Lloyd Bentsen, who died Tuesday at 85, is remembered, above all, for a stinging put-down in the 1988 vice-presidential debate.
When the issues of age and experience were raised repeatedly, the 41-year-old Dan Quayle compared himself to John F. Kennedy. Bentsen saw his moment. And with a heavy dose of disdain for effect, he launched the now-famous line: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy.”
It’s a good line, masterfully delivered. But not a great line.
Commentators tend to forget what made it unforgettably effective. Stunned, Quayle got that deer-in-the-headlights look, Bentsen’s supporters roared and applauded, the media gleefully ran the clip over and over, and “I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine …” entered the nation’s political lexicon.
If Quayle had kept his composure, Bentsen’s devastating line would have been nothing more than a softball floating ever-so gently, just waiting to be whacked.
The coverage I’ve seen of the JFK line fails to set the stage very well. On that evening of Oct. 5, 1988, the media panel made Quayle’s experience and age a big factor. If the president died or was incapacitated, he would assume the helm. Did he have what it takes? As if glued to Dukakis-Bentsen talking points, Tom Brokaw and company asked the question three times. Quayle answered, each time citing his experience in the Senate, and by the third time he was annoyed.
“Three times that I’ve had this question — and I will try to answer it again for you, as clearly as I can,” he said, “because the question you are asking is what kind of qualifications does Dan Quayle have to be president, what kind of qualifications do I have and what would I do in this kind of a situation.”
He mentioned the role he would play in a Bush administration, briefly returned to his time in Congress, and said, “It is not just age; it’s accomplishments, it’s experience. I have far more experience than many others that sought the office of vice president of this country. I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency. I will be prepared to deal with the people in the Bush administration, if that unfortunate event would ever occur.”
That’s it; no hosannas at the shrine of St. Jack the Martyr of Hyannis Port. Quayle hadn’t boxed himself in; he had acres of room for a response. In fact, all the vice-presidential candidate had to do was return fire. Even a poorly aimed shot would have lessened the damage. Instead, a bumbling Quayle failed even to find the safety catch to shoot himself in the foot. “That was really uncalled for, Senator,” he replied.
Totally, as we used to say in that decade.
Jeffrey Hart, a senior editor at National Review, fashioned the best comeback: You’re right, Senator, I married Marilyn.
The tables would not only have been turned, but flipped over, and it’s Quayle who would be remembered for his wicked wit.
We all know how easy it is after the fact to deliver witheringly witty rejoinders worthy of Winston Churchill. Yet Quayle needed only to keep his head long enough to snatch and wave one piece of JFK’s dirty laundry, no challenge there, considering it’s of New Jersey-landfill proportions.
You’re right, Senator, my pants are in the upright position.
You’re right, Senator, I wouldn’t promise air support to anti-communist rebels, only to renege when they hit the beaches.
Or, leaving aside JFK, Quayle could have said: Senator, you probably served with Thomas Jefferson. You knew Thomas Jefferson. You were friends. But that doesn’t mean you’d make a good vice-president.
No such luck; Quayle lived down to the expectations of the media and his opponents.
Rest in peace, Sen. Bentsen, your quip is firmly etched in the annals of American political rhetoric.