Television continues to define political fortunes.
Vice President Dan Quayle all but admitted to Sam Donaldson and Diane Sawyer on ABC last week that he wanted to be President. If he does make it to the White House, however, it won't be because he dazzles in front of the camera.
Fizzles is more like it.
As Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.) said last year, Quayle is no Jack Kennedy, which could be taken as criticism or praise. When it comes to TV, Quayle is also no Ronald Reagan. Or even George Bush.
Reagan was Reagan, great on camera with a prepared speech, disastrous when left to his own devices in televised press conferences and other off-the-cuff situations. But no harm, for his immense bumbling was somehow eclipsed by his even more immense likability.
President Bush is almost the reverse, a bland speechmaker who nevertheless shines on TV in relatively informal settings because he seems so relaxed and confident in front of the camera.
The verdict awaits on his ultimate effectiveness as President. As a TV performer, however, Bush almost basks in TV's intimacy and gives at least the impression that he's in command of his thoughts and has nothing to hide. When it comes to personal communication, his televised press conferences are rousing successes compared to those of Reagan, whose every haltingly spoken sentence was an adventure that found you crossing your fingers and hoping he would just get the words out.
In that regard, curiously, Quayle the TV performer is less like Bush than he is like Reagan, but with neither Reagan's speechmaking skill nor likability to cover up his mistakes.
Thinking of a President or vice president in TV terms is no frivolous matter, for it is through this medium that elections are now mostly won or lost and that the nation's highest officeholders do most of their communicating to the public.
With that in mind: Could the Dan Quayle who spoke Monday at the 90th annual Convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Las Vegas--a let's-not-abandon-the-Contras plea carried on C-SPAN--get elected President?
Good looks, bad lips.
Sounding almost as if he were reading his speech cold, Quayle spoke tenuously and jerkily. As usual, he slurred his words and stumbled several times, at one point erroneously calling Poland's new Solidarity-led coalition a "Communist government" before correcting himself.
True, it was only a speech. But it was also another example of Quayle on TV that did nothing to tarnish his image as the Yogi Berra of politics. Nor did his appearance Thursday with Donaldson and Sawyer on ABC's new "PrimeTime Live."
"I stand by my misstatements," he told them.
Vice presidents don't go on TV arbitrarily, so Quayle's appearance was apparently approved by the White House and agreed to with some purpose in mind beyond helping ABC's ratings.
Seated opposite two of America's most famous journalists for a taped interview, however, Quayle at best looked nervous and worried, but mostly had the semi-glazed stare of someone facing a firing squad, making you think he should have done the interview blindfolded. If not Donaldson and Sawyer, it was surely the camera that terrified him, which would be a fatal flaw in anyone seeking the presidency in the TV Age.
The interviewers were not altogether terrific, either, devoting about half of the 13-minute piece to slushing across soggy old ground. They're not running for office, however; Quayle presumably is. And if some of their questions were either unanswerable, unfair or downright stupid, so, too, are some of those asked of candidates in presidential campaigns, so Quayle had better get his act in order.
At one point, Sawyer sought his response to being the butt of jokes by Johnny Carson, Jay Leno and David Letterman. He replied lamely, muttering something about being happy to give them employment.
The ugly \o7 piece de resistance \f7 predictably came from Donaldson, who asked the sexist question that made you cringe: "Mr. Vice President, is your wife smarter than you?"
Whether Quayle is bright \o7 is\f7 an issue. Whether his wife is brighter is \o7 not\f7 an issue, unless we're returning to the Dark Ages, when it was socially unacceptable for a woman to be more intelligent than a man.
Asking the question made for dramatic TV, of course, which seemed to be the purpose. "I'm smart enough not to get into a contest of whether I'm smarter than my wife or my wife is smarter than me," Quayle replied. The words read all right, but weren't spoken with confidence.
At this point, you wished that Quayle had media consultant Roger Ailes supplying him ad-libs a la Bush's confrontation last year with Dan Rather on "The CBS Evening News." Not that Quayle could have carried it off, but it would have been heartening to hear him come back with something like this:
"I don't know, Sam. Is your wife smarter than you?" Or better yet: "I don't know, Sam. Is Diane smarter than you?" We can all speculate on that.
Pressed by Sawyer as the interview ended, meanwhile, Quayle seemed to acknowledge wanting to someday woo voters in a run for the White House. But he probably won't get there without first wooing the camera.