I've just been revisiting some quotes from Dan Qualyle. For example:

I believe we are on an irreversible trend toward more freedom and democracy – but that could change.


We are ready for any unforeseen event that may or may not occur.

I mean, they sound pretty devastating (and hilarious, depending on how you look at it). Maybe he just suffered from some linguistic disability (his boss e.g. certainly knew how to write nice letters), and was no real dummy otherwise (a JFK was also not in perfect health). But still, why did George H. W. Bush put him on the ticket in the first place?

It seems as if he had not been an opponent in the primaries (with another wing of the party firmly behind him) and I don't remember Indiana being a battleground state at the time. So why the decision?

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    Quayle had tons of gaffes, some more memorable than others. I'd have to find something concrete but if I remember he was chosen to appeal to younger voters under the impression that GWH Bush was too old and unable to do so.
    – MichaelF
    Feb 23, 2013 at 13:03
  • He was no John Kennedy.... :) Feb 23, 2013 at 13:22
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    @Drux: youtube.com/watch?v=O-7gpgXNWYI Feb 23, 2013 at 14:42
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    he may well have suffered from something like dyslexia, yes. I know quite a few people like that, and they tend towards using incorrect words like that, especially under pressure. A ghostwriter would correct such things, but when speaking on the fly it shows, especially under pressure.
    – jwenting
    Feb 25, 2013 at 10:57
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    @jwenting fair enough, the pressures of such a (24-7) position must be enormous. I certainly couldn't survive them.
    – Drux
    Feb 25, 2013 at 12:10

4 Answers 4


As bizarre soul who actually blew some of his vacation in '88 on a Florida beach that summer watching the Rep convention coverage..

VP choices are generally all about compensating for the POTUS candidate's perceived weaknesses. Bush had been a moderate before his association with Reagan, which meant the conservative base of the Republican party was not all that hyped over him. So it was pretty much a forgone conclusion that his VP candidate had to be a true Conservative. Quayle certainly was (and is) that. So he was a good choice to shore up the base, but pretty much any conservative would have been just as good there.

But Bush was at this time 64 years old, and had just come off of an 8-year stint as VP, which is guaranteed to make just about anybody look dull (Biden somehow magically excepted). The Doonesbury caricature of him was nothing but a disembodied voice. Also, the avidly anti-abortion and bellicose Reagan administration had opened up a large gender-gap between the parties. So you can see where it may have been thought the ticket needed some pizazz, and a way to appeal to women.

With staged political events like the party nominating conventions, when information is initially released by the party elders, it comes complete with some points of discussion. This way they can at least get the media talking about what they want talked about from the start. Thus you can generally get some clues to what the decision makers thought the best selling-points for an idea (eg: a VP choice) would have been by what the initial discussions about the idea are.

In this case, right from the beginning, even in some of the network coverage of the leaks before the official announcement, all the talk was about how Quayle was young and telegenic, and "resembled JFK", and how this would appeal to female voters. So that is most likely what they were thinking. (One wonders how many, if any, of the people making this supposition in the RNC's smoke-filled rooms in '88 were actual females).

There were some superficial resemblances. In particular, at the time JFK ran for president he was roughly the same age as Quayle, and had served in the senate roughly the same amount of time. They were both white males too. Unfortunately for the GHWB brain-trust, that's pretty much where the resemblance ended.

However, the JFK comparisons stayed in Quayle's stump speeches (VP stump speeches generally have to be approved by the POTUS candidate's people, when they aren't just flat out written by them). He even made the comparison during his VP debate performance.

This of course set the stage for the top classic moment in all of US Presidential Debate history, Loyd Bentzen's "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy" line. (youtube)

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    In other words, he was a proto-Sarah Palin. Feb 23, 2013 at 17:12
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    @FelixGoldberg Katie Couric for VP, anyone ... ? :)
    – Drux
    Feb 23, 2013 at 17:18
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    +1. Also, Biden is also magically excepted (well, the magic is called media bias) from being considered an even greater idiot that Quayle despite committing far worse gaffes, repeatedly.
    – DVK
    Feb 24, 2013 at 2:29

Although Quayle is the punch lines of many jokes, he had served with distinction, and had been elected with significant margins; those are strong positives for a Vice Presidential Candidate.

He won reelection in 1978 by the greatest percentage margin achieved to date in that northeast Indiana district. In 1980, at age 33, Quayle became the youngest person ever elected to the Senate from the state of Indiana, defeating three-term incumbent Democrat Birch Bayh by 54%-to-46%. Making Indiana political history again, Quayle was reelected to the Senate in 1986 with the largest margin ever achieved to that date by a candidate in a statewide Indiana race, easily defeating his Democratic opponent, Jill Long with 61%. His 1986 victory was notable because several other Republican Senators elected in 1980 were not returned to office. Wikipedia

As noted by others, he appealed to one of the core Republican demographics (fundamentalists).

Wikipedia doesn't note his specific expertise; Senator Quayle had served on the Arms Control and Disarmament committee and from what I understand was perceived as experienced and educated in that field.

During his tenure in the U.S. Senate, Mr. Quayle became widely known for his legislative work in the areas of defense, arms control, labor, and human resources. With his service on the Armed Services Committee, the Budget Committee, and the Labor and Human Resources Committee, he became an effective Senator, respected by colleagues on both sides of the aisle. biographybase

Arms control is one of the areas in which Dan Quayle has developed significant expertise. He took a particularly close interest in the negotiations leading to the treaty banning intermediate range missiles. R. Perle in NY Times Perle spent much of his career on arms control, and his opinion should not be taken lightly.

. . . Quayle involved himself in foreign policy issues through the Armed Services Committee. As a freshman, he took the lead in persuading other freshmen Republicans to reach a compromise on a Reagan administration plan to sell AWACS surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia. Quayle arranged for Reagan to sign a "letter of certification" that satisfied enough otherwise doubtful senators to win approval for the sale. Quayle was also willing to take positions independent of the administration. In 1987, as the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty moved toward completion, Quayle joined a group of conservative Republican senators in opposition. When President Reagan accused them of accepting the inevitability of war, Quayle denounced the president's comments as "totally irresponsible." A question arose over whether the treaty covered such "futuristic" weapons as lasers, particle beams and microwaves. Both the State Department and the Soviets agreed they were covered, but Quayle insisted they were not. (Later it became evident that the economic deterioration of the Soviet Union severely hampered its ability to compete with the United States in developing such sophisticated space weapons.) "Senator Quayle came at me repeatedly with complaints about this issue," Secretary of State George Shultz recalled. At last the secretary begged, "Dan, you have to shut down! We can't have the president's achievement wrecked by Republicans!" The treaty was finally approved by a vote of 93 to 5, with Quayle voting in favor. Senate History which has a very nice summary of his career; highly recommended

At the time, Arms Control was a significant national issue; today's problems blind us to how important we perceived the issue at the time.

In short the man had the ability to deliver votes, the ability to deliver votes from a key constituency, and some experience to bring to the ticket. He wasn't an entirely irrational choice given what was known at the time.

  • Can you find sources for Quayle's contributions to arms control? I agree that we are now judging him with 20/20 hindsight but still... Feb 25, 2013 at 15:06
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    Meanwhile from the 2012 Arizona sixth-district race: " Mr [Ben] Quayle’s campaign biography talks about his brother, his wife, his infant daughter, his father-in-law and even his puppy, Louie, but makes no mention of his father, Dan Quayle, once the vice-president" (his opponent later defeated Ben Quayle).
    – Drux
    Feb 25, 2013 at 15:19
  • You may wish to add his skill as a fund raiser. Nov 13, 2016 at 1:08
  • Not something I'm qualified to comment on .
    – MCW
    Nov 13, 2016 at 1:49

Bush's introductory speech on Quayle began, "Born in the middle of the country, born in the middle of the century..."

I believe that to George Bush Sr. (an aristocrat), the circumstances of Quayle's birth, background and breeding seemed to outweigh his other qualities. Put another way, it seems that Quayle was selected for "social" reasons of personal chemistry rather than political considerations. As J.P. Morgan said, "There are two reasons a man does something; the "official" reason and the real reason."

This is coming from someone who has voted for every Republican presidential candidate not named Bush. In voting for Dukakis, I voted for "competence, not ideology," and the proposition that the son of immigrants like him (or yours truly) might possibly become President of the United States.

Although it must be admitted that the Bentsen-Quayle matchup played a role in my decision.

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    @Drux: Bush might have kept my vote by saying, "Dan Quayle is a Baby Boomer from the Midwest." (I'm both.) But his using "born" twice, less than ten words apart rankled someone whose creed is "You don't have to be what you are born," or "You can rise above the circumstances of your birth." Reagan, Dukakis and Clinton all did this well.
    – Tom Au
    Feb 25, 2013 at 13:43
  • Definitely +1! (The other answers are good as well, but I love the unique perspective of this one). Feb 25, 2013 at 15:06
  • @FelixGoldberg: His remark struck me viscerally, and more to the point, I believe his speech was made viscerally (Bush is less political and more candid "voodoo economics" than most politicians). Thanks for your view.
    – Tom Au
    Feb 25, 2013 at 17:00

This has not been a usual observation, but Quayle actually brought considerable strength to the ticket through his family's conservative Pulliam news dynasty. Quayle's mother was a Pulliam, and the family controlled the editorial content of newspapers throughout the Midwest and Southwest. Ever wonder why Indiana and Arizona are nearly always bonded together in a conservative political lock-step? The Pulliams' powerful enduring influence is a major reason for this.

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