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Quayle Lashes Out at Lawyers in Campaign Speech

May 20, 1999|MARK Z. BARABAK | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — Marking one of the most celebrated--and satirized--moments of his vice presidency, Dan Quayle on Wednesday observed the seventh anniversary of his famous "Murphy Brown" speech by assigning villainy to a new target: lawyers.

In a pugnacious address bristling with indignation, Quayle attacked "the legal aristocracy" and "children's rights zealots," charging them with undermining families and driving religion and morality from public life.

Parting with most Democrats and many fellow Republicans, he rejected calls for new gun controls in the wake of the Littleton, Colo., school massacre. "Let's be honest," he said. "It is not just gun control, it's self-control.

"A child who loves God, honors his parents, respects his neighbors, that child will never, ever kill anyone," Quayle asserted in remarks to the Commonwealth Club of California, where his May 1992 address sparked a national debate over alternative lifestyles and Hollywood's cultural influence.

Returning as a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, Quayle never mentioned Murphy Brown, TV's most famous single mom, and barely touched on the subject of out-of-wedlock births, which proved so controversial the last time. But he seemed to strive for the same provocative effect, at one point likening President Clinton to O.J. Simpson.

"When we went to school . . . we knew that rules had to be obeyed and if the rules weren't obeyed there were consequences," Quayle said. Blaming a corrosive legal system for subverting society's sense of right and wrong, he added: "It doesn't help matters when a celebrity like O.J. Simpson can get away with double murder and where a president of the United States can get away with perjury and obstruction of justice."

Quayle, struggling for traction in the crowded GOP field, has sought to establish himself as the favorite of social conservatives by styling himself the party's most rigorous defender of "traditional values." His anniversary appearance was intended to conjure memories of the fight he picked seven years ago with one of prime time's most popular characters. That speech amounted to a cannon shot in the political culture war, one that echoes to this day.

Appearing just three weeks after the Los Angeles riots, the vice president sought to address the root causes of the violence, fixing on what he described as "a poverty of values." At one point he criticized the fictional Murphy Brown for treating unwed motherhood as "just another 'lifestyle choice.' "

Although it was a single line in an eight-page speech, Quayle's comment touched off a furor. Many interpreted the remark as a criticism of single mothers; others treated the matter as another goof by the gaffe-prone vice president. ("QUAYLE TO MURPHY BROWN: YOU TRAMP!" hooted the New York Daily News.)

But in retrospect, many analysts believe that Quayle was correct in addressing the social problems associated with some single-parent families.

"Dan Quayle drew the fire," said Barbara Whitehead, a Democratic policy analyst who has written extensively on family issues, " . . . but a lot has happened to make these issues more mainstream than when Quayle put them on the table.

"Now it's become a consensus issue," she went on, "with politicians scrambling over themselves to identify with the fatherhood movement, encouraging men not only to pay child support, but reestablish connections."

Indeed, many of the policy prescriptions Quayle touted in his 1992 speech--such as welfare reform, community policing and tax breaks to spur inner-city growth--have become reality, all under a Democratic president.

As perhaps the ultimate sign of vindication, aides said that Quayle felt it unnecessary Wednesday even to mention the Murphy Brown flap (the show now appears only in reruns). "Everyone understands that Dan Quayle won the debate on values," said campaign spokesman Jonathan Baron.

Quayle's latest target was decidedly more prosaic. Nor was it the first time Quayle, a lawyer himself, has attacked the legal profession. In 1991, while vice president, Quayle claimed that a "litigation explosion" was sapping the nation's economy and hurting U.S. competitiveness abroad.

Turning his focus to domestic matters, Quayle maintained Wednesday that the nation's "legal elites" have "bit by bit undermined parental authority, weakened school discipline and obstructed moral education."

Specifically, he cited lawsuits and judicial decisions that have barred organized prayer in schools, forbidden the posting of the Ten Commandments and prohibited any mention of God in the classroom. "We have allowed our legal system to be used to distort and deny the role of faith in American life," Quayle said. "The crusade against religion has degenerated into a crusade against basic moral principles."

Aiding the effort has been "a willing and compliant news media and an entertainment community that transmits counterculture values," Quayle said, in a passing slap at Hollywood.

As president, Quayle pledged to appoint federal judges who "appreciate the role of religion and morality in our society" and assign "a watchdog in the Department of Justice to find good test cases to win back authority for parents and schools."

Bill Kristol, a GOP strategist who served as Quayle's vice presidential chief of staff, suggested that the question of judicial appointments--while not nearly as titillating as Murphy Brown's maternity--could still prove a politically potent one.

"In the Republican primary, at least, it's going to be a great concern who the next president appoints," said Kristol, who is unaligned in the current campaign. "That part of the speech could have real legs."

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