Confidence Boy

The Making of a Senator: Dan Quayle

by Richard F. Fenno Jr.
Congressional Quarterly Press, 180 pp., $19.95

Dan Quayle
Dan Quayle; drawing by David Levine

Dan Quayle’s fellow members of the large Republican Senate class of 1980 included Paula Hawkins of Florida, Jeremiah Denton of Alabama, John East of North Carolina, Steve Symms of Idaho, James Abdnor of South Dakota, and Alfonse D’Amato of New York. Richard Fenno’s book on Quayle’s first term in the Senate, which is part of a larger study of the Senate and was written before Quayle became George Bush’s running mate, judges him in comparison to the other freshmen. This explains how a book intended to be complimentary will do little to reassure readers worrying about Quayle’s place in line for the presidency.

Fenno, a political science professor who is working on a long research study of the Senate, first met Quayle in 1980, when he was campaigning against Birch Bayh. At the time, Quayle’s reputation in Indiana was similar to what it is nationally today: he was seen as almost comically lightweight. In 1976, when he ran for the House for the first time, the Republican National Committee refused to give him money because he looked certain to lose; at the official announcement of his candidacy, reporters heard that a police story was breaking and ran out of the hall in the middle of his speech. Though he won the election and served two terms, he had a poor attendance record, had no memorable accomplishments, and was nicknamed “wethead,” because, in the words of one of his aides, “he was always coming out of the gym.” The Republican governor of Indiana, Otis Bowen, tried to discourage Quayle from running for the Senate in 1980, even to the point of making public a list of other people whom he considered to be more suitable Republican candidates.

Quayle’s victory in the Senate race was a surprise, though in hindsight it looks less improbable than it did at the time. There were then 300,000 people out of work in Indiana. Moreover, any Republican statewide candidate has a natural advantage in Indiana, which has voted Democratic in a presidential election only once in the last fifty years. Quayle was further helped by his family’s money and newspapers, and, of course, by Ronald Reagan’s coattails. Fenno portrays Quayle as being a good natural campaigner, in an old-fashioned, that is, pre-television, way—he is enthusiastic and buoyant. He likes to touch people, and in his first three campaigns (without the help of a speechwriter) he was gifted at purveying Lions Club anti-Washington slogans. In the House his first act was to propose a constitutional amendment limiting members of Congress to twelve years of service, and he put his greatest legislative effort during his first term into opposing a pay raise. Fenno quotes him on the stump in 1980: “We need to say ‘No new laws shall be passed.’ Let’s look at the ones on the books and get rid of some we have.”

In the national press,…

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