If decision 2000 were left up to the shrieking 15-year-old girls sitting in the bleachers of Huntington North High School, there's no doubt who they would pick: former Vice President Dan Quayle.
For better or worse, however, that weighty choice will not be put in the hands of the Midwestern adolescents who filled the packed gymnasium with cheerleader-led cries of "Gimme a Q! (Q!) Gimme a U! (U!) Gimme an A-Y-L-E! (A-Y-L-E!)"
Quayle, of course, seemed well aware of the relative unimportance of the ardent support of his hometown crowd, and for that reason he made sure that his announcement speech took a clear, if implied, shot at the GOP front-runner, Texas Gov. George W. Bush. "I intend to make foreign policy an issue in this campaign," Quayle said. "We don't need another president who needs on-the-job training. We can ill afford another president who has inexperience in foreign policy. You can only get so much from briefing books and crash courses -- you need experience. Today I can look you in the eye and assure you that on Day One, I will be prepared to lead this great nation."
Quayle also countered Gov. Bush's front-runner fund-raising status as well, saying that "the presidency is not to be inherited," and that "the presidency will not be bought. It must be earned." Bush's campaign war chest hovers around $6 million, roughly three times as much as Quayle's.
But Quayle's less subtle jabs were aimed at the Clinton administration, primarily Vice President Al Gore. Noting that Gore had appeared on television right after Clinton was impeached and referred to Clinton as the "greatest" president in recent history, Quayle expressed outrage.
"What arrogance," Quayle said. "What disdain for the values parents are trying to teach children. What contempt for the rule of law." Then, echoing his former boss's rhetorical salvo against Saddam Hussein, Quayle promised: "This shall not stand. Starting in this town, in this place, at this hour, we fight back."
In another slap at Gore, Quayle pointed out that "when President Bush and I left office six years ago, nobody questioned whether we would sacrifice national security for campaign cash."
Quayle couldn't have picked a better spot -- or a more loving crowd -- for his campaign kickoff than this sleepy farming town of roughly 17,300 residents, 80 miles northeast of Indianapolis and 30 miles southwest of Fort Wayne.
"Welcome home, Dan," read signs posted throughout town, which boasts the only vice presidential museum in the country. The Dan Quayle Center and Museum set up numerous booths outside the high school, selling Dan Quayle golf balls, golf towels, pins, T-shirts, key chains and pencils. Also for sale were Quayle's two books: "Standing Firm" (his memoir) and "The American Family." Also available: a slender paperback called "Things the Media, Talk Show Hosts, and Liberals Never Tell You About Dan Quayle."
"He was the good kid in school who played golf real well," said Loveta Hartle, whose daughter was a classmate of the former vice president. Hartle said Quayle was such a favorite son that even the town's Democratic mayor, Bob Kyle, had thrown him his support. Kyle, who himself is up for reelection this November, says that his support for Quayle has deep personal roots. Quayle was a customer of the bank where Kyle used to work, he golfed with him "on Wednesdays and Sundays" back in the 1970s and they have common friends. "Dan has the values that it takes to make a good president," Kyle said. "Anything we got in the White House now can be beaten."
Inside the school, the gym rapidly filled with students from Huntington North High School, from which Quayle graduated in 1965, and Huntington Community College, where he taught business law in 1975, as well as folks from the surrounding area, who first elected him to Congress in 1976. Supporters held signs on which they'd written "Q2K," "Quayle Rocks!" and "Pro-Life Quayle."
"Quayle 2000" read one sign, held by a man holding another that said, "Pray for America."
"Birds fly over the rainbow, why oh why, caaaaaaaaaaaaan't IIIIIIIIIIIIIIII?" sang the school's varsity singers -- one of the five groups featured in the event -- before they segued into "I Believe I Can Fly." Only eight African-Americans were visible in the room of several thousand supporters -- the members of Sons of Thunder, a brass band flown in from Harlem especially for the event.
The event was brutally emceed by Steve Shine, a highly enthusiastic Republican official from a neighboring county who led the crowd in pep-rally cheers and repeated admonitions that "IIIII Caaaaan't Heeeaaaar Yoooouuu!"
"WHO'S Gonna be the next president of the United States??!" Shine bellowed. One grizzled reporter was heard grousing that Shine had asked the same question back in '96 when he hosted the kickoff for Indiana Sen. Dick Lugar's insipid presidential campaign.
The pep-rally feel was augmented not only by Shine's bufoonery and the cheerleaders' gyrations, but by fireworks, balloons, mascots from Fort Wayne's minor league baseball and CBA basketball teams and that "Na! Na! Naa! Na-Na-Hey!" song from years past. Hot dogs, soda and pretzels were sold in the lobby. Local pro wrestler K.C. Thunder, 1998 Indianapolis 500 winner Eddie Cheever Jr. and 1986 Super Bowl-winning quarterback Jim McMahon helped prep the crowd by tossing out bombast, Frisbees and footballs, respectively.
Two immense televisions hanging in the corners of the gym alerted the crowd when Quayle and his wife, Marilyn, pulled up in a white Ford. Soon Shine was introducing the Quayle 2000 team as if they were in pre-game warm-up suits. Former Georgia Sen. Mack Mattingly, former New Hampshire Gov. (and deposed Bush White House chief of staff) John Sununu and a whole host of Indiana officials jogged onto the stage, one by one, followed by former Indiana Sen. Dan Coats, who introduced the former vice president.
"I stand here today with Dan Quayle, who has overcome odds all his life," Coats said of the son of one of Indiana's richest families. "And he will overcome the odds to become the president of the United States."
Quayle, looking fit and ruddy-faced, his oft-described graying temples lending gravitas to his boyish face, waved to the crowd. Marilyn Quayle, in a bright green suit, resembled a bronzed Laura Petrie.
("They're tan ever since they moved to Arizona," noted a local TV reporter.)
Quayle then proceeded to thank the town and his supporters. Recalling the day after President Bush announced his nomination in 1988, when the town's ardent support for him manifested itself in angry confrontations with reporters, Quayle said that journalists had told him that they hadn't felt welcome in Huntington. "Today is a new day and a new campaign," Quayle said, asking the crowd to turn to the back of the room, where the media had been corralled, and "give a rousing welcome to the national media." (The press filing room, incidentally, was located in the high school trailer where students serving in-school suspensions are forced to sit.)
Though his speech included digs at Gore, by name, and Gov. Bush, by implication, the body of Quayle's remarks addressed American values. "The time has come to reset the moral compass because prosperity without values is no prosperity at all," he said. Interestingly, Quayle utilized many of his past gaffes and controversies to illustrate the need for values. Decrying newfangled education, he said, "No more fuzzy math where four plus three 'feels like' seven. It is seven. And no more creative spelling, either. I've tried that; it doesn't work."
He also mentioned his long-derided "Murphy Brown" speech of May 19, 1992, where he took the fictional sitcom character to task for serving as a poor role model since her baby did not have a father in an active role. "Murphy Brown is gone," he said, "and I'm still here fighting for the American family."
Additionally, Quayle said that his resilience in the face of continued mockery by the media and late night talk-show hosts was proof of his character: "The question in life is not whether you get knocked down. You will," he said. "The question is, are you ready to get back up, are you willing to get back up, and fight for what you believe in."
In addition to values and foreign policy, the third plank of the Quayle platform is a 30 percent tax cut, which his campaign chair, two-time losing Virginia congressional candidate Kyle McSlarrow, later explained could easily be paid for through the budget surplus.
After delivering a rousing finish, Quayle shed his jacket and shook hands with members of the crowd. He was soon whisked off to a back room, where he chilled with his supporters. To the background accompaniment of Bruce Springsteen songs, his coterie of Coats, Sununu, Mattingly and McSlarrow were dispatched to reporters, where they gave their man rave reviews.
"Americans are going to see a much different Dan Quayle," Coats said. "What they're going to see is the Dan Quayle we've all known, and who was mischaracterized. When Americans see the real Dan Quayle, they'll take a second look."
Sununu agreed. "I've been trying to talk Dan Quayle into running for president since 1993," Sununu said. "I really think it's important to the country, and important to the party, certainly, that the old Reagan coalition be rebuilt. And Dan Quayle is the man to do it. He's the smartest and most experienced of the bunch." Many of Sununu's former colleagues in the Bush White House are supporting the son of their former boss, George W. Bush, but Sununu says that both the elder and senior Bush "understand that I've been supporting Dan Quayle since 1993. What's hard in politics is that you always have to choose between good friends."
As is fairly standard for presidential announcements, the candidate was not available for press inquiries. According to a Quayle spokesman, the former vice president spent the afternoon talking to conservative talk-radio hosts who are guaranteed to be friendly, including Ollie North, Sean Hannity and Michael Medved. Quayle was to be interviewed on NBC's "Today" Thursday morning, live from Nick's Kitchen, a Huntington diner where his wife used to hold daily breakfast meetings back when she was senior partner at Quayle & Quayle in the mid-1970s. "I think he's the man for the United States of America," says Jean Anne Drabenstot, owner of Nick's Kitchen. "He's honest, he's truthful ... he's just great."