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Ninety Long Minutes In Omaha

The overprogrammed Quayle was a poor match for Bentsen

By Richard Stengel

(TIME, October 17, 1988) -- Dan Quayle made a promise to the American people before the vice-presidential debate: "You're going to see the real Dan Quayle. " Until Wednesday night, many Americans thought the real Dan Quayle was a sunny, overconfident, high-spirited young man who had spent more time on the golf links than in the library. But the Dan Quayle at the debate was a different person: a grim, wooden, frightened fellow who had stayed up late memorizing answers for the big test. So nervous were Bush's handlers that they denied Quayle any chance to be spontaneous, transforming him instead into an automaton searching for prepackaged answers that he could drone out safely.

The central issue of the Omaha debate was whether the 41-year-old Senator from Indiana had the intellect, temperament and judgment necessary to move into the presidency. Three times Quayle was thrown off balance when asked what he would do if he had to take over from George Bush. Quayle could only sputter bland inanities before falling back on his script about his congressional accomplishments. On his third try, he compared the length of his experience with that of John Kennedy in 1960. It proved a fatal flirtation with one of America's most enduring myths. With precision and rhetorical balance, Bentsen uttered four terse sentences. "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."

"That remark was uncalled for, Senator," Quayle interjected. Replied Bentsen: "You're the one that was making the comparison, Senator . . . Frankly, I think you're so far apart in the objectives you choose for your country that I did not think the comparison was well taken." It was as though a respected uncle had reprimanded his young charge for cheekiness.

Afterward, few seemed to care or remember that Bentsen had been evasive in answering questions about his policy differences with Dukakis. Or that many of his responses too were recited verbatim from his stump speech. But never mind. Lloyd Bentsen looked and acted presidential -- indeed, to many he seemed more presidential than either George Bush or Michael Dukakis.

Bentsen also pressed the hot populist buttons that ignite Democratic voters. He played on nationalist sentiments by criticizing the trade practices of foreign countries and by ominously warning of their taking over American businesses. He raised the specter that Republicans are out to slash Social Security -- never acknowledging that he, like Bush and Quayle, had voted for a freeze in cost of living increases. And dusting off a line he had used at the convention, Bentsen articulated the Democratic case against the apparent success of the U.S. economy: "You know, if you let me write $200 billion worth of hot checks every year, I could give you the illusion of prosperity too."

Though Bentsen claimed that his J.F.K. line was spontaneous, it had been germinating for days. The weekend before the debate, the Bentsen camp descended on Austin for practice sessions. In a vacant basement bar adjacent to the Four Seasons Hotel, they set up a mock debate stage. Congressman Dennis Eckart, a golf tee stuck jauntily behind one ear, played Quayle. But Bentsen was nervous; he was not having fun. (They did not realize it at the time, but Bentsen aides mistakenly positioned him at the wrong lectern.) Then at one point Eckart, playing Quayle, compared himself to Kennedy. Bentsen became irritated. According to press spokesman Mike McCurry, he responded, "You're no more like Jack Kennedy than George Bush is like Ronald Reagan." No one commented on the line, and Bentsen's handlers did not even review it on the videotape. But when Quayle cited Kennedy in Omaha, Bentsen was primed.

Quayle's own preparation started more than three weeks ago, when Henry Kissinger met with the candidate and other advisers at Washington's Ritz-Carlton hotel to provide a three-hour tour d'horizon of world affairs. Over the next few weeks, Quayle aides concocted more than 200 possible questions. In the week before the debate, Quayle, intensively coached by Bush media guru Roger Ailes, performed two mock debate rehearsals with Oregon Senator Bob Packwood playing Bentsen. At one point Packwood rudely interrupted so the handlers could see how Quayle would react. They even considered faking a power failure to test Quayle's composure, but rejected the idea.

By the time the Quayle entourage arrived in Omaha, the staff had reduced bulky briefing books to fewer than 30 index cards with probable questions and answers. Some of the preparation paid off: Quayle had already scripted and rehearsed an answer for what turned out to be the evening's single slightly unusual question, ABC correspondent Brit Hume's query about books that had influenced him.

The morning of the debate, an ABC camera crew caught Quayle with Ailes on the stage. Quayle could be seen at the lectern practicing one of his prepared sound bites in a husky whisper: "When are our opponents going to learn that you can't build yourselves up by tearing America down?" But Quayle seemed hesitant, nervous, already beaten down. Moments later he asked Ailes, who was patrolling the stage like the lord of the manor, whether a certain gesture would be appropriate. "Hey, Roger . . . does . . . on, on this, you know, if I'm gonna, if I, if I decide on my gesture over there . . . is that all right . . . you don't mind?" Because they had been caught rehearsing it, Quayle's handlers decided to scrap the "tearing America down" line of attack. Instead, Quayle substituted his own line about America being "the envy of the world," a bromide he has been repeating on the stump.

The importance of a debate depends not so much on what happened as on how people remember what happened. The first polls showed that by a 2-to-1 ratio the public felt Bentsen had won. Soon, print pundits were pummeling Quayle from both left and right. At first the Bush campaign expressed guarded satisfaction. Quayle was bloodied but unbeaten. Bush's reaction was predictably hyperbolic: Quayle "knocked it right out of the park." But campaign chief Jim Baker, never a Quayle fan, seemed to be damning Dan with faint praise: "When you think about what might have happened, we have to be pretty happy."

At an 8 o'clock staff meeting the morning after the debate, Quayle sat in his hotel suite as his advisers gently informed him that the public thought he had lost. He played it cool: "So, what else is going on?" he replied. They then sent him out on the stump to provide the answer he should have given in the first place. "There is no question," he said in Joplin, Mo., "that I would maintain and build on the excellent policies of George Bush." On the plane he told reporters, "I hadn't had that question before. Obviously you think of it in sort of a macrosense to be able to get that question right there."

For the next two days, like people after a storm, Republicans waited anxiously to see if the roof would cave in. The Bush campaign started to edge away from Quayle. During his first speech after the debate, Bush failed even to mention his running mate. But Ronald Reagan proclaimed during a White House photo opportunity that Bentsen's J.F.K. line was a "cheap shot." Responded Dukakis campaign manager Susan Estrich: "When the Republicans call something a cheap shot, you know you've scored a direct hit." Republicans tried to make a virtue out of necessity by having Quayle dub himself a "lightning rod" for Democratic attacks.

Word went out to Democratic surrogates all over the country to portray what was a solid Bentsen win into a Waterloo for the Republicans. Within 24 hours the Democrats were airing a commercial they had started preparing two weeks ago precisely for this turn of events. Part of Dukakis' "packagers" series in which five crafty imagemakers plot how best to deceive the American public about Bush, the commercial depicts the cynical image-manipulators in a smoke-filled room. Packager No. 1: "We've got a disaster on our hands." No. 2: "After all that rehearsal, I thought we had Quayle totally programmed." No. 3: "Not totally." No. 4: "Suddenly the words President Quayle even make me nervous."

The Democratic strategy now is to link Bush and Quayle inextricably. In the final presidential debate, Dukakis will surely do his best to remind voters that a vote for Bush is a vote for Quayle. They may not turn the polls around, but after last week's showdown in Omaha, it is intended to give voters pause before they commit themselves.

Reported by Michael Riley with Bentsen and Alessandra Stanley with Quayle


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