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Talking Shop With Mr. Family Values Himself

Agree With Dan Quayle or Not, but Both Liberals and Conservatives Can't Stop Discussing Moms, Dads and Kids

June 19, 1997|BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHOENIX — It's the second morning of our summer-long quest to explore the state of the American family, and I'm having doubts.

In an hour we're set to interview former Vice President Dan Quayle, the man who put the term "family values" into political play with his "Murphy Brown" speech in 1992.

Now it's 90-something outside, and our family of five is trying to get dressed in our rented 26-foot RV, which is rocking like a boat in a storm because Emily, 10, keeps reenacting a hula number from her school's musical extravaganza a few days earlier.

Shoes are lost. The bathroom's airliner-sized. This is not journalism as commonly practiced.

We pulled into this, our first RV park ever, after 1 a.m., concerned that our late arrival would disturb our fellow campers. We needn't have worried.

As we wheeled into the gravel driveway, our headlights fixed upon an old dog on a picnic table. He glared red-eyed for a moment, then went back to gnawing the wood and whining demonically. Ballpark-wattage lights blazed at other sites. Beneath one trailer's battered aluminum awning, bare-chested men applied wrenches to an outlaw-style Harley, the vehicle of choice at several of the park's eclectic array of permanently parked mobile residences.

In the morning, Emily pulled open the curtains and offered her assessment: "This is a crummy-looking place."

I'd been up early and checked things out. The residents I'd met, I said, all seemed friendly. "Don't judge people in advance," I warned her. "Be respectful."

An hour later, my wife, Pam, issued a similar admonition in an oddly incongruous context.

"Do you have any questions for Mr. Quayle?" she asked the kids.

"I'm going to ask him to spell 'potato,' " Emily answered.

"You will not ask him that," Pam snapped, staring down from the RV's cab-over bunk, into which she had clambered in search of Robert's clip-on tie.

As Pam gives her own little sermon on respect, I think about our peculiar predicament. Our children, having embarked on an educational journey few ever will have the chance to make, are about to meet a man who once held the second-highest office in the land. This should be a moment of awe for 12-, 10- and 7-year-olds.

And, in truth, it largely is. Yet, like all children in America, ours have been bombarded with the message that James Danforth Quayle is a boob. Just as President Clinton almost certainly encounters kids who regard him primarily in light of crass talk radio jokes, Quayle forever will be parrying spelling witticisms.

As a citizen, I'm convinced that reverence for leaders is a far greater danger than political disrespect. But as a father hoping to imbue his children with a sense of civics, I lament that mockery has become the primary form of discourse, even at the elementary school level.

Anyway, just as Clinton always will have loyalists who believe he's been unjustly maligned, Quayle has his cadre of devotees, many of whom reportedly are urging him to run for president in 2000. ("I'll be in a strong position after the 1998 election to make that decision," he tells us.)

Fortunately, we haven't come to talk politics per se.

We arrive on time and sufficiently well dressed that Quayle--who is wearing a golf shirt and khaki pants held up by a silver-edged belt--grins. "You don't look like you've been traveling," he says.

We arrange ourselves around a conference table at the offices of Campaign America, the GOP fund-raising organization in Scottsdale that Quayle heads. The kids explain our assignment. Quayle says he is reminded of "those congressional fact-finding trips to the Bahamas."

Then his blue eyes get a distant look. "The best vacation, actually the only memorable vacation that I had growing up, was around 1961," he says.

Leaning back and relaxing, he paints a picture of his family loading into a 1959 white Rambler station wagon with a tent-trailer on the back. For two weeks, they toured Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks and wound up at a small lake in Idaho.

"I remember fishing off a little rubber raft and catching these big trout," he says. The family ate out only twice, and one of those times was when the camp stove leaked on sandwiches his mother had made.

*

This picture doesn't comport with my image of Quayle's childhood as the scion of the wealthy, conservative Pulliam publishing dynasty. Quayle first moved to Phoenix in 1955 with his parents when his dad went to work for the family's Arizona Republic and Phoenix Gazette. Young Dan grew up here in a house beside a golf course, with two younger brothers and a younger sister.

In 1963 the family returned to Indiana, where Quayle launched his political career 13 years later, serving two terms in the House before moving to the Senate at 33.

Now Quayle is 50, he and his wife, Marilyn, are back in Arizona, and their three children, Tucker, Benjamin and Corinne, have moved on to college and careers. But an empty nest hasn't kept him from stirring family matters into the national stew.

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