Magazine February 6, 2012, Issue

Dan Quayle’s Second Act

Dan Quayle goes to bat for Mitt Romney in Paradise Valley, Ariz., Dec. 6, 2011. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)
He’s out of politics, but full of political wisdom

Dan Quayle lost his Secret Service protection within weeks of leaving the vice presidency, almost two decades ago. People still stop him in airports — he has to stand in line and remove his belt and shoes at security checkpoints, just like the rest of us — but for the most part they leave him be. “They’re considerate,” he says. “They give me space.” Every now and then, when he doesn’t want to be recognized, he’ll put on a low-tech disguise: a baseball cap and sunglasses. He did it a year and a half ago, when he attended a tea-party rally. “I just wanted to stand in back and hear the speakers,” he says.

Quayle lives in Arizona now. So do his closest relatives: his mother and his three children, including Ben, the son who is now a first-term congressman in the Phoenix area. The former vice president represented Indiana in the House and Senate for a dozen years before George H. W. Bush picked him as a running mate in 1988. Yet he grew up mainly in Scottsdale. “For me, this is more home than Indiana,” says Quayle, who moved back permanently in 1996. “I love the climate here. If we could import the people of Indiana, it would be perfect.”

He drives himself to work, which is in an office building that looks like so many of the other office buildings in Scottsdale, with two stories of sandstone-colored walls, tinted windows, and a red-tiled roof. There’s no guard in the lobby, and the directory doesn’t list Quayle’s name. Visitors need to know in advance that he can be found upstairs, at the end of a long and featureless hallway, where he leases a few rooms. The view from his window is of a parking lot. Quayle isn’t exactly a modern-day Cincinnatus, returned from Rome to run his farm — he is “chairman of global investments” of a private-equity firm, and he travels quite a bit — but there’s a surprising ordinariness to the second act of his life.

Yet he can still make news, as he did on December 6, when he endorsed Mitt Romney for president. “He’s a solid conservative, and he’s our best chance to beat President Obama,” says Quayle. For Romney, the endorsement hardly could have come at a better moment. His smooth-sailing campaign suddenly had foundered. A week earlier, an interview with Bret Baier of Fox News had gone poorly, forcing many Republicans to wonder if Romney was in fact as polished as his debate performances suggested. Newt Gingrich was surging. “At our event, one of Romney’s aides had a poll from the New York Times,” says Quayle. “It showed Gingrich leading in Iowa by 14 points.”

A lot of Americans remember Quayle for one thing: the time he misspelled “potato” in a classroom, becoming the butt of jokes everywhere. Conservatives also remember a level of press hostility that was almost unmatched before the coming of Sarah Palin. They’re likely to recall that Quayle was an ally in a White House that had a strong streak of moderation — and that he occasionally started useful fights, such as when he criticized the television-sitcom character Murphy Brown for bearing a child out of wedlock. It led to one of the most talked-about articles ever to appear on the cover of the liberal-leaning Atlantic Monthly, the one headlined: “Dan Quayle Was Right.”

So as Romney scrambled to shore up his support at the height of the Gingrich boomlet, the Quayle endorsement was more than the perfunctory nod of an establishment Republican. It was a welcome boost from a well-known conservative. The timing was pure happenstance, the announcement having been planned a few weeks earlier to coincide with a trip to Arizona already on Romney’s schedule. And it had been in the works for even longer, with Romney phoning Quayle on a regular basis to talk politics. None of the other candidates had even bothered to contact the former veep. “Romney was the only one to ask for my support,” says Quayle. It’s a small example of the discipline and focus that have turned Romney into the strong frontrunner for the GOP nomination.

Quayle was 41 years old when he became vice president — a relatively young man for the job, with boyish looks to boot. “I learned that if you’re a young conservative, you’ll be a big target for the press,” he says. “It’s bad enough that you’re a conservative. It’s even worse if you’re young because they’ll think you’ll have a future — and they’ll want to destroy it.”

Today, he’s about to turn 65. The hair is grayer. The skin is starting to wrinkle. Quayle says he hasn’t thought about running for office since he finished eighth in the 1999 Iowa straw poll. He quit his pursuit of the presidency and, before the year was over, took the job he still holds with Cerberus Capital Management. “I’d been in politics since I was 29,” he says. “I decided it was finally time to try something else.”

When you’re a former vice president, however, politics are never far away. Quayle still feels an obligation to attend presidential inaugurations, even for Democrats. He went to Ted Kennedy’s funeral. He advised his son’s successful campaign for Congress in 2010. And he puts his mind to the election of 2012.

“This far out, the incumbent is usually favored,” says Quayle. “But I think we can beat Obama.” He’ll be looking hard at a single number: the economy’s growth in the second quarter of this year. “That’s when perceptions set in,” he says. He points to his own experience in 1992, when the Bush-Quayle ticket crashed at the ballot box. “In the first two quarters of that year, we were technically — barely — in a recession. In the third quarter, the economy grew by 4 percent. In the fourth quarter, it grew by 6 percent. But none of that mattered, because Clinton got everyone to think that we were still in a recession even though it wasn’t true.”

In other words, Obama doesn’t have until Election Day to convince Americans that a recovery is under way. He has until the end of the spring. “That’s not good for him, because it doesn’t look like we’re going to have strong growth in the first half of the year,” says Quayle. “The jobs numbers are improving, but a lot of that is temp help, and it doesn’t factor in the people who have dropped out of the labor market because they’re no longer searching for employment.”

For the Bush-Quayle reelection campaign, perceptions about the economy were enough of a challenge — but it also had to contend with Ross Perot’s third-party ticket, which didn’t carry a single state but drew about 19 percent of the popular vote. “There’s no doubt that without Perot in the race, we would have won,” says Quayle. “We would have won handily.” Do Republicans have to worry about a third party in 2012 — perhaps one led by Ron Paul as a Libertarian candidate? “I don’t think he’ll do it,” says Quayle. “But if he did, it would be a big problem. He’d probably get 10 or 12 percent of the vote or more, and 80 percent of it would be Republican.” The GOP should take steps to make sure it doesn’t happen. “Paul should have a prominent position at the convention,” says Quayle. “He deserves it. He’s a credible candidate, and he should be treated with respect.” The expectation, of course, would be for Paul to encourage his voters to get behind the Republican nominee.

At some point this year, Quayle expects to hear rumors of a “Dump Biden” movement among Democrats — a drive to convince Obama that he should recruit a new running mate, replacing the gaffe-prone Joe Biden. “There will be a push to drop him, but it won’t happen,” says Quayle, who was the subject of similar efforts in 1992. “Why switch? Putting someone else on the ticket won’t help. The president must get reelected on his own. Changing the vice-presidential candidate would create too much discord and chaos.”

The main vice-presidential event between now and the conventions, of course, will take place among Republicans. If Romney wins the nomination, whom should he pick? “He needs to think a little out of the box because he’s a traditional, conventional political figure,” says Quayle. He immediately suggests a pair of potential running mates whom many conservatives had hoped would run for president this year: Florida senator Marco Rubio and New Jersey governor Chris Christie. “Rubio is a comer. He has an impressive résumé, a wonderful story.” Yet Rubio has also signaled that he doesn’t want to be on anyone’s short list for veep. Quayle chuckles at this. “Let me tell you: If the offer is made, he will not reject it.” Quayle also approves of Christie: “He’s a bare-knuckles straight shooter who loves the give and take of politics. He’s a breath of fresh air, totally unconventional for a Republican governor of New Jersey.”

His next two suggestions are a little less daring. “When you look at the recent history of successful vice-presidential candidates, you notice that a lot of them come from the Senate: Mondale, Gore, Biden, me,” says Quayle. “So that’s a natural place to find one.” He mentions Rob Portman of Ohio. “He’s a solid individual with a great background in trade and the budget. He’s steeped in national politics. And he comes from a swing state.” His other idea is John Thune of South Dakota. “He’s a solid conservative who would complement Romney well. In the Senate, he’s seen as a potential majority leader, and I think he’d be successful on the national stage.”

Quayle has advice for anyone who takes the role. “Vice presidents need to understand two things,” he says. “First, you have to be prepared to be president, and that means you must have access to all of the intelligence, go to all of the briefings, and know exactly what’s going on. Second — and this is the tough one — you have to be loyal to the president’s agenda rather than your own agenda. That can be hard when you come from the Senate, where it’s pretty freewheeling and you can get up and talk about anything or introduce any kind of bill. As vice president, you must always defer to the president. If you want to give a piece of your mind, you do it in private.”

When he talks politics these days, it’s often with his son, the 35-year-old congressman who was born in 1976, just three days after his father’s first election to Congress. “It’s his turn now, his generation’s turn,” says the elder Quayle. “Besides, there’s not enough room for two Quayles in politics.”

John J. Miller is the national correspondent for National Review and the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His new book is Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas.

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