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Quayle: A Bleeder Spills Over a Whole Campaign

The Running Arguments: A Continuing Series Surveying The Presidential Campaign And Candidates.

August 28, 1988|Robert G. Beckel | Robert G. Beckel was Walter F. Mondale's campaign manager in 1984

WASHINGTON — Let's be blunt about it. Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana has become what we call in the campaign business a bleeder. Everyday, as new information develops, the cuts get deeper. George Bush is trying to play Dr. Kildare, but it's not working. Young Quayle is going to take Bush down and a lot of the Bush pros know it. For Quayle there is only one choice--get out, citing pressure on the family, or get dumped, which Bush clearly wants to avoid unless it's necessary--though it may soon be.

The problem with Quayle is not that he served in the guard. That all pundits agree on. The problems are fourfold:

1) Quayle had a very suspicious memory lapse or he lied at his press conference Wednesday of convention week. He implied that no undo influence or calls were made to get him favored treatment. By his Wednesday night interview with the news anchors he said maybe calls were made. By Thursday, Wendell Phillippi--the National Guard officer (retired) who got Quayle into the guard--said Quayle himself called for help.

This is a repetition of what some sources believe Quayle did with Bush's own people. They claim he misrepresented the situation in his interviews with Robert Kimmitt, Bush's point man in the selection of a vice president. This might explain why he wasn't able to answer the question at his press conference--he had not quite figured out how to reconcile in public what he had said to Kimmitt in private, and he lost control of his own story.

2) Unusual influence was used to get Quayle into the guard. Was it illegal? Probably not. But look at the fact: Quayle used a family friend and employee--Phillippi, known in Indiana as Mr. National Guard--to get him in. Does anyone think a poor black kid in Gary, Ind., in 1969 could have gotten similar help? Or a farm kid from rural Indiana? Fat chance.

3) Once a candidate becomes a bleeder through a story like this, it begets other stories. Next we heard about admission to law school with subpar qualifications--and again about connections. Other stories are being investigated. They won't stop for weeks.

4) Quayle is not qualified to be vice president. The average voter in Middle America has now met Quayle--and what has been learned is all bad politics. That he's rich, has lots of influence and is, in many Republican minds--Kansas Sen. Bob Dole's most prominently--not the best qualified to be President if something were to happen to Bush.

This last point may be the most damaging. Voters expect that the vice president can assume the presidency if necessary. As of now, Quayle fails that test.

By the way, what does all this say about Bush's judgment--a man who should know the qualifications of a good vice president?

So now James A. Baker III & Co. have to develop a Quayle strategy fast. The news is outrunning the damage control. Too much time goes by before charges are responded to. That happened to the Mondale campaign in 1984, when it took 30 days and a brilliant three-hour press conference by Geraldine A. Ferraro to put the fires out on her problems (although they never went completely out). Until Quayle answers, with substance, all the questions swirling about, he will never put this fire out.

It seems the Bush team has decided to tough it out. Have Bush look strong standing by his man. This is the impression left by Bush-Quayle during speeches last week to the Veterans of Foreign Wars--a friendly crowd. But you can't stay in front of friendly crowds all the time and you surely can't stay away from the press. In addition, Quayle has already shown how green he is in dealing with the press.

Will presidential candidates ever learn that picking unknowns for vice president is just too damn risky? I predict in the future all vice presidents from both parties will be chosen from people who have run for President before and therefore have been scrubbed by the press.

So Bush stands tough. Quayle gets more and more cuts. The bleeding gets worse. If this is still a story 10 days from now, watch for Quayle to take himself out of the race, citing pressure on his family--a real and sad product of all this. Such a move gets Bush off the hook without being seen as a cut-and-run kind of guy. If Quayle doesn't get out in a race that promises to be close, he will almost surely take Bush down. What a price to pay for sticking with an Indiana prima donna.

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