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Political Scandals Brew--Is This Bush's Watergate? : Politics: If these accusations of wide-ranging political skulduggery are true, the choice of Quayle begins to look like impeachment insurance.

May 12, 1991|Kevin Phillips | Kevin Phillips, publisher of the American Political Report, is the author of "The Politics of Rich and Poor" (Random House)

WASHINGTON — Question: After what recent war did the Republicans in the White House, ready for a triumphant overhaul of U.S. politics and domestic policy, find themselves enmeshed in widening accusations of grand-scale political espionage and nervous defense of an embarrassing vice president?

Answer: After Vietnam, in early 1973. But perhaps also now, after the Gulf War. Therein lies one of the most fascinating "ifs" taking shape in the murk--and sleaze--of U.S. politics. The Gulf War, Vice President Dan Quayle and 1980 Iran "Hostagegate" situations throb with individual political importance but also the chance of a convergence could be the 1991-92 election season's bombshell.

For now, contentions that senior officials of the 1980 Reagan-Bush presidential campaign conspired that summer and autumn with Iran to keep the 52 American hostages imprisoned until after November--thereby dooming Democrat Jimmy Carter's reelection--don't hold an evidentiary candle to Watergate. However, should proof start developing, the 1980 conspiracy accusations could threaten a major political and constitutional crisis--and besmirch not only Republican honor but also the GOP's image of foreign-policy prowess and its political benefits from the Persian Gulf.

Quayle, of course, is no Spiro T. Agnew, who was forced to resign for corruption. But Quayle is not as popular as Richard M. Nixon's vice president was back in 1970-71, and the current incumbent also faces a unique problem. Polls reveal that a huge majority of Americans are uncomfortable with Quayle becoming President, a majority believes he lacks the basic qualifications and a narrow majority wants him replaced.

That spells trouble for George Bush, who picked him, because no 20th-Century President has ever faced this steady second-guessing. Agnew's scandal raised a different problem, as did Franklin D. Roosevelt's need to replace Vice President Henry A. Wallace in 1944. Rank-and-file voters didn't care much about Wallace, but Washington power brokers knew he was too much of a dewy-eyed liberal to be left in the presidential succession with the aging Roosevelt likely to die within a few years--as he did.

Bush, by contrast, is the first President to face what lopsided polls may make a test of prerogative. Is the vice presidency his to put in second-rate hands on a personal and electoral whim--or is it a national trust for the abuse of which he ought to be politically liable?

Historically, the answer is not clear. From roughly the 1820s through the 1940s, the vice presidency--dismissed by one occupant as "not worth a pitcher of warm spit"--routinely went to hacks, ticket-balancers or both. Background on William R. King, Charles W. Fairbanks and Hannibal Hamlin comes hard even to political historians.

If there had been polls before 1935, few samplers would have bothered to ask "Do you think Vice President Hamlin is qualified to be President?" But over the last 40 years, because the importance of the vice presidency has mushroomed, such questions are asked. Quayle is the first vice president to be conspicuously failing, and Bush may be the first President to face the consequent challenge: If this office is so important, why did you pick him?

Bush's first line of defense is already evident: rebutting the premise by asserting Quayle is a stand-out choice under unfair attack. A secondary defense is that, in picking Quayle, Bush was sincerely gesturing to the next generation.

A minor problem comes if Bush chose Quayle in part because he wanted a nobody--to avoid someone with independent stature. And the biggest problem comes if Bush, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, was influenced by the thought that if some revelation about the Iran-Contra scandal, a Noriega drug-money link or some other possibly impeachable secret dealing ever came to light, Congress would shrink from any action to install J. Danforth Quayle--familiar to both houses as a lightweight Indiana congressman and a not-quite-average senator--as President.

This has been an off-and-on wisecrack since 1988--dismissed because no one can ever know what Bush thought. But several U.S. senators privately cited the not-making-Quayle-President angle in 1989, after backing off from hard-ball pursuit of Bush on Iran-Contra while grilling his former national-security adviser, Donald P. Gregg in nomination hearings for U.S. ambassador to South Korea. Moreover, an ex-CIA director--and Bush is the first to be President--can be presumed to have internalized some deviousness everyone else just reads about in spy thrillers.

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