But Seriously, Folks . . .
(TIME, June 1, 1992) -- Dan Quayle's wacky attack on TV's Murphy Brown obscures a serious discussion about motherhood, morality and government's responsibility
By LANCE MORROW -- With reporting by Tom Curry and Georgia Harbison/New York
Americans talked about it in coffee shops and check-out lines and elevators. In the Rose Garden of the White House, George Bush stood with Brian Mulroney, trying to hold a press conference about matters of state. The hounds of the press frisked and barked in excitement until their intermingled questions sounded something like Murf! Murf! Murf!
The Prime Minister of Canada turned to the President of the U.S. and asked in some puzzlement, "Who is Murphy Brown?"
The basic answer was easy: Murphy Brown does not exist. She is the TV character played by Candice Bergen. Murphy is a blond media anchor-goddess and wise guy and now a defiantly unmarried madonna. In last week's episode she delivered a baby boy -- the boy being played by a seven-week-old girl named Danica Fascella. (A perfect Murphy Brown, post-Quayle touch: Danica and her twin Cynthia were conceived in vitro and carried to term by a surrogate mother.) In triumphant autonomy, Murphy will raise the child as a single parent.
But an outpouring of emotion and opinion about Murphy Brown has proved to be unexpectedly interesting and bizarre. A Murphy Brown debate has gone layering up through a dozen levels of American life -- political, moral, cultural, racial, even metaphysical. The exercise has seemed amazingly stupid, obscurely degrading and somehow important at the same time.
Vice President Dan Quayle precipitated it. He and Murphy Brown collaborated in one of those vivid, strange electronic moral pageants, like the Thomas-Hill hearings, that are becoming a new American form. This is national theater: surreal, spontaneous, mixing off-hours pop culture with high political meanings, public behavior with private conscience, making history up with tabloids and television personalities like Oprah Winfrey. The trivial gets aggrandized, the biggest themes cheapened. America degenerates into a TV comedy -- and yet Americans end up thinking in new ways about some larger matters. The little television screen, the bright and flat and often moronic medium of these spectacles, works in strange disproportions of cause and effect: often, in wild disconnections of cause and effect, video Dada.
Quayle was in San Francisco, market-testing a line of traditional-values rhetoric for more elaborate use as the presidential campaign progresses. The Los Angeles riots were still flickering on the edges of everyone's mind. In a speech before the Commonwealth Club, Quayle came down hard on "lawless social anarchy" -- as opposed, presumably, to lawful anarchy. He spoke of "the breakdown of family structure, personal responsibility and social order in too many areas of our society," of "a welfare ethos that impedes individual efforts to move ahead in society . . ." He acknowledged the "terrible problem with race and racism," adding that "the evil of slavery has left a long legacy." But the core of the speech was law and order. It bristled with words like "indulgence and self-gratification . . . glamourized casual sex and drug use."
The speech -- if one deleted the Murphy Brown passage -- was a reasonably persuasive and sometimes eloquent sampler: a punitive-inspirational hymn to hard work, family, integrity and personal responsibility. Some people later took Quayle's words to be fatuous white-bread truisms -- Norman Rockwell evocations of an America long gone. But if the ideas could be considered outside the inflammatory political and racial context of the moment, they had a ring of common sense. A number of black leaders, including Jesse Jackson, might have made the same points without controversy -- and have. The family, Quayle said, is important, and "the failure of our families is hurting America deeply . . . Children need love and discipline. They need mothers and fathers. A welfare check is not a husband. The state is not a father . . . Bearing babies irresponsibly is, simply, wrong."
Then Quayle dropped in a paragraph that produced the spectacularly silly media effect: "It doesn't help matters when prime-time TV has Murphy Brown -- a character who supposedly epitomizes today's intelligent, highly paid professional woman -- mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another `life-style choice.'"
F. Scott Fitzgerald said it is a sign of genius to be able to entertain in the mind two mutually contradictory ideas without going insane. America does not think of itself as a genius anymore. A number of Americans went crazy when they heard Quayle's line about Murphy Brown.
At the first level, Quayle's Ozzie and Harriet universe, with its freckle-faced nuclear-family suburban reassurances, collided with that of successful autonomous career women like the one portrayed in Murphy Brown. The executive producer of Murphy Brown, Diane English, had a well-machined answer for Quayle: "If the Vice President thinks it's disgraceful for an unmarried woman to bear a child, and he believes that a woman cannot adequately raise a child without a father, then he'd better make sure abortion remains safe and legal." Given that Murphy Brown was pregnant, what did Quayle expect her to do? Have an abortion? Her decision to go ahead and have the child was in harmony with the Administration's pro-life convictions. Why criticize her then? Harrumph: she should never have got pregnant in the first place. Or, more pertinently: the creators of the program should not have concocted the pregnancy dilemma for Murphy, thereby making her ultimate choice seem like a legitimizing and glamourizing of single motherhood.
At a second, less explicit layer of meaning, the Quayle line took on complex racial colorations. He suggested that Murphy Brown was a bad role model for unmarried females. In the speech's context, he was talking about single mothers in the ghetto. But like so much in last week's odd episode, there were signs of hip shooting and inadvertence.
In fact, few young black females watch Murphy Brown. The show, which in overall audience is the third most popular on network television, ranks 56th in popularity among American blacks. So the idea that Murphy's single motherhood encourages black adolescent girls to follow the same course loses its force.
The racial dimension flows naturally into the political, where the uglier side of Quayle's mission begins to become apparent. One of Quayle's amazing but unlikable feats last week was metaphorically to transform old Willie Horton into a beautiful blond fortyish wasp has-it-all knockout. (Horton was the black murderer who raped a housewife while on furlough during the time that 1988 Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis was Governor of Massachusetts; the Bush campaign used Horton to ridicule Dukakis.) So in 1992, by Quayle's interesting subliminal design, Murphy carries at least some of Willie's message: mindless liberalism allied with black anarchy (ruined families, unwed mothers, crime, drugs) leads quickly to social breakdown.
If Quayle has no malign racial-political intent, he might point out, when discussing the miseries of families, that, for example, Eastern prep schools are filled with children packed off to get them away from divorce, incest, alcoholism, child abuse, wife battering and other horrors at home. The willingness to let the racist implication stand unchallenged, unexamined, loitering on the threshold, is the ugliest aspect of all this.
Quayle in part plays the Spiro Agnew role to Bush's Richard Nixon. But when Agnew went after the "nattering nabobs" and student protesters, he did so with a thuggish menace that Quayle lacks. Quayle smacks more of Midwestern Americana, of The Music Man's Professor Harold Hill, and Quayle's lines about unmarried mothers sounded like an echo: "We got trouble, right here in River City!" -- brazen hussies strutting around town in a family way: Make your blood boil? Well, I should say!
In the Bush-Quayle synecdoche, attitude, symbolism and code words stand in for real action and accomplishment. The Bush Administration is short on both coherent programs and resources of leadership to approach the problems. An elaborate rhetorical porch, with gorgeous traditional columns, fronts an empty house. In any case, Presidents, Vice Presidents and other public officials are elected to lead and act first of all. Moral leadership and vision are vital, but somehow the right to deliver sermons has to be convincingly earned.
Quayle makes much of the theme of the absent father; America under the Bush Administration looks like a house with an absent father. A man has no right to abandon the family for years and then show up one day and go upstairs and start spanking the kids.
Television, which has all but taken over the American political process, turning the parties into the old technology, is the perfect medium for a battle of weightless, sensational symbolisms. Not that the images don't have real effect: a homemade video of a black motorist being beaten by police succeeded in burning down a sizable part of Los Angeles. The moral struggle between Dan Quayle and Murphy Brown seemed perfect and fascinating, as if all the weaknesses of both politics and television (the short attention span, the brainless evanescence, the disconnection) were leaking into one another.
If the Vice President wanted to attack television's effects on the American young, he might have hit the medium on 30 or 40 more serious matters before coming to Murphy Brown's marital status. By age 20, an American child will have watched 700,000 TV commercials. According to New York University professor and media critic Neil Postman, "There are several messages in these ads: that all problems are solvable, that the solutions are quickly available through use of some chemical, food, drug or machine." Television creates the culture of immediate gratification, not primarily through its comedy shows but through its advertising. Says Postman: "If anyone wants to relate the Los Angeles riots to TV shows, everyone in the U.S. sees television shows communicating the message that these are the things all Americans are entitled to: TV sets, cars and so on. The riots were in part driven by this sense of entitlement."
Issues of family, morals and values are important -- and may ultimately be central to solving problems, especially those of the black underclass. But if they are to be discussed merely on the level of Murphy Brown, it is going to be a long and loathsome campaign.
AllPolitics home page|
Copyright © 1996 AllPolitics