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Beyond the Quayle

A visit to the one-and-only museum for the American vice presidents -- excerpted from a new book by a rising expert on the vice presidency.

By 3.11.08

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The men's room at the United States Vice Presidential Museum is in fine working order -- really -- but its patrons are still in for a bit of a shock when they look up to see a large photo of 1980s Dan Quayle hanging on the wall. Photo Quayle is doing what the Real Life Quayle would have done here: looking the other way, making the best of an awkward situation.

Your correspondent pulled into the museum in late February of last year. It's not that easy to reach, because the airport at Huntington, Indiana, is too small for commercial airlines to bother. So I flew to Indianapolis, rented a car, and drove northeast about 100 miles. It had snowed earlier in the week, and the fields and lawns reflected the overcast glare back at me, adding annoyance to the gloom.

So readers can probably understand why the Quayle photo made such a strong impression on me: whenever you travel to some place new, you best remember the first thing you focus on.

The bathroom also had a rather good painting of a bend in the Salamonie River as well as another vast pic of Quayle and Bush Sr. standing on a porch. I considered venturing into the ladies' room to check out the art there -- in the interest of good journalism, of course -- but thought better of it.

I arrived on a Thursday. Executive Director Daniel Johns was going to give me an official tour the next day but I wanted to drop in and case the joint. The museum has two floors. The top floor is devoted to Huntington's most famous son, while the bottom floor strains to contain all the other vice presidents.

The exhibits downstairs strike a better balance of the high and the low than most political museums, with a mix of original artifacts, campaign trinkets, newspaper clippings, and old magazines from more playful times. Want to read an original account of George Washington's and John Adams's annual salaries? The Museum has got that (Washington: $25,000; Adams: $5,000), along with typed and handwritten letters by vice presidents, a vinyl record titled Spiro T. Agnew Speaks Out, a $100 ticket to a 1954 Richard Nixon fundraising dinner, and more.

Each vice president has his own exhibit with a description of his tenure in office and at least one original artifact. Space is limited. The Gerald Ford exhibit is stuck around an odd corner, and Nelson Rockefeller's can be found above the water fountain. An historical timeline of veep lives set against major world events has been shoehorned in.

NEAR THE FRONT of the display area, off to the left as you're coming in, is an exhibit that celebrates Indiana's special status in the veepstakes. With five vice presidents -- Schuyler Colfax, Thomas Hendricks, Charles Fairbanks, Thomas Marshall, and Quayle -- Indiana is the second most vice-presidential state in the Union.

State Highway 9 is known as the "highway of the vice presidents" because it connects the historic homes of Quayle, Hendricks, and Marshall. In 1916, both Republicans and Democrats had Hoosiers at the bottom of the ticket. Only the far more populous New York has produced more second bananas.

The vice presidency is a marker both of Indiana's past influence and frustrations. Not one of its five veeps went on to become president or even receive presidential nominations. The Indiana Five seem almost cursed in retrospect.

Colfax was finished off by a minor scandal and knocked off the ticket for Grant's second term. Hendricks had a national election stolen right out from under him. Fairfax fell victim to party infighting and then failed to win back the vice presidency. Marshall should have become president but he was kept out of the White House by a scheming coterie of Wilson advisors and the first lady, as well as his own sense of decency.

AS I VENTURED upstairs, the first thing I saw was Quayle's smiling mug again. This one was attached to a body. The life-sized photo mockup, circa 1988, is dressed in a navy blue blazer, white buttondown shirt and red tie with blue ornaments.

It's the sort of carnival prop that people set up so that you can say not so much "I had my picture taken with Dan Quayle!" but rather, "Look, I had my picture taken with this life-size cutout of Dan Quayle!"

The Quayle floor of the Museum has many of the same features as the ground floor but considerably more spacious. On the whole, it works, but the larger palette produces some oddities. Where the timeline of all the vice presidents is compact, Quayle's is almost garrulous. It sets Quayle family history against world events like so:

D-Day, the allies invade France at the beaches in Normandy --June 6 1944

After a massive secret research and development program, U.S. scientists exploded the world's first atom bomb in New Mexico --July 1945

James Danforth Quayle was born at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis --Feb. 4 1947

Both floors feature videos that loop continuously. In keeping with the Museum's organizational scheme, the downstairs has a catch-all documentary about the vice presidency, while upstairs you get The Quayle Story: the Boy, the Man, the Vice President!

The film is upbeat but hardly hagiography -- which serves as a good description of the whole Quayle collection. Visitors can watch the start of the so-called "battle of Huntington": reporters peppered the freshly-minted vice-presidential nominee with questions about his service in the National Guard as the locals booed and jeered the effete East Coast snobs. They can learn about Nick's Kitchen, the local watering hole where Quayle first decided to run for office and launched all his subsequent, successful campaigns.

Visitors can also observe Quayle's mother, Martha Quayle, vouching for her son's determination in a way that only mothers can: by relating an embarrassing anecdote. When he was a young lad, Quayle was given a pair of roller skates and was determined to learn how to use them.

He had a hard time of it and fell a lot. She kept thinking, Gosh, isn't he going to give up? But he didn't. No matter how many times he wiped out, he got right back up and kept at it until he could skate like a Roller Derby champ.

THE DISPLAY CASES are full of items that represent the progression of Quayle's life from child (little league uniform, second grade report card) to lawyer (law school diploma -- partially eaten by family pooch Barnaby) to politician (decorated golf bag presented to "Senator Dan Quayle") and, finally, to vice president (gavel that Quayle used to preside over the 1992 Republican National Convention).

Quayle's gaffes and failures aren't overlooked. His dismal performance in the first vice presidential debate is there, as is the National Guard controversy, the "potatoe" incident, the Murphy Brown controversy, and every other major flap and farrago.

You are also reminded that Quayle was a giant killer with unusually good aim. When he entered politics, it was against the advice of all of his friends. He didn't run for an open seat but instead challenged a sitting congressman and won in an upset. In 1980, at 33, he defeated three-term incumbent Birch Bayh, who had been considered presidential timber until the young upstart cut him down. Quayle then went on to win reelection by the widest margin in state history.

Dan Quayle was elevated to vice president in 1989 at 41, making him the third-youngest veep ever. The national reaction to his candidacy was surprise and befuddlement. The local reaction tended more toward pride and defensiveness.

In the speech to his hometown announcing his nomination as vice president, Quayle expressed his gratitude to the people of Huntington for their basic goodness and decency. He praised them when the whole nation was watching.

THOSE WORDS HAD a lasting effect. Driving into Huntington today, you'll see a blue-and-white road sign that reads "WELCOME TO HUNTINGTON HOME OF THE 44TH VICE PRESIDENT DAN QUAYLE," even though Quayle has long since relocated to Arizona.

There are numerous "Quayle sightings" plaques around town, manufactured at the behest of the Dan Quayle Foundation, to indicate places that the former vice president used to frequent. At once such haunt, Nick's Kitchen, you can still order a Quayle Burger -- half a pound of ground chuck with grilled onions, lettuce, and tomatoes with fries -- for $7.25. The burger wasn't Quayle's regular; it was named by the restaurant owner in 1988 on the theory that every successful politician needs a delicious gut bomb named after him.

And of course there's the museum, a former Christian Science church. It's located at the edge of downtown in a handsome, two-story painted brick building adorned with double classical columns. The multiple doors in front once made it easy for large crowds to enter and exit. Now only one door opens, and an agent of the museum collects entry fees. The upstairs retains the open area, usually filled by rows of metal folding chairs, and an elevated stage with pulpit.

It's hard to imagine that pulpit gets pounded much these days. Executive Director Daniel Johns is a candid, soft-spoken guy with graying hair and a background in civil war history, public relations, and child education. ("I'm a mutt," he confessed.) One of his previous posts was at a children's museum

His current place of employment is "becoming known as an educational museum," which means that everything is going according to plan -- sort of.

When Johns came to the Museum, he considered two facts: first, that Huntington is so remote that it might as well be in Canada and, second, that museums get the bulk of their visitors in the summer. He decided he'd best come up with some way to reach larger audiences for the other nine months of the year.

So: schools. Classes from Indiana schools are regularly bussed in, and Johns also takes the show on the road. He estimates that between the bussing and the road show, about 8,000 students a year learn about the vice presidents through the Museum's programs.

The traveling exhibition is very popular in Long Island, New York, for some reason -- perhaps because of that state's record number of veeps.

AS JOHNS WALKED me through the Museum, he filled me in on its history. The Huntington public library hosted an exhibit on the vice presidency of Quayle in 1993, and that led to the creation of the Dan Quayle Center and Museum.

The Quayle Foundation decided to expand it into a full museum for all of the vice presidents, which has been largely the product of Johns's efforts. He acquired most of the non-Quayle artifacts and built the wooden display cases himself.

The Museum is "not all that well known" to the "common person" Johns admitted, in part because it can't afford a large advertising campaign. "To do that would essentially break us," he said. The Museum's total budget is about $125,000 a year. It is funded in large part by an annual local celebrity golf tournament that Quayle comes back to take part in.

Other recent vice presidents or their estates have been reluctant to pitch in. Johns characterized their collective contributions as "only bits and pieces," though with the minimal acquisitions budget, he's happy to have those bits.

Ford's people sent a few pieces. The library of the University of Maryland chipped in with Agnew items. Cheney has donated the odd item and pledged that he will consider making a larger gift once he's left office.

Johns has enjoyed the challenge of taking a young institution and trying to grow it into something larger. He's had some success. The downstairs gallery feels cramped, which is better than being too spare. The vice-presidential memorabilia on display represents about half the items available. The Quayle items are about one-tenth of what could be shown.

According to Johns, Quayle wrote a memo to the museum after he had donated his personal papers and such saying, roughly, "Don't waste time with my baby pictures. People won't care."

However, Johns has found that people respond best to a good blend of the high and the low. With Quayle and with the other vice presidents, he's tried to find "unique stories" and colorful items to grab your attention and keep it.

Given American schoolchildren's general ignorance of history, that's not an easy thing to accomplish. Johns told me that when he asks children, "How many of you have ever heard of the Soviet Union?" they look at him blankly.

He illustrated the point by pointing to an official portrait of Mikhail Gorbachev, sans the famous mark-of-the-beast-sized birthmark, and asking, "What's missing?" Few of the students who come through the museum know the answer.

Creative storytellers can break through where historians fail, and Johns is determined to connect with his mostly younger audience. His selection of artifacts evinces a certain playfulness that children are bound to notice and maybe even -- who knows? -- appreciate.

One item that Johns ranks among his favorites is a cover of Puck magazine from 1907. The caricaturist made Charles Fairbanks into a "charlie bear," as a way of contrasting the aristocratic Fairbanks with rival Theodore Roosevelt, after whom the teddy bear was named. The point about Fairbanks is deftly made: there was nothing huggable (or bearlike) about him.

He pointed to some of the other items that he's especially proud of. Charles Dawes wrote the musical number titled Melody in A Major. It was later was later paired with words for the song It's All in the Game, Tommy Edwards's biggest hit.

JOHNS USES SHTICK to make obscure history come alive. During the tour of the Quayle wing, he warns students that something ominous happened to the future vice president while he was at law school and then affects concern about laying such heavy knowledge on impressionable young minds. They of course demand to know what it was.

Johns acted out his response for me, mock biting his knuckle and saying, "He--" dramatic pause -- "got married."

He hopes the jokes help young people remember the vice presidents. Of Marilyn Quayle's inaugural ball gown, he tells the kids, "If you stand in front of the dress case just right, it looks like you're wearing it."

I wondered about a photo of Dan Quayle in hot pink shorts, running in a race for a medical charity. "Those were cool colors for that year," he answered gallantly.

Johns sends classes on scavenger hunts through the museum with lists of questions, from the crushingly obvious to real brain teasers. This forces students to invest time and energy, both mental and physical, in the vice presidency, he explains, creating the outside possibility they will be excited by what has been unfairly assumed to be the world's most boring constitutional office.

I had to ask: Had the students ever broken anything? Johns started to answer but then hesitated. He explained that he was "going to say no," but couldn't say that in good conscience.

Certainly no "exhibit" has so far been destroyed, he said, and then rapped his knuckle on a wooden countertop for good luck. Of course, it helped that all the glass in the display cases is really clear plastic. But for the most part the kids have been well behaved.

One actual glass shelf in the gift shop was shattered, however. Johns had just finished the look-but-don't-touch-or-you-might-hurt-yourself- and-bleed-all-over-the-exhibits spiel. And then, predictably, he heard it:

Smash!

As he related the story to me, John looked pained, like he'd just swallowed a wasp. I wouldn't have wanted to be the accidental vandal that day.

TOWARD THE END of the tour, he talked about how people view the museum. Preconceptions play a shockingly large role. For years many visitors -- especially those from out of state -- came expecting either "a shrine to Vice President Quayle" or a political freak show.

They'd challenge Johns, "I bet you don't have the potatoe," or "So where's the Quayle-Bentsen debate?" They weren't quite sure how to react when he pointed out that those things were there -- loud and proud.

Johns told me that media coverage at least has become slightly less silly. Reporters have focused less on the novelty of having a museum devoted to the vice presidents and more on what it has to present.

The editors of the tourism website RoadSideAmerica.com went in to the museum with a snarky attitude. "The museum's slogan is 'Second To One,' but can any display or artifact disprove the notion that the Veep is the vestigial organ of national politics?" they wondered. Johns's collection at least caused them to give some grudging respect to that "happy-go-lucky golfer-son-of-a-gun."

Johns showed me a few reasonably positive mentions, including an AARP magazine clip and related a surprise that he received when he was lecturing to students. A man who poked his head up above the top of the stairs Johns recognized as Ed Roush -- the incumbent Democratic congressman Quayle trounced in 1976.

Johns took the job at the museum because it allowed him to be close to a sick family member and allowed him the opportunity to shape a growing institution. He stays because he has more than a passing interest in the subject. He told me that he's one of the last men standing who can name all the vice presidents, though I never thought to make the obvious retort: "Let's hear 'em."

One of his challenges in crafting the historical narratives of all of the veeps is "keep politics out of it." The future of the museum will have to be less Quayle-centric. For this to happen, other vice presidents will have to step up with donations and even speak there on occasion. The way to secure their cooperation will be to stick around for a while and -- more importantly -- to tell their stories well.

THE MUSEUM'S TASK of securing vice-presidential donations is made more difficult for one obvious institutional reason: about one-third of the vice presidents go on to become presidents and get their very own taxpayer-funded library and museum. This gives them little incentive to break up their personal collections.

Vanity and regret are also obstacles. Every vice president is but one heartbeat away from his very own museum. Many veeps who fail to transition to the White House continue to think that political comebacks are imminent -- that fate will break their way for once.

Stern-headed realists might want to disabuse them of that notion but it would be the realists who are full of it. As the story of the vice presidency shows, almost anything is possible.

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About the Author
Jeremy Lott is an editor of rare.us.