What was the accusation?
A minor mistake by Vice President Dan Quayle created a frenzy and a long-running joke that would haunt him throughout his political career. In 1992, Quayle led a spelling bee for sixth-grade students while visiting an elementary school in New Jersey. Working from an inaccurate flash card prepared by a teacher, he corrected 12 year old William Figueroa when the student spelled “potato” on the blackboard – making the boy add an unnecessary “e” at the end of the word. The media assault for the mistake was truly relentless.
Key Apologia Strategies:
Mortification, shifting blame, attacking the accuser, bolstering
Excerpt from Quayle’s 1994 Book “Standing Firm”
While there [in the school], I saw a drill-team performance and dropped in on some classes in self-esteem, before heading off to watch a spelling bee. You know what I’m getting to. “What are we supposed to do?” I asked Keith Nahigian, the advance man who had prepared this little photo op. “Just sit there and read these words off some flash cards,” he explained, “and the kids will go up and spell them at the blackboard.” Bill Kristol was with us, and he asked Keith, “Has anyone checked the cards? “Oh, yeah,” Keith answered. “We looked at them and they’re just very simple words. It’s no big deal.”
No one ever actually asked me to spell potato that afternoon. If they had, I imagine I’d have gotten it right, though I wouldn’t swear to it. I’m not the world’s greatest speller, and while I could bore you with a lot of stories about other politicians’ deficiencies in this area, I’m going to try to concentrate on the ridiculous facts. We got to the point where it was twelve-year-old William Figueroa’s turn to go to the board and spell whatever was on the next card, which was the word potato–except that the card, prepared by the school, read potatoe, with an e. I can’t remember if the spelling struck me as odd or not, but William spelled it correctly on the blackboard–no e. I noticed the discrepancy, showed the card to the other adults with me, and as they nodded in agreement, I gently said something about how he was close but had left a little something off. So William, against his better judgment and trying to be polite, added an e. The little audience down in front applauded him, and that was it.
A minute or so later, we were back in the holding room awaiting a press conference. We anticipated questions about Cardinal O’Connor, with whom I’d met in the morning and discussed abortion, and about New York politicians who might already have reacted to my speech–especially Governor Mario Cuomo. We got those questions and were near to winding up the press conference, when one reporter asked, “How do you spell potato?” I gave him a puzzled look, and then the press started laughing. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized anything was wrong. None of the staff people had told me. Caught off guard, I just rattled on a little to fill the air–something about how I wasn’t going to get into spelling matters–but I knew that something was really amiss. After one more question, we wrapped it up, and I went back into the holding room to ask the staffers just what was going on.
When you make a mistake in the “image is all” world of politics, you want to recover from it as fast as you can. Get out in front of it. And we could have done that with this particularly ridiculous one. If somebody had even nudged me while I was still in that classroom, I could have gone up to William in front of everyone and told him that it had just been pointed out to me how, when it came to potatoes, he was a better speller than both the card preparer and the Vice President of the United States. We could have ended the thing by giving him a much bigger round of applause than the one he’d gotten. Not an ideal situation, but certainly a better one than my standing up in front of the press and not knowing what they were talking about.
This was one of those rare times when I felt like exploding at the staff. I can hardly expect them to be responsible for my spelling, but I still don’t know why I was kept in the dark during the several minutes we’d prepared for the press conference. Only now did they remind me that potato is spelled without an e. I told them that the card had said otherwise, and Keith Nahigian went off to find it; but all of this was pointless.
I knew that this was going to be big–certainly the story of the day, and maybe the next few days. I could feel myself getting increasingly angry as we rode to our next stop, a fundraiser. Bill Kristol tried to cheer me up, saying he didn’t think it would be such a big story after all, but I knew better than that. I went over and over the incident in my mind, wondering what the videotape of it looked like, hoping that maybe it wasn’t that bad.
If I lost some sense of proportion over the incident, my only defense is that everyone else was about to do that, too. “How did it go, Dan?” asked Marilyn, when I got back home that night. “There was a small problem with spelling.” I told her the story, and for a moment she was puzzled, unsure herself (and Marilyn is a good speller) that the word didn’t have an e after all.
The fact is that the press wasn’t sure how to spell it either. Once the question was asked at the news conference, some reporters were seen heading out of the room to get a school dictionary to check on the spelling. And a month later, by which time this story still wasn’t dead, the New York Post ran a “Correction”: Due to an editing error in late editions of yesterday’s Post, the word ‘potato’ was misspelled…Ironically, the error occurred in reference to Vice President Quayle’s infamous misspelling of the same word. The Post regrets the error. The outpouring of phone calls from literate readers has helped us to be a little more understanding about Quayle’s goof.”
But this wasn’t a goof. In the language of media politics, this was a gaffe–the perfect gaffe from four years of the press’s patrolling for them. It was more than a gaffe; in the language of Lee Atwater, it was a “defining moment,” of the worst kind of imaginable. Over the next several weeks, continuing through the Democratic Convention and beyond (to this day, in fact), there was an avalanche of late-night jokes and Democratic sound bites. QUAYLE GETS BAKED, MASHED AND FRIED, said one tabloid headline.
There’s something crazy about our national life, or let’s say our national discourse, when something as trivial as this incident becomes a major event–yes, an entire chapter–in a political figure’s life. But that’s the way things work. I’ve mentioned how some people say I trivialized the issue of single motherhood by using Murphy Brown as an example. But is there anyone who would claim my speech would have gotten one percent of the attention it did if I hadn’t used an example from pop culture? The two incidents aren’t directly analogous, but there is a connection. Politicians live and die by the symbolic sound bite.
Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post‘s media critic, did a story on the whole episode, and he pointed out that the incident got so much play because it seemed like a perfect illustration of what people thought about me anyway. I wasn’t alone in this sort of thing, he argued. “Bill Clinton’s ‘didn’t inhale’ comment about marijuana seemed to underscore his reputation for slick evasiveness. And the disputed incident in which President Bush appeared unfamiliar with a supermarket scanner brought Bush weeks of ridicule as an out-of-touch patrician.” It’s an interesting argument and correct up to a point, but–to borrow an image from Saddam Hussein–potato was the mother of all gaffes. I don’t think the inhaling or the supermarket scanner got a tenth as much play. An even more important argument, quote by Kurtz in his piece, came from Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, who said “Quayle is getting beaten up because a lot of people are upset that he’s being treated much more seriously.”
The media had been infuriated with me for a month, ever since the Murphy Brown speech. I handed them a perfect opportunity to strike back. The potato gaffe helped them undo the positive image I had recently earned, not only with that speech but with my fairly aggressive campaigning throughout the primary season. Time had even run a picture that suggested the President was riding on my shoulders. No, after potato, it was back to the same old cartoons.
I can’t overstate how discouraging and exasperating the whole event was. It put Marilyn into a state of what she called “complete and total irritation.” Her husband could make “five speeches a day for twenty-five months,” she explained to a CNN reporter, “and never make a mistake; he makes one mistake, it’s aired and aired and aired and aired.”
It was a tough week. But even though the press was trying to make me out as a fool, I ignored them and went about the business of government. I met in Washington with Boris Yeltsin. We talked about the space program, and I offered to help broker his upcoming trip to Japan, since on my own trips there I’d made many connections that would be valuable to him.
My next public appearance was before a group of radio talkshow hosts, a pretty rambunctious bunch. I was warned that I would be presented with a dictionary. I was happy to go along with the joke. I planned to say something like how I felt “humble–with an e.” In the end, the host got cold feet and never gave me the book, which made me even more certain this was one gaffe I wouldn’t be able to laugh off. I spoke for twenty minutes about Yeltsin’s visit and then took questions. I sat on a stool with a hand mike and no notes, just the opposite of the formal style imposed on me in the 1988 campaign. If I made a mistake, it would be big news.
There were no mistakes, and the press coverage was favorable. But the Washington Post couldn’t resist running the kind of picture they really wanted. I had allowed my head to drop while listening to a question and considering my answer. The picture made me look out of it, disengaged from an audience with whom I’d actually connected quite well.
In 1994 I finally got the last laugh. I made a cameo appearance in a TV commercial for Wavy Lay’s Potato Chips, which aired only once during half-time at the Super Bowl (the net proceeds I earned from the appearance went to charity). But there was one letter I got in 1993 that really put the incident into perspective better than anything else. Jolene M. Holaday wrote me from Burke County, Georgia, where she was about to graduate from high school. She enclosed a letter that I had written to her mother, Carolyn, back in 1985, when the two of them were living in Noblesville, Indiana, after being abandoned by Jolene’s father. Mrs. Holaday had no job skills, and when she wrote my office for help, I put her in touch with someone who could give her information about how she might make use of the Job Training Partnership Act. Eight years later, she was employed as a secretary in a law office and completing studies as a paralegal–as a result of the start she got through JTPA. “It hurts to talk about it,” her daughter Jolene wrote, “but I want you to appreciate the effects of your political action in our home.” She explained that while her mom was taking the JTPA training, “a neighbor for whom Mom did child care brought potatoes for Mom to use in preparing a hot lunch for his children under Mom’s care. At the end of the day, the only thing Mom had to serve me for dinner was the fried peelings left over from those potatoes.” In 1992, they were in a comfortable cottage in Georgia, eating a dinner of hot corn, fried chicken, and mashed potatoes–not just skins–when the potato story came on the television news. “My mom and I abruptly stopped chewing, looked at each other…’With an e or without an e is not important. Having potatoes to eat. Now that’s important.'”
Dan Quayle: ‘Standing Firm’ (1994, May 8). Newsweek. Retrieved from: http://www.newsweek.com/dan-quayle-standing-firm-188638
Fass, M. (2004, August 29). Politics; How do you spell regret? One man’s take on it. New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/08/29/nyregion/politics-how-do-you-spell-regret-one-man-s-take-on-it.html
Nieves, E. (1992, June 17). The 1992 Campaign: Gaffes; Spelling by Quayle (That’s With an E). New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/1992/06/17/nyregion/the-1992-campaign-gaffes-spelling-by-quayle-that-s-with-an-e.html