The 2000s were a quiet decade politically for former Vice President Dan Quayle. After flaming out early in his bid for the 2000 GOP presidential nomination the oft-ridiculed former veep repaired to a lucrative private business career and generally stayed out of the political limelight.
Now Quayle is sticking his toe back in the political waters again if not diving in headfirst. In recent months he made a couple of eyebrow-raising political contributions to Republican candidates. Then in March he announced on Fox News that his oldest son, Ben Quayle, will seek the Republican nomination for an open House seat in Arizona.
It’s an intriguing turnaround for President George H.W. Bush’s understudy. It’s been nearly a full generation since the then-Indiana senator was thrust onto the national stage at the 1988 Republican National Convention in New Orleans. At the time Capitol Hill colleagues knew Quayle as a serious policy wonk and expert on arms control and welfare policy. Quayle had also demonstrated serious political acumen, having knocked off an incumbent Democratic member of Congress before he was 30 and four years later taken down Democratic Sen. Birch Bayh, a Hoosier State political titan.
But Quayle’s boyishly grinning performance upon being introduced as Bush’s running mate in front of a Mississippi steamboat on a hot summer’s day cemented his image as a political lightweight. Questions over draft avoidance in Vietnam and a spotty academic record didn’t help his cause. Nor did they a prove much of a liability, as the Bush-Quayle ticket coasted to a 40-state rout.
Quayle’s early years as vice president weren’t much better as critics repeatedly blasted him for verbal malapropisms. Behind the scenes Quayle was given serious policy responsibilities overseeing the space program and reviewing business regulations.
Arguably his finest moment came in the 1992 vice presidential debate against then-Sen. Al Gore, a former House and Senate colleague. Quayle threw a series of verbal jabs that threw Bill Clinton’s running mate off-guard, and he arguably won the debate.
After the 1992 Clinton victory Quayle tried to position himself for a future presidential run. He wrote a well-received memoir and moved his family to Arizona. Citing health reasons he passed up a 1996 bid, but as the decade wound down he set his sights on 2000. As a former vice president Quayle figured he would seem the natural choice for Republican primary voters. It didn’t turn out that way as Texas Gov. George W. Bush — son of Quayle’s old boss — sucked up the GOP establishment oxygen. Quayle never made it to the starting gate of primary season.
At that point Quayle largely fell off the political radar, turning his attention toward profitable business ventures. He became head of the international division at Cerberus Capital Management, traveling the globe to drum up business, with political contacts no doubt proving helpful.
For the past decade Quayle has distanced himself from politics to a remarkable degree for a former vice president. During an October 2008 interview in Cerberus’ New York offices Quayle greeted a reporter getting up from his own computer terminal where he had been doing email. A subsequent interview took place one-on-one, with no press aides present. The former vice president said he had not even watched the previous night’s presidential debate and allowed that he skipped the Republican National Convention a month earlier. His walls did feature photos of the 1989 presidential inaugural and a few other political mementos but otherwise there were few suggestions that the businessman in the corner office had once been privy to national security secrets.
Now Quayle is getting back into the political game, sort of. In December 2009 he contributed $1,000 to the campaign of New Hampshire GOP Senate candidate Ovide Lamontagne. A month earlier he gave $1,000 to Rep. Dan Burton, the long-time Indiana Republican who is facing a spirited primary challenge.
Then in February Dan Quayle announced that his son Ben, a lawyer and venture capitalist, is running for the GOP nod in Arizona’s Third Congressional District. Conservative stalwart John Shadegg is retiring after 16 years and Ben Quayle faces tough Republican primary competition from a pair of former state representatives and several local officials.
The race will offer an intriguing test about how much a famous last name, albeit one from 20 years ago, helps in a fast-growing state like Arizona where many younger voters may not remember the Quayle vice presidency.
Whatever the outcome it’s a sign that Dan Quayle, though retired from politics himself, is not just a political figure from the past. Since he was only 46 when he exited the understudy’s role in 1993 it’s possible that he will spend four decades or more as an ex-vice president. Not many can make that claim.
David Mark is author of Going Dirty: The Art of Negative Campaigning.