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, Quayle was identified with the New Right, along with Symms and Denton, but Fenno makes it clear that this association wasn’t entirely accurate. On national television after his election to the Senate, Quayle said that the support of the Moral Majority and the National Conservative Political Action Committee had hurt him at the polls. He told Fenno that he didn’t want a seat on the Judiciary Committee because, “They are going to be dealing with all those issues like abortion, busing, voting rights, prayers. I’m not interested in those issues and I want to stay as far away from them as I can.” Like Reagan, Quayle has been able to get the conservative movement’s support without actually joining up. In fact, when he got to the Senate, Quayle quickly took a position that is the legislative version of Reaganism. He did not get involved in domestic social-issue battles or in efforts to cut government programs that put money in the pockets of his constituents; but he was solidly conservative on issues like income tax rates, defense spending, SDI, and aid to the contras, all cases where a conservative policy would not directly harm any organized groups of Indianans. A few years into his term, he had completely abandoned his views about repealing existing laws. He told Fenno, “I like to accomplish things. It doesn’t do any good to take a pure position against government when there are national problems to be solved. It may make you feel good, but it ain’t the way the world is.”

Quayle’s main achievement, the Job Training Partnership Act of 1982, is the result of his having quickly adopted this new approach when he got to the Senate. Much of Fenno’s book is devoted to a detailed account of the formulation and passage of JTPA. The story makes Quayle look good, but only just; even this, his finest hour, betrays a characteristic bumptiousness. For one thing, his engagement in the issue of job training was an accident. He joined the Labor and Human Resources Committee when he saw that he could quickly become the second-ranking Republican member on it, even though, as he told Fenno, “I didn’t have any interest in it, to tell you the truth.” He chose Employment as his subcommittee because back in Indiana the unemployment rate was high, and a big political issue—it had worked wonders in the race against Bayh.


Then the Reagan administration eliminated the Comprehensive Employment and Training Administration. CETA, a big federal jobs program, had the misfortune of being born (in 1973) some years after the issue it was supposed to address (black teen-age unemployment) had ceased to be fashionable politically. By the time Reagan came to office it had the distinction of being probably the most vulnerable politically of all existing federal programs. In 1981, some parts of CETA were shifted into a block grant, but its Public Service Employment component was, at $4 billion, David Stockman’s single biggest budget cut.

Quayle’s subcommittee had jurisdiction over the parts of CETA that survived. Quayle had the good sense to hire Robert Guttman, a job-training consultant at the Congressional Research Service and a liberal, as staff director of the subcommittee, and together they decided to write a bill creating a new job training program. The bill had a Quayle cast in that it gave business groups control over local job training programs, but it’s clear that the serious work on it was done by Guttman. Guttman is certainly not the first staff member in the Senate to have written a bill for his boss, but on the other hand, if Quayle had hired a different staff director, or if Stockman had left CETA intact, there might have been no Job Training Partnership Act, and Quayle might not have been vice-president.

Quayle’s contribution, as described by Fenno, was twofold: he lined up the ranking Democrat on the Labor Committee, Edward Kennedy, as cosponsor and he kept fighting for JPTA despite complete lack of cooperation from other Republicans. Among Quayle’s natural allies on the bill—Orrin Hatch, the committee chairman, Raymond Donovan’s Labor Department, the White House staff, and the Office of Management and Budget—everyone, in Fenno’s account, was a hindrance to him.

The decision to cooperate with Kennedy suggests that Quayle is naturally more inclined toward making deals than ideology; what made him push for JPTA has more to do with the athlete’s competitiveness than with the statesman’s resolve. Fenno repeatedly refers to Quayle as a “kid.” He is impulsive, smart-alecky, and incautious (surely he will live to regret having said to Fenno, “Hatch doesn’t accomplish anything”). Nor did he learn to become an expert on job training in the way that Sam Nunn became an expert on defense. After JPTA was passed, Fenno accompanied Quayle to a seminar being held for the leading job-training specialists in Washington and was surprised to find that Quayle knew only two of the thirty-two people there.

Congress passed JPTA at the height of the Reagan recession, when the unemployment rate was approaching 10 percent. Reagan chose to sign the bill (which he had had so little hand in) on national television, surrounded by grateful job trainees rather than the customary phalanx of congressional sponsors. Quayle was not invited, and his press secretary let slip the comment that the administration had thrown roadblocks in the way of the bill. This was reported on the network news. When Quayle asked the White House to restage the signing with him (and a photographer) present, he got a humiliating answer—he had to sneak in through the side door of the White House, and he couldn’t bring his family. On the instinct that he had better have some visual evidence of his achievement, he swallowed his pride and went anyway.

Even so, he was hesitant at first to talk about JPTA in Indiana, apparently because he was afraid his constituents might not appreciate his sponsorship of a federal social program. By the fall of 1986, though, it had become his main theme, used constantly in speeches and ads. He had come to realize the immense political benefit, even for a conservative, of being identified with a government program that pours money into his district for a noncontroversial purpose. As he told Fenno, “With JPTA I can focus on jobs instead of trade. After all, what’s the purpose of trade except jobs? With jobs you can go in almost any direction. You can use it to lead into any subject. That’s the beauty of it.”

Quayle turned forty a few months after his reelection to the Senate. Up to then the main point of his life, judged from the outside, is that he was lucky—lucky in being born into a rich and powerful family, lucky in having escaped hard times, and lucky politically. He won his seats in the House and the Senate because his democratic opponents were so well entrenched that no important Republicans wanted to run against them; and, then, Quayle’s opponents in his reelection campaigns were easy marks for defeat. In 1986 the Democratic party, in desperation, held auditions for its Senate nominee and picked Jill Long, a member of the Valparaiso city council, who refused to criticize Quayle during the campaign on the grounds that she was “not running for Godfather of the Mafia.”


To Quayle himself, the lesson of his thirties may be somewhat different: in all three of his most important campaigns—for the House in 1976, the Senate in 1980, and for JPTA in 1982—he triumphed by ignoring advice to be cautious and patient. He chose instead to follow this rule: “Just go for it.” He told Fenno, “I have complete confidence that whatever I want to do, I can do. I am confident that things will turn out right for me. And they always have.” This attitude surely led Quayle, after he received last summer the Bush campaign’s questionnaire for potential vice-presidential nominees, to decide to wage a real campaign for the job. Calls were made, interest expressed, support lined up. Quayle’s friend Ken Adelman, the former head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, wrote a column in the Washington Times two weeks before the Republican convention promoting Quayle, which Bush read.

It isn’t hard to imagine what Bush saw in Quayle. The campaign’s background checks revealed that several potential vice-presidents had lied on the questionnaire. But Quayle hadn’t, and this added to his aura of being clean-cut, fresh. The leading contender, Bob Dole, was considered lacking in the virtue that ranks highest in the Bush pantheon, loyalty. Besides, he was too strong a personality. Jack Kemp, the next in line, has a reputation for having inflexible opinions about everything, always expressed at great length. Kemp would have appealed to the right, but Bush may have felt someone more like Reagan would have the same appeal—someone, that is, who could charm the conservatives without tiresomely pushing their agenda inside the White House. Like Reagan, Quayle can dish out the kind of attacks on big government that Bush (being part of the problem) has always been so awkward at himself, but unlike Reagan, or Dole, Quayle would be easily dominated by Bush. As we have seen since the election, Bush is drawn to the boyish, athletic qualities he seems at pains to project. Indeed, Quayle has an ever larger supply of these qualities than Bush does. His friends call him “Danny,” a nickname that (like “Ron”) has a healthy, all-American feel. (“Poppy,” on the other hand, has something slightly precious about it.) Up until the moment his nomination as vice-president was announced, Quayle appeared to be, like Reagan, the kind of man that most people just like.

In fact, Quayle and Bush together provide a wonderful controlled experiment in the socialization of rich kids. As an aspiring regular guy Bush has the disadvantage of his eastern patrician upbringing. But Quayle is younger and he was raised in the interior; he never went to eastern “elite schools.” He grew up without having to acquire Bush’s self-importantly modest patrician obsessions such as service, duty, and self-restraint. Bush says in his memoirs that he decided to go into politics because of “my feeling that we had an obligation to put something back into a society that had given us so much”; Quayle told Fenno that he went into politics because “I looked around and thought, ‘This is fun.”‘ Quayle’s is the salesman’s creed that companionability and positive thinking are the keys to life. “All the reporters ask me about my failures,” he told Fenno. “There are no failures. Failures? Failure isn’t in my vocabulary.” It’s easy to imagine him, if he’d been less lucky, as the head of the biggest GM dealership in Fort Wayne. The outcry during the campaign about his military record and his performance in school doesn’t seem to have deepened, tempered, or chastized him. It must have been a harrowing experience, but instead of being instructive, it appears to have reinforced an indifference to criticism: if you begin to believe that the critics might be right, you will jeopardize your number one asset, confidence. You just keep plunging ahead.

As vice-president, Quayle is said to want to establish three “themes” for his term of office: space exploration, “competitiveness,” and arms control. The political lesson of JPTA has clearly sunk in—in all three Quayle can, without seeming to be a liberal, identify himself with government initiatives that are likely to be popular. He also learned from JPTA how much help a good staff can be. He has brought Robert Guttman over from his Senate office to be chief of the vice-presidential staff.

So far Quayle has spoken to the religious broadcasters, the right-to-lifers, and the Conservative Political Action Conference, three groups that, to judge from Fenno’s evidence, he doesn’t much care about and that he may see as potentially damaging to his career. His trip to Latin America became the inspiration for another defense of the contras. All of his most visible moments in the vice-presidency so far have involved his playing the Bush administration’s emissary to the right. It may be that this will be the only way he can get in the spotlight, in which case his pursuit of the three “themes” will never see the light of day.

Even if they did, he probably would still have a hard time functioning as vice-president. You can go a long way in American politics without having any of the virtues that are put on display on the Washington talk shows on Sunday morning. Someone who is companionable, respectful of his colleagues, and attentive to his district, but incapable of impressive discourse on the larger issues would not appear out of his depth even in the Senate or a governor’s office. Quayle has gone far by virtue of being a nice attractive guy. Now, suddenly, he has reached a level of politics where the rules are different, where people expect gravitas too. Many senators, foreseeing this, spend years carefully preparing themselves to seem deep enough for national politics. Quayle never did. The very velocity of his ascent may now be his greatest liability.

All vice-presidents are prisoners of the luck of being chosen, but Quayle, being more lucky than most, is especially trapped. Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, and Hubert Humphrey had strong public images that benefited in the vice-presidency from a cooling down period, during which they could seem less of a witch hunter, or less of a dealer, or less a liberal softy. But Quayle’s problem is more a problem of omission than of commission. In 1986 Fenno sat in on a campaign strategy session with Quayle and his top adviser, at which, he reports,

the young senator said, “You’ve characterized the others by what they did before they got into politics. [Gov. Otis] Bowen was a country doctor. [Sen. Richard] Lugar was a Rhodes Scholar. What are we going to say about me before I got into politics—that I was a newspaperman?” One of his friends said, “No, we’ll call you Dan Quayle, student.” Another chipped in, “How about Dan Quayle, father?” And amid general hilarity, another said, “After all, you were only twenty-nine; we’ll just say you never did anything else.”

No one claims Quayle did much in the House, or in the Senate; he had only the one major bill. Now he has a job in which it is by definition impossible to get credit for doing anything. In 1996, at forty-nine, his history might well still be exactly the same as it is now.

If Quayle were someone who enjoyed contemplation, he might profit at least in a personal way from the vice-presidency. But having arrived at his lofty station (after all, he has to be considered the early favorite for the Republican nomination in 1996) through guileless ambition he is now being called upon to be guarded, careful. There is no evidence in Fenno’s book that he possesses these qualities. In 1986, Fenno asked Quayle how he would feel if the Democrats got their majority in the Senate back, and Quayle’s answer sounds like a description of his feelings about the vice-presidency:

I only know that I will hate it. I’ll hate it. What I like about this job is being able to set the agenda, get my teeth into things, and have an impact. I want to affect the results. If I can’t, I’m not interested. My staff gets very nervous thinking about me being in the minority. They remember that in the House if I couldn’t affect something, I ignored it. I’m not happy going off making speeches somewhere if I can’t influence the results. I suppose the minority can do more in the Senate. It will be interesting to see what I do. But I know I’ll go crazy.

This Issue

March 30, 1989