State of the Debate: Quayle Hunting

Works Discussed
in this Essay:

Dan Quayle, The American Family: Discovering the Values that
Make Us Stay Strong
(HarperCollins, 1996).

Marilyn Tucker Quayle and Nancy Tucker Northcott, The Campaign
(HarperCollins, 1996).

When chosen by George Bush to run as the Republican vice
presidential candidate in 1988, J. Danforth Quayle—as he was
known at the time—was considered almost universally to be a buffoon.
Journalists, pouncing on his privileged background, draft avoidance,
and lack of intellectual heft, widely speculated that Bush had
selected him in the hope that his handsome appearance would attract
women to the ticket. Democrats, in response, tried to make him
a top campaign issue.

The rap against Quayle, though probably accurate, was unfair;
he is not radically less intelligent than other national political
figures. If instead of being vice president, he
had been, say, a member of Oklahoma's congressional delegation,
he might have been considered almost enlightened. Sensing this
inequity, Washington Post heavyweights David Broder and
Bob Woodward published a flattering series on Quayle in 1992.

Thus was born Quayle Revisionism. This theory, advanced in
no small part by the efforts of Quayle and his staff, held that
Quayle was not merely a dim reciter of soundbites unfairly singled
out from other dim reciters of soundbites, but an influential
social critic crucified by a liberal media. Quayle revisionists
claimed vindication ("Dan Quayle Was Right!") after
President Clinton began touting the importance of stable families.
Quayle continues to burnish his image for God-knows-what political
adventures in his future. His blond hair is a darker shade, graying
at the temples; he looks at least 25 years older than he did in
1988. And he and his wife have authored, respectively, a nonfiction
book about American families and a novel that are Quayle revisionist
propaganda tracts.

Dan's book, The American Family, details the
lives of five families—one black, one Hispanic, one white ethnic
urban lower-middle-class, one rural middle-class, and one upper-middle-class—in
order to demonstrate the importance of the American Family, an
institution the author seems to feel is widely disparaged. Quayle
denies any polemical motivations. "Strengthening families
should not be a political issue," he declares at the outset.
Indeed, he praises the "It takes a village" approach
while warning that "if the 'village' is government, then the endeavor is doomed
to fail. . . . Governments don't have the answer." Quayle
proceeds to list public policy recommendations to "strengthen
the family unit": cut taxes, crack down on crime, restore
religion to the public schools, and so on. His strongest counsel
is in the field of education reform; he cites the high priority
the families he interviewed place on education as evidence of
the need for private school vouchers—as if voucher opponents base
their claim on the irrelevance of education.

The book operates on the assumption that the family values it
describes are something everybody can agree on. But it would be
surprising if family values, Quayle-style, were to meet with universal
acceptance. Quayle quotes with approval one family's maxim that
at the dinner table "Children should be seen, not heard."
Or take Carmen's recollection of weighing whether to work after

And my boss said I could have my job back after the period of
time you need to recuperate. But my husband said, "You're
not going to work anymore. You're going to stay home and take
care of the child."

At the end of each chapter, Quayle recounts the lessons learned
from each family, Book of Virtues-style. He cites the above
episode as evidence of "helping your mate feel fulfilled":
"Tony not only accepted Carmen's staying home with the children,"
he observes, putting a slightly more auspicious spin on the incident,
"but welcomed it."

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Using the families he interviews as Rorschach blots in which he
can always see justification for his prejudices, Quayle manages
to sprinkle his priceless political commentary sporadically throughout
The American Family. But his philosophy has not grown
much more sophisticated during his years in the political wilderness.
After telling us how Rob started his business with a $3,000 loan
from his uncle, Quayle observes, "He didn't need government
offices or grants, stipends, or investors." All he needed,
in other words, was rich relatives.

Disappointingly, though, these choice political asides are lost
amidst the relentless banality. Finishing this book was one of
the hardest things I have ever done. Almost as hard, in fact,
as finishing The Campaign, the 478-page hardcover novel
by Marilyn Tucker Quayle and her sister Nancy Tucker Northcott.
During the countless hours I devoted to freeing myself of this
task inflicted on me by The American Prospect's editors,
I spent very little time thinking about what I would write. Mostly,
I escaped into fantasy by plotting ways to avoid finishing the
novel, such as fleeing the country or elaborately faking my own

The Campaign is a projection of the Quayles' worldview.
The hero, Bob Grant, is a fortysomething Republican senator who
serves on the Armed Services Com mittee and believes strongly
in family values. Just in case the real-life parallel is otherwise
lost on readers, Grant's brother is named Tucker, the family name
of both authors as well as the first name of Dan and Marilyn's

The only difference between Grant and Quayle (or at least the
authors' image of Quayle) is that Grant is black. Some whites
are able to write authentically about the black experience. Marilyn
Quayle and her sister are emphatically not among them. Among other
curious details, the book contains a passage explaining that Grant's
grandmother had a child (Grant's aunt) sold into slavery. The
novel takes place in the near future, so let's assume that Grant
was born in 1950, his mother in 1930, and his aunt no earlier
than 1920. This means she was sold into slavery a good 60 years
after the Emancipation Proclamation. The narration of Grandmama
Grant's stories unintentionally employs surrealistically hilarious
dialogue, similar to the scene from the movie Airplane in
which June Cleaver speaks to a pair of black passengers in jive.
"God's a sight smarter than me, and he knew it was time for
that good man to go home," Grandmamma reports. "Won't
be but a winking of the eye, and I'll be taking that fiery chariot
ride, myself." Grant's buddies are just as diverse as the
families that Dan interviews for The American Family, providing
token roles for a Jew, a Hispanic, and an Asian American (who
"possessed the intellectual keenness and physical agility
of his Asian heritage").

All of The Campaign's villains are liberal and all
the liberals villainous. The Democratic vice president is an ineffectual
figurehead, but "the media loved him—he'd grown up and gone
to private schools with many of them." The Democratic President is a slippery, poll-obsessed fellow who is "cultivating
a more conservative image" while cheating on his wife. In
fact, almost all of the liberals cheat on their wives. The exception
is a radical lesbian feminist professor who helps frame Grant
by brainwashing her students against him. But even she plans to
abandon her partner, Frances, whom she "converted" (whether
to feminism, lesbianism, or both is unclear), as soon as Frances
stops giving her expensive gifts. The extensive role the press
corps plays in The Campaign reflects the same media obsession
that Dan displays in The American Family. Uniformly liberal
and morally decrepit, the media conspire to destroy Grant. Liberalism,
drugs, homosexuality, short skirts, and the capacity for duplicity
and murder meld together into a seamless morass of sin.

Grant has thoughts like this: "That cheering crowds of diverse
backgrounds and all races would work together to reelect him,
a black man, United States Senator from Georgia proved that faith,
family and love of freedom were powerful unifiers." And he
says things like, "I won't have worship trivialized by politics."
The President and his staff have thoughts like, "Confusing
the issue never hurts" and say things like, "Good. This
is just what we need to finish Grant." Liberals are incapable
of even the most basic humanity; when his son is hospitalized
for (what else?) a drug overdose, the Attorney General doesn't
bother to visit him. The character code-named "Bonfire,"
in cahoots with the Attorney General, heads the anti-Grant scheme
that serves as The Campaign's plot. To prevent the symbolism
of the ringleader's pseudonym from passing their readers by, the
authors repeatedly refer to him as "that devil" and
note that Grant "had a serpent in his garden, one let loose
by Bonfire." (It's possible that I'm missing lots of other
symbolism here by reading the novel literally. Perhaps future
literary scholars will interpret this text entirely allegorically.)

Casting "Bonfire" and the Attorney General as unequivocally
evil robs the book of any vestige of suspense: Does the conspiracy
lead all the way to the White House? Take a guess! Even a mediocre
novelist could have rendered this novel more tolerable by throwing
in sex scenes. But readers familiar with the Quayles' social views
know that this isn't even a possibility. The raciest it gets is
warm hugs between family members.

Marilyn's book uses the pretense of being a novel to send a message
about family values, while Dan's book, which is supposed to send
a message about family values, succeeds only in sending the message:
"I wrote a book!" For all the acceptance Quayle's Murphy
Brown argument has won during the past four years, the books he
and his wife have written serve only to weaken the argument; if
this is their idea of what popular culture should be, give me
the Fox network. "If the entertainment establishment is just
choosing projects based on talent," Dan writes, "it
sure is peculiar that liberals are so much more talented than
conservatives." The Quayle books make it seem less peculiar.

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