WASHINGTON — Ever since the first few days of the Iraqi crisis, when he was photographed studiously and intently at the side of President Bush in Camp David, little has been heard or seen of Vice President Dan Quayle. That is not surprising. Throughout American history, vice presidents have had little to do when it really mattered.
During the Administration of President Lyndon Johnson, singer Tom Lehrer would delight his fans with a comic ditty about "what ever happened to Hubert Humphrey," the ignored vice president. As political satirist Finley Peter Dunne's Mr. Dooley put it almost a century ago: "Th' vice-prisidincy . . . isn't a crime exactly. Ye can't be sint to jail f'r it, but it's a kind iv a disgrace."
For Quayle, however, there is a second problem. The press seems to have grown tired of him. When Quayle made his first foreign trip as vice president to Venezuela and El Salvador soon after inauguration, more than 70 correspondents accompanied him, many surely hoping to catch him in some gaffe. While not despised by his critics the way Nixon was during the 1950s, Quayle is probably the most belittled vice president in decades.
Correspondents did catch the Vice president in some embarrassments in earlier trips. One memorable incident was his questionable taste in buying a blatantly virile doll at a souvenir shop in Valparaiso, Chile, in March this year.
But editors soon decided that Quayle's mishaps really did not merit constant surveillance by the press, and the numbers of correspondents assigned to travel with the vice president dwindled. Only four correspondents went along with him on his latest trip to Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and Haiti in 2 1/2 days in August.
That was surely a mistake--even though there was no news about Quayle making a fool of himself. The personable 43-year-old Quayle, in fact, has developed into a vice president who performs his tasks comfortably and confidently.
On his August trip, Quayle demonstrated, first of all, that he evidently plays no greater role in the inner circles of power than any of his predecessors. The long-scheduled trip took Quayle out of Washington during some of the most dramatic moments in the Iraqi crisis. Since he had already taken part in the crucial White House meetings during the long weekend after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Quayle insisted, "There was no reason for me to cancel this trip."
Yet it was obvious that Quayle, though kept informed periodically by White House phone, had to fall a step or two behind developments because of his remoteness from Washington.
The vice president, for example, received no advance text of President Bush's address to the nation that tried to explain the Middle East crisis and the American role in it. While Quayle breakfasted with Peruvian business leaders in Lima, his aides tried to transcribe the text from Cable News Network on a hotel TV screen. The White House, however, finally faxed a copy of the speech to Quayle before the breakfast ended.
But, though he did not show it, Quayle must have been disappointed by the text. His aides were proud that President Carlos Andres Perez of Venezuela had promised Quayle a day before that his country and other members of the Organization of Petroleum Producing Countries would increase their oil production to make up the shortgages caused by the boycott of oil from Iraq and Kuwait.
Yet President Bush, while hailing the important missions of Secretary of State James H. Baker III to Turkey and Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney to the Middle East, failed to even mention Quayle's diplomatic success with Perez. The omission seemed to underscore how the vice president was caught in a byway while key members of the Administration worked at the heart of the crisis.
Despte this disappointment, Quayle accomplished his diplomatic tasks with ease and efficiency. Though he does not dominate a stage with either his oratory or prescence, the vice president can deliver the messages of the Bush Administration with competence and sensitivity.
On this trip, he had to encourage the anti-drug programs of Colombia and Bolivia, solicit more drug cooperation from Peru, request increased oil production from Venezuela and lecture the military rulers of Haiti about democracy. Some of this required some delicacy. His anti-drug rhetoric in Peru seemed remote from reality in a country more concerned with "Fujishock"--the spiraling price increases of President Alberto Fujimori's austerity program--than anything else. His plea for democracy might have upset some Haitian officers. But the vice president, who speaks in a mild-mannered way without any trace of rancor or guile, did not try to hector the Peruvians or Haitians as laggards.