Standing Firm, by Dan Quayle
by Dan Quayle.
HarperCollins-Zondervan. 402 pp. $25.00.
Ever since the basketball star Charles Barkley admitted in a press conference that he had not read his own just-published autobiography, reviewers have been well-advised to approach celebrity memoirs with care. How thoroughly, nowadays, can you judge a man by the book that bears his name? It is taken for granted that no politician (or athlete, or actor, or businessman) would suffer the indignity of staring at a blank computer screen, sweating out the inspiration to tell his own story with sufficient eloquence and candor. No, the self-respecting memoirist today hires a professional to become inspired for him.
This much is assumed, and generally goes unremarked. How closely the resulting book reflects its subject is a dicier question. Are the tone and mood the subject’s or the ghostwriter’s? Who thought up the funny lines; how genuine is the ardor; are the tears his or a crocodile’s? And to whose sloppiness do we ascribe the inevitable solecisms and typos and errors of fact? Through these deep waters the judicious reviewer moves cautiously, and particularly so in the case of former Vice President Dan Quayle, whose own memoir has just been published.
No other political figure in our time has been treated with such salivary disdain. It began in the presidential campaign of 1988, when, after having labored eight years as a dutiful, principled U.S. Senator, Quayle was transformed overnight by his own unease and a predatory press corps into a kind of icon in reverse, a coast-to-coast gag, a brand name the merest mention of which could trigger laughter from any audience anywhere. Four years later, during the 1992 campaign, things had gotten so bad that Republican speakers out on the hustings were instructed, as a matter of policy, not to mention Quayle’s name, even to partisan crowds; it was thought that the inevitable snickers would undermine the speaker’s effectiveness.
The publication of Standing Firm is therefore the opening salvo in Dan Quayle’s personal Inchon—his calculated attempt to reclaim his reputation and reintroduce himself to an electorate that he hopes will deem him presidential by 1996. This is a heavy burden to place on a celebrity memoir—which makes it doubly unpleasant to report that Dan Quayle has written, or authorized to be written in his name, a bad book.
There is no reason to overstate the case: as a politician’s memoir, Standing Firm is no worse than most examples of the genre. Sentences parse, the grammar is good, ideas follow one another in the appropriate sequence. The hand of the professional (unidentified) is shown in the way each chapter ends with a foreshadowing of the next. But if it is no worse, Standing Firm is also no better than others of its kind. In that sense, the book is roughly analogous to Quayle himself: an average fellow of moderate gifts, whose every deficiency is painfully enlarged by the unique circumstances in which he finds himself.
There is a great deal of Dan Quayle in Standing Firm (I do not mean this ironically). Even at the height of his national ridicule, one could see in him the self-assurance, even cockiness, of the natural pol—a great American type that is merely an older version of the Big Man on Campus. When the abuse hit him like a hurricane, he soldiered on with the air of a man who could not quite believe that people could be so stupid as to think him stupid.
In his book, he is still unembarrassed by his vanity. “Throughout my life I’ve loved beating the odds,” he (or whoever) writes. “I switched elementary schools five times. Whenever I arrived at a new one, the teacher would put me in the last row, which was reserved for the slow kids. Within a matter of weeks I’d made it to the front of the room.” He tells us that as he was being considered for George Bush’s running mate, he daydreamed of the glorious headlines that would inevitably follow. Later, he reminds us how good a campaigner he is. And so on. In these passages, and the many others like them, his insouciance is almost charming.
But insouciance can quickly shade into indiscretion. While Standing Firm is free of the comical slips of the tongue for which he became famous, one gets the idea nevertheless that Quayle is not always aware of what he is saying. To take an example: Presidents and Vice Presidents routinely give trinkets—tie clasps, key chains, cuff links, all stamped with the presidential seal—to visitors who come to pay homage; the supplicants prize the stuff ever after as mementos of their brush with greatness. Does Quayle really want to tell us that he used to refer to such trinkets as “chum,” fish bait?
Similarly, Quayle writes of his efforts to fire Richard Truly, the director of NASA, who by the Vice President’s account had been a disaster: “I thanked him for his service and told him that we wanted to find an ambassadorship for him.” Now, paying off incompetent officials with foreign postings is a time-honored practice, but the payers rarely confess to it. Actually, they never confess to it. From Quayle, the admission is not so much refreshing as unnerving.
Since this book’s publication in May, much has been made of Quayle’s feline swipes at his Republican rivals. And they are titillating, at least as Washingtonians measure titillation. But there is also no denying the churlishness that creeps in, especially when Quayle turns from rivals to colleagues. Thus, he writes with great ambivalence about William Kristol, his chief of staff, freely acknowledging Kristol’s political savvy while never passing up a chance to mention his reputation in Washington as a leaker. And the digs at Kristol are as nothing compared with the swipes at Quayle’s press secretary, the otherwise anonymous Dave Beckwith, who handled the thorniest job in the administration with wit, ingenuity, and (as we now see) thankless loyalty. In fact, with one obvious exception, none of Quayle’s fellow Republicans enjoys the petting and cooing Quayle reserves for . . . Ted Kennedy: “A guy’s guy, loud and fun-loving, but he also loves children and is very attentive to them.”
The obvious exception is George Bush, but the Bush of Standing Firm—loyal, compassionate, resolute—is utterly one-dimensional. Surely, the relationship between Bush and Quayle was more complicated than that. The fiercely conservative Quayle, as Vice President, argued against most of the President’s signature domestic initiatives, which were models of Republican me-tooism: the Clean Air Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Civil Rights Act, the budget deal of 1990. Regarding Bush, Quayle’s discretion is at last set firmly in place; there must be much here that is left unsaid.
In the end, the cumulative impression of Standing Firm is one of numbing irrelevance. Quayle’s analysis of the Bush administration’s ultimate failure is conservative boilerplate, familiar to any reader of op-ed columns. And does anyone any longer care about the intricacies of Richard Darman’s relationship with John Sununu? There are several long stretches of wheel-spinning as Quayle ruminates over his bad press. “Do you know,” he asks, “how many favorable stories it takes to overcome one zinger by Johnny Carson?” Too many, is the unsurprising answer, and Quayle proceeds to relate in great detail his efforts to undermine the media’s bizarre obsession with his famous gaffes. So great was the media’s obsession, in fact, that Quayle cannot stop thinking about it.
Several pundits have said that the Vice President should have resisted the pleasures of a conventional score-settling memoir and produced instead a treatise on the great policy questions of the age, as direct evidence of his gravitas. Had Quayle written such a book, of course, most of these same pundits would have ignored or lambasted it—yet another instance of the kind of double bind Quayle is forever faced with. As it turns out, he wants both to settle old scores and to be taken seriously, and unfortunately he seems unable to distinguish between the two. This makes it hard to take him seriously.
Dan Quayle was a good Senator, an exemplar of the conservative Hoosiers who sent him to Washington by large majorities. He was also a superior Vice President: loyal, tireless, politically astute, a voice for principle in an ideologically flaccid administration. Standing Firm asks us, by implication, to think of him now as something more—a potential President. Even though this book has become a big best-seller, few readers, I suspect, will respond as Quayle hopes.
In mitigation, his partisans—for there are such—will say that the press’s opprobrium was simply too great for him to overcome. A few months ago it would have been easier to agree with this assessment, when Quayle’s greatest obstacle was the media-manufactured caricature of a man irretrievably out of his depth. With Standing Firm, his greatest obstacle has become the suspicion that the press, amazingly, had it right the first time.