Survivor of a Trial by Scorn

updated 04/02/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/02/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Deep down, has all the public criticism, even scorn, affected you?

The pointed question hits a frayed nerve in Dan Quayle. Slipping out of his limousine and loping up the side stairs of the White House to his West Wing office, the Vice President suddenly stops and turns to answer. The blue eyes narrow, and the pink choirboy skin begins to flush. "They say I've lost a certain easiness, a degree of self-confidence," he says. "I'm not sure. Obviously, if you've gone through what I've gone through, you've got to ask some basic questions that force you to be extremely introspective."

Whether the soul-searching will be rewarded in the end is another matter. Politicians are usually able to deal with hostility. But derision is harder to overcome, and as he begins his second year in office, Vice President J. Danforth Quayle, 43, has received more than his share of it. From the moment George Bush summoned the second-term Indiana Senator from obscurity to be his running mate, the criticism and mockery have been unrelenting. The questions about his intellectual depth and his service in the National Guard during the Vietnam War immediately put Quayle on the defensive, leading him at one point in those early days to complain haplessly that he was being treated "like a male bimbo." Now Quayle and his handlers are engaged in a concerted effort to improve his image, to demonstrate that, like Ronald Reagan and, for that matter, George Bush, it is a mistake to underestimate him.

So far Quayle's performance has not turned doubters into believers. For starters there were several foot-in-mouth gaffes that merely added to his exaggerated reputation for clownishness. Greeting residents of American Samoa last April, the Vice President unaccountably burbled on about how a group of local schoolchildren and adults appeared to him to be "happy campers." At a May luncheon for the United Negro College Fund, he tried to invoke the organization's slogan, A MIND IS A TERRIBLE THING TO WASTE, but came out with, "What a waste it is to lose one's mind. Or not to have a mind."

On a more substantive note, Quayle reportedly incurred the wrath of Secretary of State James Baker last December when he observed that the Soviet Union hadn't "changed much in foreign policy." At the time, Mikhail Gorbachev was presiding over the dissolution of his country's Eastern European empire and the Bush Administration was lending him encouragement. Quayle's deviation from the White House line was neither expected nor welcome. Partly as a result of such blunders, the Vice President's approval rating lags far behind the President's; according to a Gallup Poll last month, 49 percent of those surveyed believed that Quayle ought to be replaced on the 1992 ticket.

Stung by the media blasts and endless speculation about his job security, Quayle concedes that these days he turns "the television off more than on." His wife, Marilyn, 40, angrily blames the press for whipping up all the unfavorable publicity. "It's pack journalism," says Marilyn. "The national media are all just parroting each other." But rather than be drawn into a public battle with journalists and late-night television gag writers, the Vice President has adopted a quieter strategy. He has surrounded himself with a top-notch staff, starting with press secretary David Beckwith, a former Washington correspondent for TIME magazine. As his chief of staff, he tapped William Kristol, 36, a Harvard Ph.D. who is regarded as one of the brightest young lights on the right.

Whatever Quayle's deficiencies, the professionals do have something to work with. Though he is often an uninspired speechmaker, the Vice President is a natural when it comes to charming individual voters. On a recent road trip, moments after delivering a tedious address to the Agricultural Council of California in Santa Barbara, he walked out of Fess Parker's Red Lion Resort to find a waiting crowd. A small knot of loony-left protesters jeered, one of them yelling, "Choke on your silver spoon, you f———Nazi." But instead of bolting into his waiting limo, Quayle invited a few children from the friendly side of the crowd and marched across the street to a produce stand, where, to the delight of the kids and photographers, he proceeded to buy strawberries and pass them around. The next day, he dropped in at the Landmark Lanes bowling alley in Peoria, Ill., to campaign for Rep. Lynn Martin, who is running for the U.S. Senate. As the Wednesday-night bowlers stood gaping, Quayle swept through, shaking hands and stumping for Martin. His power stroll had its intended effect. "I don't know who Lynn Martin is, but I'm going to vote for her now," said bowler Evelyn Wright.

Even among Washington, D.C., insiders, Quayle's stock has risen a bit. Last December, during the attempted coup against Philippine President Corazon Aquino, Quayle chaired a policy meeting that concluded Aquino should get American air support. Quayle then ordered that President Bush, who was on his way aboard Air Force One to the Malta summit, be awakened and urged him to follow that recommendation. He did, which probably saved the Philippine government from being overthrown.

Since taking office, Quayle has made 40 trips around the country, many on behalf of GOP causes and candidates. His travel reflects personal ambition as well as intense party loyalty. "I suppose I have a sense of destiny," he says. The Vice President has spent considerable time in the key state of California, acquiring political IOUs and networking with local power brokers who would be useful for a Quayle presidential run in 1996.

Quayle plainly realizes the importance of a down-home image. Just as the patrician, Yale-educated Bush once extolled fried pork rinds and country and western music, Quayle, an heir to the $600 million Pulliam newspaper fortune, has diligently portrayed himself and his wife as just folks. To save a few dollars, Marilyn cuts the hair of son Ben, 13, and daughter Corinne, 11. (Dan and the Quayles' older son, Tucker, 15, get their locks trimmed at the Senate barber shop at the subsidized price of $4.50 apiece.) According to Marilyn, the family buys many of its personal items, like shampoo and soap, at the wholesale Price Club warehouse, and Corinne often wears hand-me-down clothes from a friend in McLean, Va. "It's important that the kids be as normal as they can be," Marilyn says.

That, of course, is next to impossible. The official vice presidential residence is a 33-room Victorian mansion that sits on 25 prime acres of real estate on the grounds of Washington's Naval Observatory. In addition to Dan's total salary of $125,000 a year, the Vice President also receives an annual allowance of $183,000 for maintaining the house and $75,000 for entertainment. He presides over a staff of 90 and has the run of five offices, not to mention a chauffeured limousine, a helicopter and Air Force Two, a Boeing 707 with a crew of more than a dozen.

Unlike the Bushes, whose children were all grown by the time their father became Vice President, the Quayles have had to deal with the pressures of office as a family. "It's been tougher for the kids than for Marilyn or me because they lived a life of anonymity," says the Vice President. "They complain that they can't go to Wendy's, can't go to the movies, can't go anywhere outside the house." After the 1988 election, the Quayles put the three children in private schools, mainly for security reasons. Tucker now attends Gonzaga College High School, a Jesuit institution in inner-city Washington, while Ben is an eighth grader at the exclusive St. Albans School and Corinne is a sixth grader at National Cathedral School. All told, the Quayles shell out $22,330 a year in tuition costs.

At his old high school in McLean, Tucker probably would have made the varsity basketball team this year, but at sports powerhouse Gonzaga he had no chance. To compensate, his father takes him to play hoops each week with a group of lawyers at a Washington gym. The fitness-conscious Quayle was known as "Wethead" in his Senate days because he always seemed to have just finished a postworkout shower. Despite his schedule, he jogs about a mile three or four times a week, no matter what. On his recent trip, he landed in Los Angeles after midnight and still managed to get up for a 5:30 A.M. run. Weekends, Quayle takes his seven handicap and slips away for a round of golf at the Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. Marilyn has also overhauled the menu at home and aboard Air Force Two, replacing meats with salads and whole-grain breads. "After 40, like everyone else you have to be vigilant," she says.

When it comes to her husband's career, Marilyn is even more attentive and outspoken. She is still bitter, she concedes, over the behavior of some politicians—unnamed—who failed to rally to Quayle's defense during the rocky period after his nomination in 1988. "I am probably less forgiving than Dan," she told PEOPLE recently, sitting in the private compartment of Air Force Two hemming a pair of Tucker's pants. "As soon as it looked like Dan was in trouble—boy, some people were on the bandwagon on the other side. Those are the people it's pretty hard not to hold a grudge against."

Marilyn's own transition from Senator's wife to Second Lady has been bumpy at times. In the first few months of the Administration, she earned a reputation for aloofness by turning down many requests for interviews. In contrast to the affable Dan, she strikes a measure of nervousness into the hearts of the family's Secret Service detail. ("Nothing could be worse than the imperious demands of Michael and Maureen Reagan," says one agent. Still, he adds, "You don't want to displease her.")

Searching for a useful cause to embrace, she settled first on disaster relief, but that didn't generate much public response. Then last October, she hit on a another issue—breast cancer—that struck a chord and helped ease her steely image. At a luncheon in Dallas for the Komen Foundation, Marilyn fought back tears as she told the story of her own mother's death, at 56, from breast cancer. "She was a doctor," says Marilyn, "and too busy to look after herself." In addition to fund-raising with her family for low-cost mammograms and taping a series of public-service announcements, Marilyn has enlisted Dan and the kids for a five-kilometer run up Pennsylvania Avenue this June to drum up money for the cause.

No one underestimates Marilyn, and her husband's supporters insist he shouldn't be taken lightly either. They may be right. In spite of rumors that he might be dumped from the 1992 ticket, Quayle has established a solid relationship with his boss. He joins Bush each morning for a security briefing and spends more time in his small White House office than in his spacious quarters in the Old Executive Office Building.

In the long run, Quayle's natural Midwestern optimism—and his dogged determination to prove the naysayers wrong-may be his biggest asset. "In some strange way, this will ultimately work to my advantage," he says of the drumbeat of criticism. "The American public wants to find out who I am. They want to see me. They want to listen to me. And they will make the determination."

—Bill Hewitt, Garry Clifford with the Vice President

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