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For 50 years, Howard Wilkinson has been covering the campaigns, personalities, scandals, and business of politics on a local, state and national level. He's interviewed mayors, council members, county commissioners, governors, senators, and representatives. With so many years covering so many politicians, there must be stories to tell, right?

How Dan Quayle Made Me Look Smart (Yes, Really)

Jim Nolan

Dan Quayle.

Now, there's a name from the past you probably haven't thought about lately.

The 44th  vice president of the United States.

Oh, you remember.

The amiable fellow from Indiana who was one heart beat from the presidency during the term of George H.W. Bush.

The guy who, in a speech before the United Negro College Fund, with its slogan of "a mind is a terrible thing to waste," mangled it so that it came out, What a waste it is to lose one's mind or not to have a mind is being very wasteful. How true that is.

Yep. Sure is.

Credit Wikimedia Commons
Former Vice President Dan Quayle

Or the time in 1992 when, at spelling bee in Trenton, New Jersey, he altered a 12-year-old's correct spelling of "potato" to "potatoe.''

Sure, you remember.

So do I. I did some traveling around Ohio with Quayle in the 1988 and 1992 presidential campaigns, when he was stumping the Buckeye State for the Bush-Quayle team.

But my history with Quayle dates back to August 1988, at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans.

All things considered, New Orleans was rather a pleasant place to hold a presidential nominating convention, even though the heat and humidity were turned up full blast.

It was my first trip to The Big Easy. I was covering the convention for the Enquirer and I got into town a couple of days before the convention began – ostensibly to get my bearings and take care of my credentialing and the details of covering a convention, but, really, I was most interested in prowling around the French Quarter a bit. Just a bit.

I got a mistaken first impression of the city – that this was a city where no one ever worked.

Actually, I was quite wrong – they did work, often very hard. They just spent every other moment of the day and night partying.

Well, I was there to work; and work I did. I was staying with the Ohio delegation at a very nice hotel on the Riverwalk.

On Sunday night, I was with a group of Ohio reporters who went out to a nice restaurant on the Riverwalk for dinner, for what would be the last decent meal we would have for the rest of the week. Reporters generally are forced to forage for food during these conventions, as they work around the clock.

Fortunately, there was a Café Du Monde on the Riverwalk, where I could enjoy a few beignets (and maybe one for lagniappe) and some really good coffee early in the morning.

But the Sunday night dinner with the Ohio reporters was a special treat. I remember having  a steak as big as my head.

Like most presidential nominating conventions, the nominee had been decided months before – then-Vice President George H.W. Bush.

But there was one big story that had yet to break as the thousands of journalists gathered in New Orleans.

Who would be Bush's running mate?

The consensus among the Ohio reporters was that it would either be Bob Dole, Kansas senator and 1976 running mate of Gerald Ford; and Jack Kemp, the New York congressman. Both had run for the nomination and been buried by Bush, who had President Reagan in his corner.

Other names were mentioned, such as Dole's wife, former Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole; and Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker and Kansas Sen. Nancy Kassebaum.

When it came my turn, I laid one on them they didn't see coming:

Dan Quayle, I said.

Everybody at the table looked at me like I had just arrived from a distant planet.

Quayle? No way.

Way, I said.

Here's why:

  • He's 41 years old, a generation younger than the presidential candidate (Bush was 64 at the time); and the GOP was getting a little stale with the same old people running over and over again.
  • Bush values loyalty; and he will find no more loyal pup than a junior senator from Indiana who depended on Bush for his very existence. He would never, ever cross the boss on any issue. When Bush says jump, his only question would be "How high?"
  • He had something of a following among the hard-right wing of the Republican Party, including the religious right, which sort of looked askance at Bush, with Yale education, as a country club Republican. Quayle gave Bush some cover with those folks.

The next morning, the Ohio delegates, alternates and hangers-on, gathered for their first delegation breakfast in a ballroom of the hotel.
The delegation breakfasts are a must-attend for convention-goers, because that is where they get valuable information on catching shuttle buses (although the convention site, the Louisiana Superdome, was within easy walking distance of the hotel), credentialing and other important notes about logistics.

It was also where the delegates would hear from a parade of party luminaries, who would make the rounds of the delegation breakfasts, making cheer-leading speeches for the nominee.

Lo and behold, who showed up that morning at the Ohio delegation but the junior senator from Indiana, J. Danforth Quayle, in the flesh.

He made a rather enthusiastic speech to whip up the crowd for Bush; and claimed to feel a special kinship with the Buckeye State delegates because he was from right next door in Indiana.

At any rate, he was a hit; the Ohioans seemed to like him a lot. He worked the crowd, shaking hands and posing for photos before moving on to his next cheerleading assignment.

All he had for the Ohio press corps was a No comment when asked about the vice presidential nomination.

As the breakfast ended, the late Lincoln Stokes, the former Hamilton County sheriff and an alternate delegate as I recall, came up and put his arm around my shoulder.

Mark my word, Howard, Linc said. That Hoosier boy is going to be vice president.

I told him I agreed. I wrote down what he had to say; and used it in a column for Tuesday morning's paper about the rampant Veep speculation going on in New Orleans; and my own theory on the subject.

Nobody believed Linc Stokes either. Or me, for that matter.

Not until sometime Tuesday morning, when NBC broke the story that Bush had chosen a running mate – not Dole, not Kemp, not anyone but Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana.

The Bush campaign had pulled a Mississippi River steamboat up to the dock at the Spanish Plaza on the Riverwalk, right in front of the Ohio delegation hotel.

Vice President Bush and his wife, Barbara, were on board; a massive crowd of Republicans gathered on the dock cheering them on.

Bush introduced all five of his kids and the 10 grandchildren they had at the time; and they all streamed out onto the steamboat deck, surrounding the presidential candidate and his wife.

Bush hollered to the crowd:  

Here they come! Dukakis, beware!

It was his only mention of his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.

Then came the moment everyone had been waiting for.

Our party is blessed with a wealth of worthy candidates for the vice presidency….

Yeah, OK, a nod to the losers. Get on with it.

…But my choice for the vice presidency is Sen. Dan Quayle of Indiana!

Standing in the press section, just below the huge riser for the TV cameras, I grinned and nodded, feeling very smart indeed.

Bush went on: Dan Quayle is a man of the future!

Quayle, with his wife Marilyn, bounded onto the deck of the steamboat and danced a little jig – sort of a Charlie Brown "happy dance" – as he ran up to Bush, shook his hand vigorously and put his arm around his new boss's shoulder.

The crowd went wild. The rest of the Bush family just sort of stood around with frozen smiles on their faces.

Life was great for Dan Quayle for a few hours, until the stories started coming out.

Mainly stories about whether young Dan Quayle of Huntington, Indiana, in 1969, had used his family's influence to get into the Indiana National Guard, where his chances of being sent to Vietnam were practically nil.

And his golf trip to Florida, along with the two other members of Congress, and the rather notorious "lobbyist," Paula Parkinson, who claimed to have affairs with powerful men on Capitol Hill. No one ever proved that any hanky-panky took place on that golf trip.

The Quayle stories created a firestorm that lasted throughout the convention; and caused Bush's poll numbers to drop precipitously. There was even talk about Quayle getting off the ticket and Bush replacing him before they left New Orleans.

But Bush stuck by his man, as rattled as Quayle was by suddenly becoming the focus of a media feeding frenzy.

But none of that had happened yet as the steamboat rally ended; the crowd started drifting back to their hotels (or to the watering holes of the French Quarter).

I headed back into the hotel lobby to go to my room to start writing the Quayle story.

I saw Linc Stokes, sitting in a big wing-backed chair, reading a newspaper and looking out of a picture window at the mob on the Riverwalk.

Guess you and I are about the only ones who got it right, he said.

He had a wry grin on his face and waved his arm at the stream of Republicans walking by outside.

Yeah, but what do we know?, he said. There go the brains of the Republican Party out there. Hah!

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.