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 pregnancy:


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 death.


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 son.

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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