Recently, reading Hendrik Hertzberg's collection of a career's worth of brilliant essays and reportage, Politics: Observations and Arguments, I came across an early version of a now popular portrait of a certain prominent national politician. The essay, titled "Roboflop", describes the politican as a "vain and unreflective" semi-draft dodging son of privlege prone to humiliating public gaffes and guided primarily by instinct, the leaders of "fundamentalist sects", "out-of-favor right wingers" and "cultural conservatives". Hertzberg imagines a world where this candidate had ascended to the presidency as one in which the US and its former NATO allies stand divided, crowds demonstrate against radically conservative supreme court nominees, all out partisan warfare breaks out in the senate, and the world stands posed on the verge of an ideological version of the same.
The candidate Hertzberg is describing is, of course, Dan Quayle -- the election that of 1988. From today's point of view Quayle's candidacy seems less like an easy punchline, the butt of a thousand Saturday Night Live skits and Tonight Show monologues than a chilling forerunner of today's political reality. And Hertzberg's response to him, a kind of throw-up-your-hands-in-disbelief irony of undersatement, seems quaint, even nostalgic.
Even in the midst of his horror at the prospect of an actual Quayle presidency, Hertzbeg is bitingly funny:
"Let's say it's next April, and President Bush is out having a brisk springtime sail off Kennebunkport. Maybe he gets his tie caught in the jam cleat. Or maybe, just mabye, he doesn't hear the cry of "Hard to lee!" when the boom sweeps over the deck. Suddenly -- bonk! splash! -- a vacancy occurs, and J. Danforth Quayle III, maybe still dressed in his lime-green golf pants, putter in hand, standing at the club bar, takes the oath of office as the forty-second president of the United States"
He makes gold out of Quayle's famous foot-in-the-mouth moments as well as some forgotten gems, like his closing statement in the '88 vice-presidential debate:
"You have been able to see Dan Quayle as I really am. . .George Bush has the experience, and with me the future -- a future committed to our family, a future committed to the freedom."
As Hertzberg so aptly comments, "What?"
Near the end of the piece, Hertzberg quotes in detail from an interview he did with Quayle near the end of the campaign when the candidate discussed his affinity for Machiavelli's Prince. Quayle outlines Machiavelli's "three classes of mind": the true leader who is creative enough to "lead a great nation without much help"; the second class which, while not as self-suficient as the first, "could take ideas, put people around him, and be able to lead nations forward"; and finally the third class who "didn't know much of anything. And they were the worst kind of leaders, because not only were they not creative, but they didn't know what was right or wrong and they just sort of went by whatever they felt like." To wrap it all up, Quayle places himself "somewhere in between one and two".
Faced with such rich material Hertzberg takes a light touch saying, "I'm not sure what I can add to this", but then brings the hammer down hard:
Quayle seemed like a pretty nice guy, and he can be charming. His politcal views, which is to say the political views of his grandparents and parents and minders, are of course awful. But they are awful in a way that unfortunately has become routine in recnt years. The question raised by the prospect of President Quayle is the same as the question raised by the likelihood of President Bush and for that matter by the reality of President Reagan: How long can a great nation afford to have silly leaders?
I'm not sure what I can add to that other than to say: can you imagine how great it would be to live in an America where the worst thing you could say about our leaders was that they were silly? I never thought anything could make me feel nostalgic for Dan Quayle, but there it is.