On May 19, 1992, during a crucial part of the presidential campaign, Vice President Dan Quayle delivered a speech on family values that came to define him nearly as much as his famous “potato” gaffe. During the speech, he criticized Murphy Brown a fictional 40-something, divorced news anchor on a popular situation comedy for her choice to have a child outside of marriage. Quayle argued: “Bearing babies irresponsibly is simply wrong. Failing to support children one has fathered is wrong. We must be unequivocal about this. 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 lifestyle choice.” Quayle’s claim that Brown was sending the wrong message, erupted into a major media controversy.
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Video Excerpt from Dan Quayle’s Speech About Murphy Brown
Transcript of Speech Segment on Murphy Brown
Bearing babies irresponsibly is simply wrong. Failing to support children one has fathered is wrong and we must be unequivocal about this. It doesn’t help matters when primetime 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 lifestyle choice. I know it’s not fashionable to talk about moral values, but we need to do it! Even though our cultural leaders in Hollywood, network TV and the national newspapers routinely jeer at them, I think most of us in this room know that some things are good and other things are wrong. And now, it’s time to make the discussion public. It’s time to talk again about the family, hard work, integrity and personal responsibility. We cannot be embarrassed out of our belief that two parents married to each other are better, in most cases, for children than one. That honest work is better than handouts or crime. That we are our brother’s keepers. That is worth making an effort, even when the rewards aren’t immediate.
Excerpt from Dan Quayle’s 1994 Book “Standing Firm”
Three weeks after the riots [Rodney King riots], I was ready to talk about my own sense of their “root causes.” Instead of the speech on U.S.–Japanese trade relations that I’d planned to give the Commonwealth Club of California, I decided to talk about a fundamental “poverty of values,” which, more than anything else, was the real cause of the lawlessness we’d seen in Los Angeles. I made the speech in San Francisco on Tuesday, May 19, citing both American success and American failure. I noted how in the last quarter of a century an entirely black middle class had emerged (since 1967 the median income of black two-parent families has risen by 60 percent in real terms) but also how an underclass had been left behind without the values of family, hard work, and, above all, personal responsibility, which the black writer Shelby Steele, in his book The Content of Our Character, calls “the brick and mortar of power.” “Our inner cities,” I said, “are filled with children having children, with people who have not been able to take advantage of educational opportunities, with people who are dependent on drugs or the narcotic of welfare.”
I made a special point of expressing concern over how, “if a single mother raising her children in the ghetto has to worry about drive-by shootings, drug deals, or whether her children will join gangs and die violently, her difficult task becomes impossible.” That remark came pages before the single sentence that would create the real ideological firestorm of my vice-presidency: “It doesn’t help matters,” I said, “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 ‘lifestyle choice.'”
Although I’d sometimes glanced at it while my children watched, I had never seen a whole episode of “Murphy Brown.” Even so, the reference was my idea. What had really gotten my attention were all the press stories about the season’s final episode, on which real-life network personalities like Katie Couric and Joan Lunden would show up and celebrate the birth of a child to their fictional colleague, Murphy. The Hollywood spin was that there was no downside to having a child out of wedlock, whereas the reality is that children born in these circumstances–and their mothers–face economic hardship or even outright poverty.
I was bothered by all the cute glamour with which the episode (sure to be seen by millions of young girls and boys) was being surrounded. I talked about it to Connie Horner, the director of presidential personnel and a serious thinker about social issues. I told her I was considering mentioning my objections in a speech I was preparing, and she told me they needed saying. So when I met with my staff to exchange ideas for the Commonwealth Club speech, Murphy Brown was discussed. I put the reference to the show in my first draft, and it stayed in the several rewrites I would do before I was satisfied with the wording. I knew the line would be controversial–in fact, we didn’t try to get the text over to the White House until a few hours before the speech was delivered.
Just how controversial that line would be was something I couldn’t predict, not even from the press conference immediately following the speech. I remember a question about my reference to Shelby Steele (one reporter tartly stated that he doesn’t speak for a majority of black people), but I’m not sure Murphy Brown even came up. Still, within a few hours it was clear that something was happening. From San Francisco we flew to Palm Springs to a campaign fundraiser. Once we got there, Dave Beckwith came into my room and said, “Hey, I’ve got great news. You’re on ABC, CBS, and NBC.”
“What did they pick up?” I asked. “The Murphy Brown thing?” The answer was, to put it mildly: yes. Our last stop that day was Los Angeles–home of Hollywood itself–and when we landed, we found the airport lit up for live coverage of our arrival. I avoid mentioning Murphy Brown to waiting reporters but did make the larger point about Hollywood versus traditional morality, as a way of getting back to the general “poverty of values” that had been my subject in San Francisco. Still, by Wednesday morning the country was plastered with screaming Murphy headlines (New York’s Daily News: Quayle to Murphy Brown: You Tramp!) and involved in the kind of loud national quarrel it had had eight months before over Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill. Most newspapers actually covered it as a fairly straight story, with some serious attention to the issues I was trying to raise. But the networks, which are part of the same entertainment industry that produces “Murphy Brown,” went ballistic. The electronic media was in a meltdown.
That morning, we went to visit a school in south central Los Angeles, which had taken the brunt of the riots. By this time we realized the White House staff was in total panic. Bill Kristol was on the car phone with them and getting absolutely nowhere. I told him to give me the phone. I needed to talk to the president. As it happened, he was in a meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, but I did get hold of Sam Skinner and told him that the White House ought to be supporting me. “But this thing’s a loser,” said Sam. “That’s what you think,” I argued back. “It’s not a loser. If you handle it right, it’s a winner.” “Well, you’re a minority of one,” he shot back. “Everybody around here is concerned about it. It looks like you’re criticizing single mothers.” “But, I’m not!” “They’re even worried it looks as if you’re indirectly criticizing Doro Bush.” To which I could only respond: “Give me a break. This is absolutely ridiculous.”
While still in the car, I got through to the President and told him I didn’t intend to keep talking about Murphy Brown, who had been the subject of just one sentence of a speech about the poverty of values. “I just felt that you needed to know this, and I hope all the hand-wringers over there will settle down.” “There are a lot of nervous people over here,” the President said. “The problem I have is that I’ve never seen ‘Murphy Brown.'” “Neither have I.” “You haven’t?” “No, I haven’t seen the show. But it doesn’t make any difference. Forget about Murphy Brown. The issue is the Poverty of Values.” “Okay,” he said. “I’m glad you checked in.”
The President’s join press conference with Mulroney turned comical. The Canadian Prime Minister had expected the questions to revolve around trade issues, but when the reporters’ first question to the President was about Murphy Brown, Bush said to him, “See? I told you that would be the question.”
As usual, the President was better than his team. Marlin Fitzwater’s first remark was supportive of my values-oriented speech, but when Teeter and the campaign folks decided that no one should be criticizing a popular show in the middle of an election year, they made Marlin go back out and praise “Murphy Brown” for exhibiting “pro-life” values. As if anyone was arguing that the character should have had an abortion. My main objection was to how the show deemed fathers irrelevant–in a way that was damaging above all to children. Fathers are important to a child’s life–both financially and emotionally. A society that promotes the idea that a father’s role is irrelevant breeds irresponsibility.
It didn’t help that Murphy’s tony circumstances bore little resemblance to the economic situation in which most unwed mothers and their children find themselves . But instead of supporting me and trying to focus the country on an important issue, the White House went into a crazy campaign spin cycle, dragging me into what looked like a debate with the same administration I was part of.
The media coverage became more and more beside the point. In an effort to show that the Murphy character was more typical than I’d admit, one news outfit went to find an unwed mother who was also an anchorwoman. They came up with one in the Midwest, who two years later told Marilyn that I was right. Governor Cuomo accused me of trivializing a serious issue, to which I would respond by saying it was the media who trivialized it, by refusing to see the larger purpose of that reference in the speech. I also wonder how much attention anyone would have given the issue without this allusion to popular culture. Sam Donaldson even asked me if the whole think didn’t rank as another “gaffe.” His blatant bias was never more in evidence. A year later, when Bill Clinton raised the issue as President, Donaldson would discuss it respectfully.
The editorials, the call-in shows devoted to the subject, the cartoons, and even the serious commentaries–all of them went on for weeks. What I said had struck a national nerve, and the better political writers knew it. “The journalistic mockers of the Murphy Brown speech are wrong,” wrote David Broder. “The values debate is important. But it can’t be allowed to stop at the level of once-every-four-years rhetoric, whether it’s Spiro Agnew, Dan Quayle or George Bush doing the orations.” Point taken. In fact, the response to that speech convinced me that a sustained debate about values and responsibility could finally move this country forward toward real, imaginative solutions to its toughest social problems. I continued to speak out on family values but the campaign people refused to put the issue front and center.
In the four years that I was Vice President, nothing generated more mail and phone calls to my office than the Murphy Brown speech. These communications ranged from fierce denunciations to hallelujahs, with every shade of opinion and tone in between. You could make a whole book out of just those letters, which taken together show that, when it comes to talking to their elected officials, Americans are anything but shy. One would begin, “Dear Mr. Vice President: Hooray for you!” and another, “Dan–Get a Clue.” The overwhelming number of letters were supportive.
The favorable letters (“Don’t retract. Don’t apologize. Repeat it at every opportunity”) not only kept me going but also gave me a variety of perspectives on the problem. I heard from a Head Start volunteer who said that in twenty years with the program she could see “the tragic results of these four-year-olds not having a father in the home…We do what we can to help and love them while they are in Head Start, but some of them are already lost. It is so sad!” A county prosecutor told me that in his experience “babies born to young mothers have a much poorer quality of life, suffer a greater variety of serious illnesses, and are much more likely to be the recipient of child abuse and child neglect.” Two high school teachers from Brooklyn, New York, wrote: “As educators working in the New York City public school system we see our students receiving the message that having children borne by children is acceptable in too many subtle ways.” A pro-life Catholic Democrat (who told us she would vote Bush-Quayle) said that while she was glad Murphy Brown didn’t opt for an abortion, she still thought the show had been damaging: “I was a single mother once, due to divorce, and it was a very hard life, certainly not an ideal situation.” And one man from Florida wrote: “Don’t be surprised [if] with that line of though you may well have gained allies among black male dads. Until your statement, myself and some other black males have had the opinion ‘the system’ was trying to keep us from having any say in raising our children.”
My favorite letter of all may have been from Mrs. Erma Mitchell-Phelps of Harlem, who sent me a copy of a Letter to the Editor that she’d written: “Mr. Quayle is not criticizing ‘the show’ Murphy Brown but rather asking us to consider the tragedies we can mindlessly cause by glamorizing a way of life that…has proved for the most part to be disastrous.” Mrs. Mitchell-Phelps enclosed this letter in a cheerful card to me and Marilyn. “Dear Folks,” she wrote. “I’m a Democrat and will probably die a Democrat, but in spite of our political beliefs we are all brothers and sisters in a wonderful, patient God. I’m so grateful for this. So sorry you are having to endure such meanness of spirit–but just know that God is always there for us. If you’re ever in Harlem please visit our church. Fr. Castle is very militant, not too keen on Republicans–but he is a Good Shepherd and even if you find you disagree with him, you’ll like him and especially his beautiful wife Katie. Keep the Faith. This Democrat loves you.” I still plan to take Mrs. Mitchell-Phelps up on her invitation.
One Erma Mitchell-Phelps can make up for an awful lot of late-night monologues and editorial cartoons, but I paid as much attention to the negative letters as to the encouraging ones. A number of people reminded me that the Murphy character chose to have her baby instead of an abortion, and one writer, a single mother of three children who had been abandoned by her husband warned me: “I’m afraid by the stand that you took many women may choose abortion because you made [single motherhood] sound like such a disgrace!” I was especially moved by a letter I got from Tracy Kelly of Milford, Connecticut, which with her permission I want to reproduce in full:
August 22, 1992
Dear Mr. Vice President:
Enclosed please find two pictures of my son. In one he is posing for the camera, sitting on top of a ball in the backyard of my daycare worker’s house. In the other he is being comforted by me after he woke up from a bad dream
He is a well cared for, much-loved two-year-old of a full-time working single mother. I, like Murphy Brown, became pregnant unexpectedly and “chose” to raise my son alone. Unlike Murphy Brown, the show doesn’t end after 30 minutes. My life is difficult and decisions are tough ones.
Working 40 hours, paying taxes, cleaning house, reading the evening paper, preparing healthy meals and balancing the checkbook all must fit into a tight schedule. But the simplest thing I do is love my child. We laugh together, read together, learn about nature, accept disappointments and rejoice with successes.
He learns about family values through my examples and those of others. My brother, with whom I live, dresses his nephew every day before rushing off to work himself. I drive him to daycare, where he spends time with his playmates running after balls, climbing jungle gyms, laughing under the sprinkler, and learning about colors. Life can be confusing for a small boy, though.
My mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease, frightens my son when she yells. And he grows sad when he can’t find his “Pop-Pop” (my father) who died of cancer last month.
It’s difficult for me not to continue to take your insults toward single parents personally. But I don’t want to harbor resentment, because that interferes with the values I try to teach my son; those of love, equality for all, justice and honesty.
You don’t understand my life, Mr. Vice President. Please don’t lay judgment on something you don’t comprehend.
What distressed me about Tracy’s heartfelt letter, and others like it that I received, was its sense that I had attacked single mothers. If anything, I was trying to be their champion, to point out the distinction between real life and what was being shown on “Murphy Brown.” The last thing in the world I wanted to do was leave people like Tracy Kelly (who sounds to me like a terrific mother) feeling insulted. I want to see policies–from job training, to cracking down on “deadbeat dads,” to creating a robust economy–that will make their lives easier, not harder. My hope is that those who influence the culture will be more sensitive to the hardships faced by unwed mothers and their children.
I can’t pretend to understand all the burdens Tracy Kelly is bearing, but I do want to correct the widespread impression that the extended Quayle family has lived a life–if I can use one last sitcom example–out of “Ozzie and Harriet.” The facts are these: My maternal grandmother, divorced from my grandfather at a time when divorce was severely stigmatized, was a single mother. My sister, who has two children, has gotten divorced. Of the five cousins on my mother’s side who married, three have been divorced. As you can see, my family has known plenty of the troubles I read about in the mountain of Murphy mail. I don’t judge the people who disagreed with me any more than I judge those family members I love no matter what. And I certainly don’t live in a fantasy world: I leave that to the creators of “Murphy Brown.”
In May 1992 I was talking about reality, and by every statistical yardstick that reality is terrible. In 1990, 29.8 percent of fatherless white families were living below the poverty line; for blacks the rate was 50.6 percent. By every measure, children raised with both their parents do better than those raised with only one: they are treated less frequently for emotional problems, have more success in school, experience fewer troubles with the law, and as adults get further ahead economically. Sometimes divorce is inevitable, but all children deserve two parents to love and nurture them.
As 1992 rolled on, the Murphy controversy did, too. The twisted response to what I said led me, in a speech to the Southern Baptist convention in Indianapolis, to attack the “cultural elite,” who “sneer at the simple but hard virtues–modesty fidelity, integrity.” I attacked the cynicism that allowed Time Warner to profit from the rap song “Cop Killer,” and I didn’t wilt when, that September, Hollywood turned the Emmy Awards into one big Quayle joke. Even some of my liberal critics thought that evening was an exercise in wretched excess. When Diane English, the creator of “Murphy Brown,” got her award, her brother, the Rev. Rick English of Buffalo, New York, couldn’t bring himself to call with congratulations, even though he’d done that in the past. “I guess what’s been bothering me,” he told the Buffalo News, “is that I’ve been working with youth for ten years and I see firsthand the problems they face. I don’t believe that the media is promoting family values and I think a large segment of the media is out of contact with real-life situations.”
When “Murphy Brown” had its season premiere, after a whole summer of national debate, I wrote a letter addressed to “Dear Baby Brown,” in which I said: “It’s important to me that you know the respect and personal understanding I have for single mothers, who work hard to do their best for their children, often against the odds.” This letter was the campaign’s idea, and along with it we sent Baby Brown a good Republican stuffed elephant. As campaign ideas go, this one was all right–I thought we might as well create some good feelings that would diminish one more night of Quayle bashing–but Marilyn was opposed to it. She didn’t want stories about me watching the season premiere and suggested I put in an appearance at the Monday night football game instead. That turned out to be impossible, since we found out Bill Clinton was going to be there in Chicago with Mayor Daley. So Marilyn and I ended up watching the show–with press and protestors outside–at the Washington home of our friends, including some single parents, to watch with us. As she pointed out to the Washington Post: “This is not a trivial matter to us. In the black community, this is a major problem….I thought the vice president should have an opportunity to talk to some of my friends and hear what they had to say.”
That conversation on family values is still going on, all across the country, with increased attention to the kind of statistics I’ve quoted. In their forthcoming book, Fatherless America, David Blankenhorn, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, and David Popenoe make a powerful case for the two-parent family. When a portion of Whitehead’s findings were published in the April 1993 Atlantic, the cover story (titled “Dan Quayle Was Right”) received more mail from readers than any other piece in the history of the magazine.
The most significant convert to the family values issue is Bill Clinton, who late in 1993 went to the Memphis church where Dr. Martin Luther King preached just before his assassination and spoke about the responsibility parents have to nurture the children they bring into the world. He lamented teenage pregnancies and criticized young fathers who abandon their children–or don’t even stay around long enough to see them born. In a subsequent television interview, the President said: “I read [Dan Quayle’s] whole speech, his Murphy Brown speech. I thought there were a lot of good things in that speech.”
I believe that Clinton is genuinely moved by the plight of his poor neighbors in decaying parts of Washington, D.C., and by all those children so much less fortunate than his daughter, Chelsea. But I predict that whatever solutions he offers will end up involving more government intervention and spending, which won’t work (just as his surgeon general’s belief that our social breakdown is somehow related to a shortage of condoms won’t help matters). Still, it is imperative that he keep raising the issue of family values. We are more accustomed to discussing these matters in private than in public, but it is time to bring the coffee table into the political arena. Our country’s health, maybe even its survival, depends on continuing this difficult conversation.
Many have asked me, “Can we do more than talk about family values?” Of course we can. There is an agenda we should advance:
Increase the tax exemption for our children.
Eliminate the “marriage tax” penalty, which pools the income of married wage earners, putting them in a higher tax bracket than if they were single.
Radically reform the welfare system to reward marriage, eliminate incentives for mothers receiving assistance to have additional children, eliminate disincentives for absentee fathers to rejoin their families, and require unwed minor children to live with their parents. A minor and her offspring are a parent’s responsibility, not the state’s.
Change the divorce law so that the needs of our children are given priority.
Begin public service announcements that underscore the enormous responsibilities of being a parent.
Reform the education system by giving all parents the right to choose their children’s school and insist on a value-based education where virtues such as integrity, responsibility, industry, morality, and courage are taught.
It is time we put our children first. Our families and our nation depend on it.
Benoit, W. L., & Anderson, K. K. (1996). Blending politics and entertainment: Dan Quayle versus Murphy Brown. Southern Communication Journal, 62(1), 73-85.
Dan Quayle’s speech on family values (1992, May 19). C-Span. Retrieved from: https://www.c-span.org/video/?60051-1/family-values
Dan Quayle vs. Murphy Brown: The vice president takes on a TV character over family values (1992, June 1). Time. Retrieved from: http://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,975627,00.html
Sack, K. (1992, September 3). The 1992 campaign: The vice president; Quayle tries to separate family values and ‘Murphy Brown’. New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/1992/09/03/us/1992-campaign-vice-president-quayle-tries-separate-family-values-murphy-brown.html