Alternate History

President Quayle

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Many voices clamored for George Bush to find a new running mate for the 1992 presidential election, but Bush remained loyal to Dan Quayle. What if Bush had selected a new vice presidential candidate? Most people in the nation were introduced to J. Danforth Quayle when the forty-one-year-old senator came bounding onto an outdoor stage in New Orleans, grabbed Republican presidential candidate George Bush's shoulders, and shouted, "Believe me, we will win because America can not afford to lose! Let's go get 'em! All right? You got it?"

From that moment on August 16, 1988, Dan Quayle became one of the most talked about political figures in America, largely for all the wrong reasons. A few months before, in the midst of the news doldrums between the spring presidential primaries and the summer political conventions, the national press began speculating about what kind of president Republican candidate George Bush would make. Bush pointed out that the first major decision he would make for his administration would be the selection of his running mate: "Watch my vice presidential decision. That will tell all." When Bush announced Dan Quayle as his choice for his running mate, the junior senator from Indiana was unfamiliar to most Americans, but to the horror of the Republicans, news about Quayle would dominate the headlines for the next two weeks, and nearly all of it was bad.

Even before the nominees left the Republican convention in New Orleans, Quayle was a liability for Bush. There were questions about how Quayle had avoided the Vietnam War draft by joining the National Guard; he had been able to get into the Guard because of his family's influence. There were reports of a sex-for-votes scandal on a 1981 golf trip that he had joined. Quayle's wife, Marilyn, dismissed the idea that Quayle had participated in a sexual quid pro quo by insisting, "Anyone who knows Dan Quayle knows that he would rather play golf than have sex any day." Quayle didn't help when Dan Rather, the anchor of the CBS Evening News, asked the candidate what his worst fear was, and Quayle answered "Paula Parkinson," who was the female lobbyist on the 1981 golf junket.

Quayle soon revealed a special talent for misstatements. Campaigning that fall, he described the Holocaust as "an obscene period in our nation's history." When others suggested that it was actually part of Germany's history, and not that of the United States, Quayle responded, "Our nation was on the side of justice.... I mean, we, we all lived in this century. I didn't live in this century, but in this century's history." The Quayle gaffe-watch became a national pastime, and everyone in the nation (outside of the Quayle family) was in on the joke. The jokes weren't mortal wounds to the Bush campaign, however, and the Bush-Quayle team easily defeated their Democratic challengers Michael Dukakis and Lloyd Bentsen by winning 54 percent of the popular vote. Despite the fact that the competitive atmosphere of the election had ended, the Quayle jokes continued, and many were mean-spirited.

"The Secret Service is under orders that if Bush is shot, to shoot Quayle," Massachusetts senator John Kerry quipped. During the Quayle's tenure, a vigorous cottage industry sprang up solely to make fun of the vice president. A newsletter, The Quayle Quarterly, tracked all of the veep's missteps, and a tongue-in-cheek organization called the "President's Prayer Club" began selling T-shirts with the motto, "Keep George Healthy." There was even a 1-900 telephone line where people could call for a daily joke about the vice president. By the end of Quayle's second year as vice president, the Center for Media and Public Affairs reported that more jokes had been made about Quayle on late-night talk shows in 1990 than any other person, beating out Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and Washington D.C. mayor Marion Barry.

It was probably the largest assault of ridicule that any American politician has been forced to endure. The Quayle jokes subsided on August 2, 1990, when Iraq invaded the neighboring nation of Kuwait and began threatening an invasion of Saudi Arabia, endangering much of the world's oil supply. For the next several months, the nation watched as war with the world's fourth-largest army appeared more and more likely. Immediately after the invasion of Kuwait, President Bush began putting together a coalition of nations to stop Saddam Hussein, and on August 8 he deployed the 82nd Airborne Division to Saudi Arabia.

As the buildup of American forces continued past the first of the year, critics of the Bush administration predicted that the U.S. faced a military disaster. "It'll be brutal and costly," warned Massachusetts senator Edward Kennedy. "The forty-five thousand body bags the Pentagon has sent to the region are all the evidence we need of the high price in lives and blood that we will have to pay." The United States began an air bombardment of Iraq in January 1991, and when Hussein refused to withdraw from Kuwait, the U.S. and Allied forces invaded Iraq on February 24.

The war was a complete rout of the Iraqi army, and after four days of fighting, President Bush announced a cease-fire. The United States and the Allied forces had stopped Hussein's aggression in the region after just one hundred hours of fighting, with a loss of 131 soldiers. The Gulf War had been such an incredible success that Bush briefly enjoyed a 90 percent approval rating in public opinion polls-the highest numbers any president had seen since polls began gauging presidential popularity. As pundits looked toward the 1992 presidential election, they saw almost no chance that Bush could be defeated in his bid for reelection. One Democratic pollster moaned, "I don't know whether you'd be better off serving in the Confederate Army or being a Democratic presidential hopeful right now." But while support for Bush was at historically high levels, Vice President Quayle continued to struggle for public approval. In the spring of 1991, after going jogging, President Bush experienced a heart problem. The damage to the president's heart was minor, but the nation's political psyche had a major infarction-the idea of a Quayle presidency caused renewed attacks on the beleaguered vice president. "A heart flutters, a nation shudders," wrote the Chicago Tribune. Even in Quayle's home region of Fort Wayne, Indiana, the News Sentinel said, "Well, la-de-da-de-da, here we are just ambling along, average goofy Americans without a thought in our heads and-WHAT? PRESIDENT Quayle? OH GOD, PLEASE, NO, NO, NO!'"

After Bush's heart trouble, polls showed that only 19 percent of the nation considered Quayle fit for the presidency. "If 81 percent go for Bush and 19 percent go for me, then we've got just about everybody," Quayle responded. But calls for Bush to drop Quayle from the ticket were coming from around the nation. "Mr. Quayle is a sunny and unvengeful man. He is also weightier than given credit for, and might prove a surprisingly serviceable successor to Mr. Bush," said the New York Times. "But why not the best? Or at least, why not better?" More than fifty newspapers around the nation agreed with the Times and wrote editorials suggesting that Bush find a new presidential partner. Time magazine ran a cover with the line FIVE WHO COULD BE VICE PRESIDENT and included photos of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell, Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney, Senator Nancy Kassebaum, and governors Pete Wilson of California and Carroll Campbell of South Carolina. Newsweek tagged along. On its cover was a photo of Quayle swinging a golf club, along with the caption THE QUALYE HANDICAP: IS HE A LIGHTWEIGHT-OR SMARTER THAN YOU THINK? Newsweek concluded, "Only Saddam is lower as a '92 VP choice." But Bush was determined to stand by his Dan. "I've expressed my support for Dan Quayle," he said in response to a question about finding a new running mate for the 1992 election. "I think he's getting a bum rap in the press-pounding on him when he's doing a first-class job. And I don't know how many times I have to say it, but I'm not about to change my mind when I see his performance and know what he does."

But domestic problems soon changed the complexion of the 1992 presidential election. A recession that had begun in 1991 was deepening, causing many people to forget the support they had given the Bush-Quayle administration a year earlier. As people in the Bush administration tried their best to downplay the downturn, saying that an economic recovery was beginning (it was, as it turned out), Quayle stumbled along, twice predicting in speeches in California, "This president is going to lead us out of the recovery. It will happen." The next day, Quayle's motorcade passed a Burger King with a Help Wanted sign posted, and Quayle stopped the motorcade and pointed the sign out to the accompanying journalists, saying that the minimum-wage fast-food job was an "optimistic sign that things are turning around in California." Although polls at the time showed that a majority of Americans wished that Bush would change his mind, and one out of four voters said that they wouldn't vote for Bush because of Quayle, there was still little reason for Bush to worry about his reelection. Bush continued his high position in the polls well into the election year of 1992. Even then it seemed as if he could coast to victory in the fall.

His primary rival for the presidency, Arkansas governor Bill Clinton, had been shown to have lied to evade the draft during the Vietnam War, and despite his denials, evidence emerged that showed that he had cheated on his wife with an Arkansas newscaster-slash-nightclub singer named Gennifer Flowers. After Clinton secured the Democratic presidential nomination in the spring primaries, few people were giving him any chance of defeating Bush and Quayle. "He is a dead stone loser," one Democratic pollster said. But Quayle continued to be ridiculed by the national media.

President Bush's top advisor, Secretary of State James Baker had never held much respect for Quayle's professional abilities, nor had the two men ever warmed to one another personally. Baker had first tried to convince Bush to drop Quayle from the ticket after Bush's poor showing in the New Hampshire primary early in 1992, telling him that with Quayle on board he could lose the fall election. "If you lose the election, your success in Iraq and in Panama won't matter," Baker had predicted. "A one-term presidency is always considered a failure, no matter what transpired during that time."

Baker had been able to cite several precedents of vice presidents being asked to step aside. Bush had been a part of Gerald Ford's administration when Ford had dropped Vice President Nelson Rockefeller in place of Kansas senator Bob Dole; FDR had substituted Henry Wallace for John Nance Garner in '40, and even Abraham Lincoln had replaced his first vice president, Hannibal Hamlin, with Andrew Johnson in 1864. But despite the history lesson , Bush remained stubbornly loyal to Quayle. "Dan is up to the job, has a real handle on it. And he's learning more every day," Bush said. "I don't care if keeping him on puts us in deep doo-doo; I'm not gonna do it. Not gonna drop him like that."

But Baker and several other Bush cabinet officers, including Richard Cheney, the secretary of defense, and Lamar Alexander, secretary of education, were convinced that there was a possibility the Republicans could lose the fall election if something dramatic wasn't done to break the administration out of the doldrums that it had fallen into, and the most obvious solution to most people seemed to be to find a way to replace Quayle on the ticket. They had to find an alternative, one that was so attractive that it would overcome even Bush's stand. Baker, working with several members of the campaign committee, decided to approach the most popular person in the administration to serve with Bush. But Colin Powell wasn't interested. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had masterminded the military strategy that had overwhelmed the largest army in the Middle East, and following the Gulf War, he had scored approval ratings in the polls that were even higher than those of Bush. But while Bush had seen his poll numbers steadily decline to alarmingly low levels, Powell's had continued to float in the stratosphere.

Powell had little interest in politics, and on two separate occasions he rejected any suggestion that he replace Quayle on the Republican ticket. After Bill Clinton won the Democratic presidential nomination in the primaries, however, Bush's friend Cheney approached Powell a third time. "I don't blame you for not wanting to jump into politics," Cheney said. "It would be hard on your family, and hard on you. You'd spend all you days being told where to go and what to say instead of giving orders. It's an unpleasant duty." Cheney paused, letting the word "duty" hang in the air. "But look at it from another point of view. If Bush should happen to lose the election-I don't think he will, but it is a possibility-then that draft dodger Bill Clinton will be in the White House as commander in chief." Cheney paused again. Powell was a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, and there was no need to ask him how he felt about someone who had schemed so strenuously to avoid serving his nation.

Before Powell could respond, Cheney continued, "You created the Powell Doctrine: Go in with the force to do the job and do it right. No more fighting with a self-imposed disadvantage. The Powell Doctrine will change how America fights its battles for the next fifty years. Well, we need the Powell Doctrine here. We might win with the team we've got. But we might not. Why shouldn't we go into the fight with the best we have to offer?" As Cheney sat across from Powell, there was no indication in Powell's face that anything he had said had moved the general's position even an inch. Powell stared at Cheney with a furrowed brow, looking quite displeased that this arrangement had been presented to him a third time. "Okay, I'll do it," he said, his terse response making it clear that he wasn't going to be an enthusiastic candidate . With Powell agreeing to run with Bush on the fall ticket, the problem once again was Quayle. He could jump off the ticket or he could be pushed, but Baker knew that it would be easier for Quayle to make the jump if he had a soft place to land.

After a late-night meeting between Clayton Yeuter, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, and Rex Early, the Indiana chairman of the Republican Party, a plan was organized. Yeuter flew to Indiana to meet with that state's Republican candidate for governor, Linley Pearson. The Indiana gubernatorial candidate was curious about why the chairman of the RNC had such an urgent need to meet with him. He soon found out that it wasn't to congratulate him on his recent primary victory Yeuter told the Indiana candidate that he might lose the election to his Democratic opponent, Evan Bayh, the telegenic son of former Indiana senator Birch Bayh. It was going to be a difficult election. Bayh was extremely popular in the state, and any Republican challenger stood little chance of succeeding. Pearson wasn't convinced that defeat was certain, but Yeuter continued. If Pearson would step aside for the good of the party, in the next administration a person of his abilities would be a natural choice for a cabinet position, perhaps as commerce secretary.

The Indiana candidate was smart enough to know that if he bucked the party on what was obviously its top priority, campaign donations from corporations and top Republican supporters would dry up like a creek in August, and he would lose anyway. The unspoken message was that he wasn't going to be the governor of Indiana, but he could choose whether to take the easy road or the rocky one.

Two weeks after he won the Indiana primary, securing his nomination as the Republican candidate for governor, Pearson announced that he was withdrawing from the race for "health and personal reasons" and that the Indiana Republican committee would select a candidate. The day before Pearson's announcement, Quayle was called to a meeting in the White House. Samuel Skinner, a golfing buddy of Quayle's and Bush's chief of staff, quickly got straight to the business at hand and told Quayle that Colin Powell was replacing him on the ticket.

The president had already agreed to the change, Quayle was told. "But there is an opportunity that you might want to be aware of," Skinner said, explaining that the next day the Republican nominee for governor in Indiana would be withdrawing from the race. "The state committee is hoping that you might be willing to bail them out of this tough spot by agreeing to run for the governor's seat," Skinner said, adding a patronizing, "It would be a good opportunity for you." After the meeting, Quayle placed several phone calls, trying to gather support from conservatives who had been his strongest supporters. But Skinner had been on the telephone the day before, laying the groundwork for the change. Although all of his supporters wished him the best and offered future help in any political campaign, no one was willing to intercede on his behalf. After a night's sleep, Quayle decided to follow the plan, which he correctly assumed had been orchestrated by Baker.

Quayle surprised the nation by announcing, "I will not be a candidate for the vice presidential nomination." Over the electronic chirping of reporters punching in their office numbers on cell phones, Quayle continued: "This was my own decision , which I made after talking at length with my family. I have decided instead to enter the gubernatorial race for governor of my home state of Indiana." As the reporters began shouting questions, Quayle who had once described himself as "Dr. Spin"-attempted to explain the sudden change in plans. "I am from there, Marilyn is from there, and I would like my kids to experience growing up there, too. For too long my family and I have lived in the glare of the media spotlight here in Washington, and, quite frankly, we've suffered for it. I saw an opportunity to go back home and once again serve the people of my home state, and that's what I'm going to do. "It was my own decision," Quayle repeated. "Just mine and Marilyn's, and after I talked on the phone with President Bush yesterday and told him of my plans, he offered nothing but his highest support and best wishes."

Despite Quayle's carefully laid-out reasoning for leaving the Bush administration, the national media saw through the smoke. DAN DUMPED! screamed the headline of the New York Post the following morning.

As he watched Quayle's announcement on CNN, Baker couldn't resist a bit of gloating. "I've just signed Danny Quayle's death warrant," he laughed. "After he goes back to Indiana and loses to Bayh, ten years from now nobody will know who he is."

At campaign stops, Bush stuck to the story that Quayle had volunteered to leave the ticket and hadn't been pushed. After delivering a speech to the American Chamber of Commerce, Bush came the closest to allowing the story to crack in response to a critical question from a Quayle supporter. "You don't understand how difficult it is to make these decisions," Bush said. "It was Tension City in there. But you have to go forward. Dan Quayle made his own decision-it was his, I didn't tell him to do it, he's his own man-but now we can go forward and so can he." Bush-Powell turned out to be the dream team that the Republicans hoped that it would be.

In the November election, Bush easily won reelection with 48 percent of the popular vote, to Clinton's 39 percent and Perot's 11 percent. But the upset of the election day was in Indiana, where Quayle surprised the pundits by defeating Bayh. This was the second time that Quayle had defeated a member of the Bayh family, having beaten Evan's father Birch Bayh for the Senate seat in 1980. In that election, the elder Bayh had reportedly dismissed his aides' suggestions that he needed to prepare for an upcoming debate, saying, "Come on, boys, don't bother me. I'm debating Danny Quayle."

This victory was just as sweet for Quayle. Quayle convinced William Kristol, who had been his chief of staff, to accompany him to Indiana for one year to get his administration off to a good start. Quayle, Kristol, and Quayle's lieutenant governor, Mitchell Daniels, a former Reagan White House political director, were able to assemble a staff of people from some of the brightest stars of conservative politics. As the national media checked in from time to time, expecting to write about Quayle's pratfall as the state's chief executive, they invariably returned to their editors empty-handed. Even Quayle's critics had to agree that the people in Indiana were pleased with the performance of their new governor.

As the 1996 election approached, Republicans assumed that Vice President Powell would be their nominee. But Powell was sincere in his dislike for politics, and he didn't have the voracious ambition required to become the nation's chief executive. In the middle of his term, Powell announced that he would not be a candidate for president under any circumstances. A few conservative Quayle supporters from his days in the Bush administration (including Kristol, who had returned to Washington as planned) began mentioning Quayle as a possible choice, but, like Powell, Quayle took himself out of consideration in 1995. This choice was well received in Indiana, where the popular governor easily won reelection.

In 1996, the Republicans saw their sixteen-year hold on the presidency end when Democratic presidential nominee Dick Gephardt defeated former Secretary of Education and Tennessee governor and Republican nominee Lamar Alexander for the nation's highest office. That meant that once again the Republican field for the presidency was wide open for the 2000 race. That spring, as the first primary was about to begin, the one person most Republican conservatives were pinning their hopes on was the once-ridiculed vice president, Dan Quayle.

Before Quayle had even committed to the race, he was the clear favorite in the polls, and contributions abounded from political donors. From the start of the campaign Quayle's most serious rival for the nomination was Senator John McCain of Arizona, the Senate Majority Leader. Quayle lost the New Hampshire primary to McCain, but rebounded to capture 9 of 13 Super Tuesday states, effectively clinching the nomination. On July 11 Quayle chose McCain as his running mate.

On November 7, 2000 (Election Day), the Quayle/McCain ticket defeated incumbent President Gephardt and Vice President Bob Kerrey with 327 electoral votes to Gephardt's 211. In the popular vote Quayle received 52 percent of the ballots cast and Gephardt received 45 percent. In the 2004 election, President Quayle was reelected, defeating Senator Joe Biden of Delaware and his running mate Roy Barnes, the former governor of Georgia. In that election, Quayle won 40 states with a total of 374 electoral votes to Biden's 164 votes. The popular vote was also a landslide with Quayle garnering 56 percent and Biden receiving 43 percent. In 2008 McCain was elected President in a landslide defeating Chris Dodd with 411 electoral votes to 127 and winning 57 percent of the vote to Dodd's 42 percent.

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