On asking the ‘dumb’ question

I see that one of my favorite interview subjects, J. Danforth Quayle, is back in the news.

In a new biography of the first President Bush there is the assertion that young Jeb wanted poppy to replace his veep on the 1992 GOP ticket.

That’s news, I suppose, since Jeb! is trying to make it a presidential three-peat for the Bushes.

Otherwise, Dan Quayle hardly rates a media moment anymore. He was your standard-issue vapid politician of another time, when the inability to spell a simple word or utter a coherent sentence grabbed a headline.

Today, he’d have to light his perfect haircut on fire while projectile vomiting fascist viscera to gain attention from the GOP faithful.

But his mention in Jon Meacham’s book did rate a paragraph or two. And it reminded me that I hadn’t heard much about J. Danforth in the past 20 years or so.

A little poking around online reveals he’s cashed in on his notoriety as a dim-witted vice president – becoming chairman of some multi-billion-dollar investment firm.

I’m sure his greatest gifts – glad-handing and golf – are being put to good use.

When I met Quayle, in June 1994, I was writing features about books and authors for Canadian Press.

In addition to real writers, I interviewed people who interested me and happened to attach their names to a hardcover: Judy Collins, a sweet beauty of my youth; Wolfman Jack, who chain-smoked through our chat and died a few weeks later; Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu, the rudest man in the world.

Quayle was promoting a book he allegedly wrote titled Standing Firm: A Vice-Presidential Memoir.

J. Danforth grew up in the newspaper business. His grandfather was a media tycoon, with newspapers and radio stations from Indiana to Arizona. His father was publisher of one of the family properties, the Huntington (Indiana) Herald-Press.

Young Dan declared a talent for communications when he took a PR job with the Indiana National Guard as an alternative to being drafted and shipped to Vietnam.

Once his service obligation was fulfilled, he became a lawyer and briefly assumed an associate publisher role on his father’s paper before beginning a career in politics.

I knew all this when I sat down with Quayle in his suite at the Crowne Plaza hotel in downtown Toronto. And though I rarely arrived at an interview with an agenda, I had one this time.

The only question I wanted Quayle to answer was: Are you as dumb as I think you are?

This would take some finesse. First, I had to gain his confidence.

For the occasion, I wore my best – only – suit: dark blue, with a blue oxford shirt, conservative dark blue tie and black Italian loafers. (I usually wore jeans and cowboy boots to work.)

He greeted me with a handshake, a smile and a slightly off-center look. I didn’t know what that meant. Maybe he was cockeyed.

“How’s your golf game?” I began. I knew he played on the DePauw University team with his roommate, the TV golf analyst Mark Rolfing, and was making some appearances on the celebrity circuit.

I moved on to his plans for running for president in 1996, which gave me an opening to turn to passages in his book where he addressed his three most memorable bloopers:

  • Visiting a class of elementary school students preparing for a spelling bee – and correcting the word “potato” by putting an “e” at the end.
  • Turning the motto of the United Negro College Fund – A mind is a terrible thing to waste – into: “What a waste it is to lose one’s mind, or not to have a mind is very wasteful.”
  • Attacking a fictional character, TV’s Murphy Brown, for having a child out of wedlock.

Since my question – Are you as dumb as I think you are? – could never be phrased that way, I tried this: Do you think the gaffes will hamper a run for the White House?

His answer allowed me to write this lead:

TORONTO (CP) – Dan Quayle says his reputation as a dim bulb could help light his path to the White House.

The former U.S. vice-president said Thursday that voters in the 1996 presidential election might have a soft spot for someone who was unmercifully mocked by the media for misspelling potato and picking a fight with Murphy Brown.

“If I decide to run, in a weird way, this could be quite helpful,” the conservative Republican said in his downtown hotel suite before a lunchtime speech to the right-wing Fraser Institute and a brief news conference.

“There will be a natural tendency to say, ‘here’s an underdog, here’s somebody who’s getting off the mat, here’s somebody who’s been treated grossly unfairly. Let’s give him a break.’”

And he helped round out the story – and answer my original question – by quoting from his speech:

“The Republicans are going through the normal out-of-party syndrome.” (Presumably, he meant “out-of-power.”)

“I think he (President Bill Clinton) is obviously a very quick learn.” (Presumably, he meant “quick study.”)

To quote a 12-year-old at that New Jersey school: “He’s an idiot.”


A longer, more detailed account of this and many more stories are told in my book: The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.



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