Dan Quayle’s strange victory

Ten years after taking on "Murphy Brown," he oddly praises Ozzy, Warren and Sarah Jessica -- and claims history proved him right.

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Dan Quayle’s sense of satisfaction appeared as sweet as the strawberry mousse cake that was served Thursday before his speech at the National Press Club.

The last time he lived in Washington, his words were parsed almost as closely as the current president’s. He still lets off the occasional zinger; last month during an appearance on “Hardball,” as he tried to “set aside the Middle East peace situation” from the war on terrorism, he asked the rhetorical riddle: “How many Palestinians were on those airplanes on Sept. 9? None.”

And just Thursday morning, when he discussed the continuing problem of out-of-wedlock births with Katie Couric on “The Today Show,” he warned of “young men that like to go out and try to impregnate as many children as possible.” (In a similar statement to the press club later in the day, he did correct “children” to “women.”)

But nothing was going to stop him from treating the day as a prolonged victory lap. In 1992, the former vice president came under merciless criticism in the media when he attacked the TV character “Murphy Brown” for deciding to have a child out of wedlock. At the time, during an ill-fated reelection campaign, it seemed like just another embarrassing blunder that was bringing the ticket down. But history, Quayle believes, has saved him.

He’s not the only one who thinks so. Ten years later, most anyone involved in child development agrees that two parents are preferable. He beamed while pointing out a recent New York Times headline that read “The Controversial Truth: Two-Parent Families Are Better.”

“I was right at the time, and I feel that way now,” said Quayle.

He still can be hard to follow. Quayle said he still disapproves of the “cultural elite” for continuing to glamorize sex outside of marriage on the screen, but added that he’s heartened by stars who embrace family off the screen, including (notorious Lothario) Warren Beatty and Sarah Jessica Parker — whose character in “Sex and the City” seems to have an almost pathological fear of marriage. Later, he even said that Ozzy Osbourne, star of his own real-life sitcom on MTV, is a decent role model because as a father — believe it or not — he counsels his children on the importance “of not doing drugs, of not doing alcohol.” The show reveals the “positive things you can get out of a crazy home,” he said.

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But the fact that Quayle seemed confident making today’s speech demonstrates that the politics of family have changed significantly during the last decade. Bill Clinton, the Democratic candidate for president at the time of Quayle’s “Murphy Brown” remarks, attacked the vice president for being out of line. Even President Bush’s spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, suggested that Quayle was wrong, saying that Murphy Brown exhibited positive “pro-life values” by having her baby.

In 1992, discussing illegitimacy was taboo. Most politicians had steered clear of the subject since 1965, when a then-obscure assistant secretary of labor by the name of Daniel Patrick Moynihan released a report linking poverty among black children to the prevalence of out-of-wedlock births. The report was denounced, and Moynihan was labeled a racist.

During the 1990s, the climate changed.

Due to a push by conservatives — and some liberals — and to a growing body of research, the subject of illegitimacy became legitimate.

Press coverage of the topic grew. And, as welfare reform emerged as a major policy priority in Congress, Democrats and Republicans agreed that the government needed to take concrete steps to reduce out-of-wedlock births. A 1993 Atlantic magazine cover story was titled “Dan Quayle Was Right.” And later that year, Clinton declared, “I believe the country would be a lot better off if children were born to married couples.”

“We finally removed the gag,” says Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. Rector has helped draft many family-formation provisions of Republican welfare reform bills in Congress. In the 1996 federal welfare reform law, Congress approved federal funding for sexual-abstinence programs and a bonus to states that reduce their ratios of out-of-wedlock births.

Today, in the midst of the reauthorization of the federal welfare program, both parties are embracing a Bush plan that takes the notion of reducing out-of-wedlock births a full step further: a marriage promotion fund, which would provide $300 million to state initiatives that help couples get hitched.

Quayle gave the president’s proposal a thumbs-up today, saying “most marriages create stability.”

But is Quayle overplaying his hand? While happy that the tide has turned, some illegitimacy experts worry that politicians could take the issue too far.

“The widespread recognition that children don’t do well when raised outside marriage is a positive development,” says Isabel Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “At the same time, we need to move cautiously in getting government involved in the marriage promotion arena. It would be easy for the whole marriage movement to get out of hand and end up encouraging marriage in situations where it’s not the best outcome for everyone.”

Megan Twohey is a writer in Washington. She was formerly a staff writer for the National Journal and the Moscow Times.

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