Flight of the Quayle

UPDATED 05/16/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/16/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

IF DAN QUAYLE HARBORED ANY DOUBT THAT HE STILL HAS A serious image problem, he was painfully stripped of his innocence one afternoon while driving his blue Buick sedan after picking up daughter Corinne from school. As he waited at a red light, a fellow motorist pulled alongside and rolled down his window. "You're a double for Dan Quayle!" he shouted. "Gee, I hope I don't look like that guy," the former Vice President jokingly replied. "Yeah," the man quickly shot back, "I know what you mean."

Sixteen months after Quayle left office, the mere mention of his name can turn any man in the street into a zinger-slinging comic. Unable to beat the critics. Quayle has now joined them by publishing Standing Firm (HarperCollins), a tart, self-effacing memoir that replays many of his famous gaffes and dissects the 1992 GOP reelection effort, which he bitterly calls "the most poorly planned and executed incumbent presidential campaign this century."

At 47, Quayle is noticeably grayer around the temples and out to prove he's wiser as well. "I don't mind poking fun at myself," he says with a shrug. "It's a very fair and candid book." But he clearly has an agenda that goes well beyond explaining past stumbles and settling old political scores. During the next six weeks, Quayle will visit 32 cities—focusing on southern and southwestern stales with large numbers of Republican loyalists—to promote the book, for which he received a $1 million advance. It's debatable whether the rigorous itinerary will do much for sales, but it will help him test the waters for a possible run at the 1996 GOP presidential nomination.

At the moment, however, the prospect of a Quayle candidacy against Bill Clinton elicits polite interest from Republicans and belly laughs from Democratic insiders. "Oh, has he just read a book or actually written one?" asks Bob Squier, a leading Democratic consultant who believes Quayle must travel a "long road" before being taken seriously as presidential material. "If he becomes the Republican nominee, it is proof that God is not only a woman but also a Democrat." Adds Michael Kinsley, acerbic host of CNN's Crossfire: "I don't wish the man ill, but he's a lightweight. It's the old Peter Principle—he reached his level of incompetence and it was the Vice Presidency."

Comments like that hardly faze Quayle these days. While researching Standing Firm, he even turned the tables on some of the journalists who once covered him, interviewing CBS anchor Dan Rather, columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post editor Bob Woodward, among others, to find out how he became a target of ridicule. "I wanted the media to talk about me and about themselves to try to answer the question I've asked all along—'How did this happen?' " Quayle says.

Most of the commentators traced Quayle's Bambi-in-the-headlights persona back to the first heady days after he was named George Bush's running mate in 1988, when a nervous, stammering Quayle tried to justify his failure to fight in the Vietnam War. "Basically the answer came back that once the first impressions were formed, the media liked the caricature," he says. "I learned how critically important first impressions truly are in politics." But Quayle concedes that his other well-publicized embarrassments—including what he calls the "mother of all gaffes," misspelling potato during a 1992 campaign visit to a New Jersey grammar school classroom—helped harden his dim-bulb reputation.

Quayle says reading old newspaper clippings on the '88 campaign was the most painful part of writing the book. "It's a folder I can't look through without wincing," he says. "Sometimes I feel like taking a torch to them, but I don't think I will." He offers stinging assessments of many Bush aides—including James Baker, a potential rival for the 1996 GOP nomination—who tried to force Quayle off the ticket after his disastrous initial press coverage. "Their loyalty is to themselves, the media they leak to and the insider lobbyists," writes Quayle of his handlers in 1988. "They are only interested in self-promotion and proximity to power." The only Republican immune from Quayle's criticism is George Bush, whom he calls "the kind of man I would aspire to be myself."

Today, citizen Quayle lives in a sprawling two-story white brick house in the suburbs of Indianapolis with wife Marilyn, 44, now a partner in a local law firm, and daughter Corinne, 15. (Son Ben, 17, is living with friends in McLean, Va., while he finishes high school, and Tucker, 19, is a sophomore at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.) Quayle usually rises promptly at 6 each morning and, after a cup of "high octane" coffee, feeds Breezy, a black Lab, and Chili, an English setter, before heading to a downtown office where he works as chairman of a financial services company.

Neighbors often run into Quayle at the local Kroger supermarket brandishing a shopping list from his wife. "Marilyn's the supervisor of the house, and I'm good at taking directions from her," he says. But some directions are easier to follow than others. Pointing to a hole in the ceiling of his memento-filled study, he says, "We've got a leak in the upstairs shower." As Vice President, he recalls, "I would say, 'Hey, we've got a little problem here,' and be told that it would be fixed right away. Now Marilyn says, 'Why don't you do it?' I'm not a handyman, but I'm trying to learn. I keep telling her I don't have the ability."

Though the slow pace of life in Indianapolis has done wonders for his golf game ("I normally break 80," he notes proudly), Quayle says he sometimes longs to be back at the center of the action. "I miss having a staff to gel me information immediately," he sighs. "I'd ask what Boris Yeltsin had for breakfast and have the answer on my desk in 15 minutes." In recent months, as Marilyn has emerged as an important figure in Indiana Republican circles (and has been touted as a possible candidate for governor), her husband sometimes finds himself pushed into the background. "I went to her partners' dinner, and she was the one who spoke. I sat there with the adoring gaze," he says with a laugh.

All that could soon change as Quayle begins campaigning for Republican congressional candidates in the fall election, collecting what he calls political chips for 1996. He continues to make speeches at $25,000 a pop and will soon begin writing a weekly syndicated newspaper column. At the moment, he says, the "family is divided" about another grueling run for national office, but he won't make a final decision until later this year.

His friends feel that Quayle's tenacity and willingness to laugh at past mistakes make him a formidable candidate. "How many guys have you seen who had to deal with one-tenth of one percent of what he did?" asks former Bush campaign aide Mary Matalin. "At a minimum they are whiners, and at the maximum they turn into ax murderers." But Dan Quayle keeps chipping away at his walking-punchline image—and dreams of the job that was once just a heartbeat away. "I don't think there's anything more important than being President of the United States," he says. "I don't think there's even a close second."

DAVID ELLIS
LINDA KRAMER in Indianapolis

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