US election memories 2: 1988

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You might want to skip this blog.

It’s about George HW Bush (or as he was known then “George Bush”). That is, The Boring One.

Like episodes of the US sitcom Friends, US presidents can be easily identified in this way. There’s The Corrupt One Who Resigned, The Cool One Who Got Shot, The One Who Couldn’t Walk and many more. The only downside is there are too many eligible for the title The Stupid One.

To be fair the first Mr Bush was not actually stupid. This makes him unique along with Eisenhower amongst post-war US Republican presidents in being neither stupid nor a crook.

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“What’s wrong with being a boring kinda guy?” he admitted and he had a point. You can’t have two Nixons, two Reagans or two Clintons in a row. You need someone dull in between. In Britain, we went for the similarly nice but dull John Major around this time. Two Thatchers in a row would have finished us off.

It was also a sensitive time on the international stage. Someone like Reagan or the second Bush would have been a disaster in the delicate period which saw the Berlin Wall come down, the USSR collapse, Apartheid end in South Africa and UN forces liberate Kuwait. Someone like George W Bush would have ignored the UN and escalated the war disastrously into Iraq without any thought as to the likely consequences. In fact, later on he did just that.

The 1988 elections did grab my interest though. I was only eleven and I hadn’t even noticed that the nation which had produced Garbage Pail Kid  stickers had elections before. The large number of contenders involved grabbed my interest. It also didn’t hurt that British politics looked fairly dull at the time with Thatcher looking invincible as she approached a full decade in power.

I was less partisan then and thus more detached. The Republicans were torn between Bush and grumpy old Bob Dole who lost support after snarling that the Veep should “quit lying about his record” something that made him look like a sore loser after a primary defeat. There were others. Evangelist Pat Robertson represented the Religious Right lunatic fringe. The fact that Rupert Murdoch backed him tells us two things: one, that Murdoch wielded very little influence in the US back then. Another that Murdoch contrary to myth does not back winners, just people who share his own reactionary views.

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Who would oppose Bush? The Democrats were unkindly referred to as the “seven dwarves”, a funny reference even though there were actually more than seven of them and they were not all short.

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Michael Dukakis (in fact, only 5 ft. 6) emerged as the nominee. People don’t tend to remember presidential election losers and while I’m sure many Americans remember him, I doubt many Britons do. “Duke” is even less famous than many of those who opposed him in the primaries. Jesse Jackson, his main opponent for the nomination, came closer to the presidency than any other black man before Obama. Al Gore similarly is the only man to have won the US presidency (in 2000) and not actually become president. Another contender was Joe Biden who is in fact Obama’s Vice President today. Biden withdrew after it turned out one of his speeches had been stolen from one by Labour leader Neil Kinnock (an unknown figure in the US).

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Early favourite Gary Hart meanwhile earned eternal notoriety for his spectacular fall from grace in a sex scandal, something that apparently discouraged Arkansas governor Bill Clinton from running until 1992.

Dukakis looked like a strong candidate at first leading the privileged unexciting Bush by around 15% in the summer. His rhetoric was Kennedy-esque. His running mate Lloyd Bentsen also memorably smashed Bush’s disastrous choice of vice president Dan Quayle in the TV debates destroying him with the words “You’re no Jack Kennedy.”

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But Dukakis, though in some ways a better man than Bush, was undeniably a weaker candidate, slow to respond to often unfair attacks and lambasted for his controversial opinions on the death penalty (he opposed it) and “liberalism” by this point an insult in the US political lexicon.

Bush seemed to offer a continuation of the Reagan boom years and a continuation of the tax cuts better off Americans had enjoyed. “Read my lips. No new taxes” Bush intoned, probably the most famous thing he ever said. He was foolish to promise it. Thanks to Reagan, the deficit was already woefully out of control. Bush would soon introduce the second biggest tax increase in US history. And by then there would be a recession.

How closely did I follow all this as an eleven year old in Peterborough in 1988? Not THAT closely. I had other distractions: a school trip to Pwllheli in Wales, youth club, the difficult transition from junior to secondary school, reading Douglas Adams books, riding my BMX, a family holiday to the Netherlands, reading, writing and drawing comics, watching Neighbours, seeing Who Framed Roger Rabbit at the cinema, experiencing the first stirrings of adolescence.

But my interest in US politics had begun. Both Dukakis and Bush are retired now and in advanced old age. If you want to see them now, they appear on TV briefly in the opening minutes of the 2001 film Donnie Darko.

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The wit and wisdom of Dan Quayle

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In July 1988, the Republican presidential nominee George HW Bush (then generally known as plain old George Bush or more formally Vice President Bush) announced his choice of running-mate for the forthcoming presidential election. His choice, James Danforth (Dan) Quayle would generally be viewed as a disaster. The next four years would witness one of the most gaffe-prone vice presidencies of all time.

Quayle, a 41-year-old senator from Indiana certainly looked the part. After eight years of Ronald Reagan, by then 77, and his potential successor Bush already in his mid-sixties, Quayle certainly helped give the Republican Party a more youthful image. He was also much younger than his opponent Michael Dukakis’s 67-year-old running mate Lloyd Bentsen.

But doubts were immediately raised about Senator Quayle’s experience. Most observers had expected Bush to pick his defeated primary opponent, Senator Bob Dole as his running mate. Quayle’s speaking style was stilted and unconvincing. It also soon emerged that twenty years before, he had used his family’s powerful business connections to ensure enrolment in the Indiana National Guard. The National Guard was usually seen as a sure way of avoiding the draft. It was in short an easy way to dodge involvement in the Vietnam War.

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Quayle was not the last public figure to face such allegations. Four years later, the Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton would be accused of draft dodging too, taking some of the heat off Quayle who was by then vice president. But Clinton had at least opposed the war, unlike Quayle and Quayle’s opponent Al Gore, Bill Clinton’s running mate, had actually served in Vietnam. Worse was to come: Bush’s own son faced the same charge when he ran for president himself in 2000 and 2004 and even managed to go AWOL during his time on the Texan National Guard. His running mate Dick Cheney also avoided serving claiming simply that he had had “other priorities.” But Quayle had left the political arena by then.

Donald Kaul reflected the general furore: “Faced with a smorgasbord of vice presidential candidates – all conservative, some politically useful and some who might even wear the label ”distinguished” without embarrassment – Bush picked a callow, braying arch conservative from a state Bush was going to carry anyway. Quayle may not be on the lunatic fringe, but he can see it from where he’s standing. Of such decisions are concession speeches made…Quayle is a chicken hawk, a flag-waving jingoist who never met a war he didn’t like, but sought refuge in the National Guard when the opportunity to actually fight in one presented itself”.

The endless gaffes continued. A selection are included below.
Quayle was also humiliated in the 1988 vice presidential debates with Senator Lloyd Bentsen. By that stage in the contest, Vice President Bush was easily beating his opponent, Democrat Governor Michael Dukakis. But questions remained over Quayle’s experience. Nearly half of the United States’ post-war vice presidents had at that point, ended up being president (four out of nine. Bush would make it five out of ten, although no former vice presidents have become president since 1989). Bentsen was a veteran politician, who in the Sixties had beaten George HW Bush in an election for the Senate himself.

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Quayle attempted to defuse the issue, by unwisely comparing himself to President Kennedy, who had been assassinated in 1963:

Quayle: It is not just age; it’s accomplishments, it’s experience. I have far more experience than many others that sought the office of vice president of this country. I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency. I will be prepared to deal with the people in the Bush administration, if that unfortunate event would ever occur.

Bentsen: Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy. (Prolonged shouts and applause.)

Quayle: That was really uncalled for, Senator. (Shouts and applause.)

Bentsen: You are the one that was making the comparison, Senator — and I’m one who knew him well. And frankly I think you are so far apart in the objectives you choose for your country that I did not think the comparison was well-taken.

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It was the most stunning TV debate defeat ever.

Satire had a field day. An urban myth developed that Quayle had initially clumsily first raised his left hand when asked to take the oath of office, before hastily correcting himself and raising his right (this was untrue) A record entitled “The Wit and Wisdom of Dan Quayle” was released, just as one entitled “The Wit and Wisdom of Ronald Reagan” had been released before. In both cases, both sides were of the record were completely blank. Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury strip meanwhile portrayed the new Veep as being distracted by the “spinny” chair in his new office. Saturday Night Live actually portrayed Quayle as a child in several sketches.

Why didn’t Bush drop Quayle? Did he as a former vice president himself secretly fear the power of the vice president and so like Nixon picking Gerald Ford in 1973 hope to protect himself from any risk of future impeachment by putting a supposed idiot in the Number 2 spot? Did he secretly see in Quayle, a young southern draft dodger, someone who reminded him of his own son? Most likely, he thought to drop Quayle would seem to concede error and might prove more damaging. In 1972, democrat nominee George McGovern’s campaign never recovered after his decision to drop his running mate Thomas Eagleton after questions were raised about him.

And in fact, Quayle’s selection seems to have had little electoral impact. The Bush-Quayle ticket won a comfortable forty state victory, over Dukakis and Bentsen in 1988. Quayle seemed to have had little impact in 1992 either. Voters, as usual, seem to have been voting for the main candidate not the running mate.

Quayle continued to make real gaffes too, none, it must be said of real global importance,  notably launching a scathing attack on the fictional US TV character Murphy Brown (played by Candice Bergen) for giving birth out of wedlock. President Bush, in fairness, had fallen into a similar trap declaring Americans should be “more like The Waltons and less like The Simpsons”. On the show, Bart hit back: “We are like The Waltons…we’re all praying for an end to the Great Depression too!”

By now, it was 1992 and an unpopular Bush was facing possible defeat as he ran for re-election. There was talk of dropping Quayle. Bush had suffered a mild heart attack in 1991, reminding voters that Quayle was only a heartbeat away from the presidency. A secret service chief was fired after joking that if Bush were assassinated, his operatives should immediately shoot Quayle to prevent him becoming president.

1992 actually saw one of Quayle’s most memorable gaffes incorrectly changing the spelling of the word “potato” on a visit to a school after a pupil had written it on the board correctly (“You’re close, but you left a little something off,” he said “The “e” on the end”).

But generally Quayle performed better than expected during election year. He lost the TV debate to Al Gore, though not as spectacularly as in 1988. But when Bush lost to Clinton in November, Quayle wasn’t blamed. In 2000, he even launched an exploratory bid for the Republican presidential nomination himself. In the end, another Bush, George W, got it.

The vice presidency is an unfulfilling job for most. Unlike Nixon’s first Number Two, Spiro Agnew, who ultimately resigned when it emerged he had evaded paying his taxes when he was Governor of Maryland, Quayle avoided scandal. But a stream of gaffes and unconvincing public performances ensured that he never gained the confidence of the American public.

Like George W. Bush and Sarah Palin since, he was a rich source of gaffes. Here are some of his ‘finest’ moments…

President George H. W. Bush

The best of Dan Quayle…

The Holocaust was an obscene period in our nation’s history….No, not our nation’s, but in World War II. I mean, we all lived in this century. I didn’t live in this century, but in this century’s history.

People that are really very weird can get into sensitive positions and have a tremendous impact on history.
(Interview referring to Rasputin).

We are ready for any unforeseen event that may or may not occur.

On Hawaii:

Hawaii has always been a very pivotal role in the Pacific. It is in the Pacific. It is a part of the United States. That is an island that is right here.

When you take the UNCF model that, what a waste it is to lose one’s mind, or not to have a mind is being very wasteful, how true that is.
(Speech to the United Negro College Fund . The Fund’s slogan was “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”)

The other day [the President] said, I know you’ve had some rough times, and I want to do something that will show the nation what faith that I have in you, in your maturity and sense of responsibility. Would you like a puppy?

I believe we are on an irreversible trend toward more freedom and democracy. But that could change.

Mars is essentially in the same orbit.… Mars is somewhat the same distance from the Sun, which is very important. We have seen pictures where there are canals, we believe, and water. If there is water, that means there is oxygen. If oxygen, that means we can breathe.

On the 1992 LA Riots:
I have been asked who caused the riots and the killing in LA, my answer has been direct and simple: Who is to blame for the riots? The rioters are to blame. Who is to blame for the killings? The killers are to blame.

On TV show Murphy Brown:

Bearing babies irresponsibly is simply wrong. We must be unequivocal about this. It doesn’t help matters when prime-time TV has Murphy Brown — a character who supposedly epitomises today’s intelligent, highly paid, professional woman — mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another “lifestyle choice.”

This is what I say about the scorn of the media elite: I wear their scorn as a badge of honour.

I believe that I’ve made good judgments in the past, and I think I’ve made good judgments in the future.

We don’t want to go back to tomorrow, we want to move forward.

We understand the importance of having the bondage between the parent and the child.

The future will be better tomorrow.

I made a misstatement and I stand by all my misstatements.

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