. Later that day, President Bush was hammered with “Murphy Brown” questions at an event with the prime minister of Canada, according to the New York Times.

The next day, the New York Daily News ran the headline: “QUAYLE TO MURPHY BROWN: YOU TRAMP!”

Diane English, the show’s creator, issued a brief statement, saying, “If the Vice President thinks it’s disgraceful for an unmarried woman to bear a child, and if he believes that a woman cannot adequately raise a child without a father, then he’d better make sure abortion remains safe and legal.”

The Washington Post’s Reliable Source offered a juicy tidbit: The vice president had never actually seen the sitcom.

Although Quayle may not have seen the show, the show’s characters were familiar with him. “We had done a Dan Quayle joke every episode. It was a mandate in our writers’ room,” English told Yahoo Entertainment in 2017. To this day, show writer Korby Siamis is convinced Quayle’s condemnation was more about hurt feelings over the constant jibes than conservative ideals.

(Ironically, the Dan Quayle joke in the birth episode had been cut for time.)

The White House tried a variety of responses. First, press secretary Marlin Fitzwater commended Quayle’s stance against “glorification” of single motherhood. Then he commended the show for its “pro-life values,” completely ignoring the episode in which Bergen’s character made a choice not to have an abortion after becoming pregnant — a choice she wouldn’t have been able to make if abortion were illegal.

The debate raged on all summer, an early battle in the hyperpartisan “culture wars” to which Americans have now grown accustomed, with Quayle delivering speeches extolling “family values” and details leaking to the press about the “Murphy Brown” season premiere in which the writers planned to confront the vice president directly.

And all eyes were on Bergen when, in late August, she won an Emmy for outstanding lead actress in a comedy series.

“I’d like to thank the vice president,” she opened her acceptance speech, to rapturous applause. She closed by thanking the writers for “not only writing these great words, but spelling them correctly.” It was another dig at Quayle, who over the summer had misspelled the word “potato” at an event at a school. (Quayle said the word was misspelled on the teacher cue card from which he was reading.)

Quayle responded the next day at a campaign rally in Huntsville, Ala. Perhaps sick of being a punchline to the “cultural elites” he’d been attacking for months, according to the Los Angeles Times, he said: “Last night, they said I attacked single mothers. That’s a lie. … Winning an Emmy is not a license to lie.”

Ultimately, “Murphy Brown” got the last laugh — buckets of the them, in fact. The hour-long season opener used Quayle’s real-life speech to make it appear as though the vice president were attacking Brown in the fictional world. She responds by dumping a truckload of potatoes onto his lawn.

Seventy-million viewers tuned in — about 31 million more than the votes the Bush/Quayle ticket got six weeks later when they lost reelection.

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