Dan Quayle redux

As we prepare for a second President Bush, the d

By Lawrence Weschler

Published December 16, 2000 10:51PM (EST)

At the time of his sudden ascension to prominence, back in 1988, when the entire world seemed to be stammering, as if in one voice, "Him? Why him?" Dan Quayle, we were assured, had struck a resonant chord in the patrician sponsor who had selected him to serve as his vice presidential running mate. George Bush saw something in the boyish young (though actually not that young) man; indeed we were told, he recognized in him something of a son.

Little did we know.

There were countless other fresh young politicians from whom to choose that strange summer morn, some of them quite competent, but Bush père chose that one. Just as this time around, bent on revenge for their defeat four years later, the Bush clan could have rallied behind the competent son but instead chose to marshal its forces around (behind, in front of, above, beneath) its hapless dauphin.

People have been speaking of George W. as a latter-day liter version of his father, and there is indeed a strong sense of déjà vu in all of this, but the comparison to Bush the elder misses the essential point: This is not so much a case of déjà vu as of repetition compulsion, a bizarre family psychodrama writ large. With George W. (the pervading vacuousness, the deer-in-the-headlights stare, the cavalcade of late-night TV jokes, the burgeoning compilations of tortured syntax and uproarious gaffes, the nervous edgy glances of the surrounding adult handlers, the defiantly clueless Alfred E. Neuman gaze, the utter lack of curiosity regarding the cluefulness of the world), what we are witnessing isn't so much the return of George the elder as the triumphant apotheosis of Quayle!

Remember how we used to cringe through the better part of Daddy Bush's term in office, mortified that something might befall him and we'd all get stuck with Quayle? Well, guess what? I'm reminded, in turn, of the joke that was going around in March 1969, about the accident victim who'd spent the entirety of the previous decade in a coma. Coming to, his first frantic query had concerned the health of President Eisenhower. Informed that Ike had in fact died just a few days earlier, the poor fellow wailed, "My God, that means Nixon must be president!"

Lawrence Weschler

Lawrence Weschler, director emeritus of the New York Institute for the Humanities, is the author among others of "Uncanny Valley: Adventures in the Narrative" and, forthcoming next spring, "Domestic Scenes: The Art of Ramiro Gomez." 

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