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Public misconceptions mask Quayle's capability

Every time I see a public opinion poll in which Vice President Dan Quayle gets an approval rating in the 20s, I have to wonder if Quayle is really incompetent, or if he just has an image problem.

Before the 1988 election, Quayle was a popular second-term senator from Indiana. In the early 1980s, his Republican superiors capitalized on his leadership potential by naming the freshman senator chairman of several important subcommittees. Quayle used his positions to push for reforms in the Senate committee system and the military procurement process. He proved not only his shrewd political skills and mastery of the legislative process, but also his ability to build bipartisan coalitions.

In 1986, National Journal called Quayle "a Senate success story" and remarked that "his legislative record is among the most productive of the 1980 class." Although he was still an unknown on the national level, no one familiar with Quayle's work in the Senate called him a lightweight.

Then came the 1988 election. Quayle burst onto the national scene with all the thrust of a Yugo traveling into a headwind. As soon as President George Bush chose his future vice president, news reporters began questioning the decision. Of course, Quayle's country club background, pretty boy demeanor, and National Guard service made him an easy target.

The media's witch hunt and Quayle's inexperience in national campaigning combined to produce his poor first impression on the country. I've made plenty of bad first impressions in my day, and I know where they often lead. Like that interview in which I showed up twenty minutes late and never recovered, Quayle has been unable to overcome his unflattering introduction to the nation.

Unfortunately for Quayle, as vice president he doesn't get the exposure he needs to improve his public image. He holds a low profile job consisting mostly of behind-the-scene duties. A vice president will rarely get noticed for advocating sound public policies. But if he ever misspeaks during a speech, the entire country hears about it.

Unfair judgment of vice presidents is certainly not a new phenomenon. In the early 1980s, the media dubbed Vice President George Bush the quintessential wimp. Prominent Republicans worried about Bush's "image problem." Proving that the public perception of a politician is malleable, Bush now enjoys astronomical approval ratings and is considered nearly unbeatable in 1992.

Quayle is mired in a completely different situation than Bush was, however. Bush made a strong showing in the 1980 primary. Although he wasn't very popular as vice president, he made a respectable first impression upon the country. The public's only knowledge of Quayle, though, is from the 1988 campaign and a few (predominantly negative) news pieces from his vice presidential tenure. People often form their opinions about others based upon scant information. If you have met someone for only five minutes, you lack a solid basis for whatever perception you have formed. Unfortunately for Quayle, he didn't impress anyone during his five minutes in the limelight.

Quayle is simply not a media personality. His good looks can't make up for his poor speaking skills. During and after the campaign, he never seemed to look comfortable in front of a camera. Some of this could be attributed to his youth and limited national political experience. Regardless of the source, though, Quayle's poor camera presence has translated into dismal approval ratings.

I often ask people why they think Quayle is unfit for his job. The typical response runs something like, "because he's a mental midget." When pressed for a basis for this blanket judgment of the man, they inevitably invoke one of Quayle's gaffes in front of the camera, such as the speech in which he called the Samoans "happy campers," or the time when he pointed a mobile rocket launcher the wrong way during a photo session. In other words, they've evaluated Quayle not on his knowledge of public issues, his ability to get policies implemented, or his ideology, but rather on the way he comes across through the media. If a politician's speaking ability and camera presence were synonymous with his intelligence, Ronald Reagan would be a genius. I can't speak for you, but I don't have much respect for Reagan's mental prowess.

Quayle's performance as vice president has been superb, albeit unnoticed. On a South American trip before the Persian Gulf war, he convinced several countries to increase their oil production and stop arms deliveries to Iraq. He has also been an effective liason between Bush and congressional Republicans. Quayle heads the administration's space program and the Council on Competitiveness, which he transformed from a bureaucratic wasteland into an agency that actually reviews federal regulations. Quayle recently unveiled the Council's proposals for some long overdue legal reforms, which would curtail the volumes of frivolous litigation polluting our legal system.

Although he harbors scary views on defense, social policy, and the budget, Quayle has given President Bush sound advice on public issues. He counseled the President on the possible need for military force against Iraq back when the administration's future front men were still doves. Quayle alone stressed to Bush our moral imperative to provide aid for the Kurds after the war. He has pushed within the administration for term limitations and educational choice. Unlike Bush during his vice presidential days, Quayle voices his opinions at cabinet meetings and actively lobbies other administration insiders.

Would the public still think Quayle is a blithering idiot if they got to know him better? Maybe, but I doubt it. A popular and respected senator does not change overnight into an imbicile masquerading as vice president. But given today's media, a person's public image can undergo vast transformations at any time, and that's exactly what happened to Quayle.

It is perfectly reasonable to oppose Quayle because of his right-wing ideology. I'm personally leery of him for that reason. People who write him off as an intellectual lightweight, though, have not looked beyond the surface.


Mark A. Smith is a senior in the Department of Economics.

Like that interview in which I showed up twenty minutes late and never recovered, Quayle has been unable to overcome his unflattering introduction to the nation.