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The Boy in the Bubble

On the road with Dan Quayle

“The next real opportunity for the American people to get a good glimpse of me will be the 1992 campaign.”—Dan Quayle

Tuesday, September 22, 1992. Air Force Two.

“This is the vice president.”

I look up from my seat at the back of the plane with the eleven other journalists, thinking that Dan Quayle has come back to see us, but he is nowhere. The flight attendant who has spoken is holding up a chocolate doughnut and mysteriously saying, “This is the vice president.” The chocolate top has nicely melted, but it is an otherwise unexceptional doughnut. There appears to be some question as to whether the sides are completely warm. The plate is surrounded by a staff of four, each in turn touching the sides of the doughnut. “Seems O.K. to me,” says one flight attendant.

“It’s a little cool underneath,” says another.

“Hit it with another fifteen seconds,” says the head steward, and back into the microwave it goes before being borne to the vice president at the front of the plane.

Before we have a chance to ask if the Quayle doughnut is daily ritual, the vice president himself appears. He makes a warm first impression. Despite his troubles, he has the ease and small talk of someone who expects people to like him, and people do.

“Do you think the Terminator is a good role model?” someone asks, hoping to move the news forward from Murphy Brown.

“Put me down as less violence,”says the vice president.

Tuesday. 9:25 a.m. Houston.

It’s the same every time; nothing really changes. Air Force Two comes to rest on the tarmac of a military base on the outskirts of a medium-sized city. The tail of the plane extrudes journalists and Secret Service men, who race to join the camera crews from the local news stations setting up down below. A few minutes later, Dan Quayle appears in the open door at the front and waves. I had always thought when I saw him on television waving from his plane that there must be someone down below waving back. Not so. Our vice president stands there waving to ... nobody. Waving, in fact, to a field in the middle distance over the heads of the cameramen, so that the people back home in their living rooms will remain comfortably deceived.

With the assurance of someone who has practiced this a thousand times in a bathroom mirror, Quayle hops down four stairs, selects a notional target from the people milling on the ground, makes a six-shooter from his thumb and index finger, and fires. This is meant to convey the idea of a dynamic young leader bonding with a prized supporter. And it does, unless you see him do it five times in two days, often as not to the backside of a member of the Secret Service. The ritual ends as Quayle runs down the rest of the stairs with his feet splayed out wide like a yellow labrador sliding down a ski slope, and hops into the back of his black limousine with its bullet-proof windows and reinforced steel.

Except at the bottom of the stairs this morning there actually is a crowd. Maybe because Houston is the first stop on a two-day swing through Texas, Oklahoma, and Arizona, the vice president’s advance team has found a high school band to play the same song a half-dozen times, while a couple of hundred other schoolchildren wave American flags, which they chuck onto the ground at the end of the rally. The receiving line consists of local right-wing dignitaries, two black Points of Light, and Kimberly Davidson, the daughter of a Texas state trooper recently shot dead by a young black man.

She’s the main prop. The man who killed her father was found to have a cop killer rap song in his car. After a victory lap around the crowd, Quayle steers her back onto the plane. He emerges with her ten minutes later, a look of righteous indignation on his face. “I’ve just been with Kimberly Davidson,” the vice president begins with the assumed gravity of a newscaster. “And you should have seen the sadness on her face. ...”

As he pulls a long face and calls for the withdrawal of the evil rap song from the market, Kimberly stands off to the side giggling with another woman. He’s talking about her father’s murder and she’s talking about the thrill of meeting the vice president. Not that it matters. What’s off to the side, what’s left behind—these things are not reported. What is reported is what is happening in the tiny bubble around Quayle, the only place journalists have time to watch.

Tuesday. 10:10 a.m. Texas Children’s Hospital.

Quayle does a quick tour, stopping to chat with sick children. He finishes in the exercise room. Judging from their weary faces, the kids on the workout machines have been waiting for him for some time. They all wear name tags. “What a fucking waste of time,” mutters a local cameraman as Quayle talks to a tall thin boy named Brian on a treadmill. Perhaps it is, but it will be a lead item on tonight’s broadcast. Quayle is fatherly. He rubs Brian on the back and says, “Good luck to you kid. We’re counting on you.” When he leaves, a worried nurse comes running over to Brian. It turns out he’s been on the treadmill for longer than he should, waiting for Quayle to turn up. “O.K., Brian, that’s enough, you can stop,” says the nurse.

Meanwhile, having taken up the Bush health care plan as his cause, Quayle delivers a talk in the hospital auditorium. It is incomprehensible. He advocates government regulation of the health insurance industry at the same time that he bashes Clinton for wanting the government to be more involved in health care. Two nurses down in front pass a note. It says, “What is he talking about?” As Quayle finishes, another journalist leans over and whispers to me, “That was pathetic. Embarrassing. We could have done better with five minutes’ preparation.” What he phones in to his paper is, however, respectful.

Tuesday. 12:15 p.m. College Station, Texas.

Everywhere he goes he is surrounded by soldiers and police, like the leader of a junta. The police motorcycles escort us past the site for the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum and onto the campus of Texas A&M. By the time we arrive every seat in the basketball arena is filled, there is a line down the block of people who want in, yet there is not a Clinton supporter in sight. It is the largest rally Quayle has addressed yet.

Inside are about 7,000 like-minded kids with buzz cuts. Some are wearing knee-high brown boots with spurs. They wave signs that say Gig-Em Dan! Gigging is what you call it when you skewer a live frog on a spike. The kids are all yelling for Quayle to skewer Clinton on a spike. And any time the warm-up speaker says “Aggie,” “America,” or “Fightin’ Texas Aggie Spirit,” the kids go ape, shouting something that sounds like Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! I grab the kid next to me and ask him what is going on with all the Whoop-Whoop-Whooping. He smiles and says, “It’s an Aggie Thang. It’s called the Whoop. Whenever something good happens we do it.” Soon a man named Sheriff Ron Miller takes the stage and does what could have been a parody. All fat and sweaty he jumps up and shouts:


The place goes nuts. Of course, we all know what we’re going to do to Mistah Slick Willie. We’re going to Gig-em!

“That’swhatmakesyaAggies,” he says. “That’swhatmakesyaspecial.”

You think that it couldn’t possibly get any louder. But then the warm-up speaker takes the mike from Sheriff Ron Miller and says—I swear—“Now we’re going to do some yells.” This must be a joke, I think, a little piece of self-directed irony. But no. It immediately becomes clear that the noise they were making before was, by local standards, modest. Two kids in uniform take to the stage and semaphore the crowd into a Holy Rollerish frenzy.

At last Quayle is introduced. He is “a man who is more in touch with our values—Aggie values—than the liberal media or the Hollywood elite will ever be.” For fifteen minutes he pushes all the right buttons—impugning Clinton’s patriotism, dumping on Congress, extolling Aggie values, and praising the Aggie football team. As the crowd froths I spot Quayle’s press director, David Beckwith, curled around a pole, giggling with delight.

Fingers in my ears, I go looking for subversives. I find four black people, three of whom appear up in the rafters, trying to unfurl a long sign that reads: The Only Thing Worse Than An Ignorant Republican Is Dan Quayle. They are quickly landed upon by a handful of large, young Aggies, who crumple the sign and escort them out the back. Following them I learn the reason why all of Quayle’s rallies attract only supporters. Democrats are convincingly dissuaded from turning up. When Joseph Gourrier, head of the local chapter of the NAACP, tried to get into the arena with a sign that read What About Haiti? he was stopped, first by a member of the University Police Department, and then by a member of the Secret Service, who ripped up his sign.

Wednesday, September 23 9:00 a.m. Fort Worth, Texas.

Having spent the night here and delivered a fairly clean speech in< the morning on “Bill Clinton’s Flip-Flops,” Quayle gives a series of short interviews to the local media. He is surprisingly nervous, relaxing and smiling only after the camera switches off. What is more, he doesn’t answer any questions directly. He never does. An interview with Dan Quayle sounds like it is being filtered through a second language by two inept translators:

Q: Does it bother you that Ross Perot might get back in the race?

A: I will say this about Ross Perot’s supporters. They deserve a lot of credit.

But soon he’s back in his stride. He loves to walk around and shake hands; he’s good at it. He is forever striking faux casual poses—leaning against buildings, slumping in chairs, sitting on tables. It may be his way of refusing to admit that he isn’t capable of handling the challenge without special preparation. There is something brave in the way he fights the perpetual assault on his dignity. On our way out of town the motorcade suddenly swerves off the highway and into a shopping mall.

“Impromptu Stop!” someone hollers.

We pile out of the press van and onto the street and run to catch the precious moment. The thought that something authentic might occur leads a couple of hundred people—half of them carrying guns or cameras—to wash through the wide corridors of the shopping mall in the vice president’s wake, knocking over garbage cans and striking fear in the hearts of the elderly.

Up ahead, a short, heavyset Hispanic woman in a red apron is rearranging chocolate chip cookies in her display case. She looks up and is startled when three men from the Secret Service charge behind her counter.

“Cameras!” hollers one of them.

From around the bend rushes another pack, bearing cameras and microphones. They too push behind the cookie counter. There isn’t much space back there, so the woman is mashed up against her glass cookie case. She looks back nervously, then sees Dan Quayle flying around the bend. The vice president marches up to the counter and begins his routine.

Whatever the Hispanic woman jammed up against her glass cookie case may be thinking, she is sticking to small talk. She nods along—smiling on cue for the cameras—as Quayle chats on. Beneath the eyes of a dozen cameras there occur two genuinely authentic transactions. The first is cookies for money. The second is attention for cooperation. The woman, content with her sliver of celebrity, falls naturally into the role of designated real person. At last the vice president takes his change and moves off.

“Move! Move!” someone shouts.

As quickly as they arrived, the vice president and his followers are gone. The woman returns to her display unfazed.

“Did you know who that was?” I ask her.She looks up.

“No. I didn’t see his name tag.”

“That was the vice president of the United States.”

“I knew he looked familiar...”

Later, as Quayle emerges from the shopping mall, he is approached by a local newscaster. “What did you learn from the people?” she asks.

“That they’re on our side,” he says.

Wednesday. 12:50 p.m. Oklahoma City’s Bicentennial Park.

The outdoor rally opens with a pert blond singing “Proud to Be An American.” The Clinton supporters are roped off across the street, but they are loud enough to save Quayle the trouble of wondering how it is that he can be the acting second to the least popular incumbent in modern American history and yet never once encounter protest. Once again the vice president plays to the higher instincts of the people. He paints Clinton as un-American. (“Do we want a president who says that America is the mockery of the world?”) But this time he gets a little too excited, and strays from his notes. An endearing eagerness passes across his face—like he’s about to show his mother a trophy. Then he takes the plunge:

“Now, in Dallas this morning. In Fort Worth. In Fort Worth this morning. We. Uh. I made a speech. About Bill Clinton and Bill Clinton’s. Bill Clinton and the flip-flops. Bill Clinton. Flip-flops. I was going to just give the top ten. And I went through the record and there’s hundreds of them. So I said I was right in the first place. Let’s just focus on ten flip-flops. And I gave them the top ten. And there’s a sign back there. [points to the back of the crowd] I like that. Go Home Flip-Flop Bill. Show that up.”

The recurring complaint from the world-weary Quayle aides on Air Force Two is that the media has mistreated their boss by playing up moments such as these. There is some truth to this. Several of the journalists traveling with the vice president tell me that they are on a “gaffe and death watch,” i.e., they are only interested if Quayle misspells or gets shot. But there is also some truth in the opposite claim that the system is far too tolerant of Quayle’s inadequacies. The vice president can spend two days ducking questions, sounding not quite up to his job, and promoting bigotry without anyone ever hearing about it. The small number of journalists have no time to do anything but record the script written by the vice president’s handlers. There is also a kind of loophole built into the political process for intellectual incompetence; since it may improve the candidate’s chances if audiences don’t fully understand what he is proposing, he can pretend that it is shrewd to have a mind like a fog machine. No, the real wonder is that Dan Quayle was ever found out.

This article originally appeared in the October 19, 1992 issue of magazine.