Get this: Dan Quayle does not wish to speak ill of Patrick Buchanan.
Is this a thing of beauty? Buchanan, who couldn't see a belt without hitting below it, is swinging wildly at the George Bush-Dan Quayle duo currently scrambling to hold up its own political pants, but the vice president of the United States does not wish to swing back in certain sensitive areas.
Namely, race and religion.
Quayle is standing in this room at the Marriott Hunt Valley Inn Tuesday afternoon, hoping no one's noticed that it's dusk in America, when somebody asks about his Republican antagonist.
"Pat Buchanan has been accused of making racist and anti-Semitic statements," a reporter says. "You've heard them. How do you feel about them?"
Quayle, face locked in a public grin, clenches one fist until all the blood is gone. A couple of seconds pass. The mouth is still smiling, but the eyes are saying: Get lost.
Glancing about the room, he says he doesn't care to comment on anything Buchanan's said. He says Buchanan will have to answer for his own remarks. He mutters the word "troubling." He says he could spend the rest of the campaign talking about Pat Buchanan, and his public remarks, but he says there are too many other things to talk about.
"Are you saying," the reporter asks, "that racist and anti-Semitic remarks aren't worth talking about?"
"Troubling," Quayle says softly, and he quickly looks around the room, spots another reporter, takes a friendlier question.
Race and religion are decidedly unfriendly topics. Pat Buchanan, running for the nod in next Tuesday's Maryland Republican presidential primary, finds he can barely outrun his own history as a professional provocateur, but George Bush and Dan Quayle find they're not exactly in a position to mention it in polite circles.
They have Willie Horton on their record? Buchanan's got this: "The U.S. should stand up for values, shared values. Why are we more shocked when a dozen people are killed in Vilnius than a massacre in Burundi? Because they are white people. That's who we are. That's where America comes from."
Bush and Quayle have a three-year record of ignoring America's inner cities? Buchanan's got this: "The other day Shelley [his wife] went down Connecticut Avenue and these guys were sitting on the corner playing bongo drums. I mean, this is the town I grew up in."
Bush and Quayle have their troubles with Israel? Buchanan's the guy who said American kids with non-Jewish names went to war in the Persian Gulf only because of Israel's "amen corner" in Washington.
He's also the guy who once called Adolf Hitler "an individual of great courage." Minister Louis Farrakhan says this, and he's branded a racist fanatic. Pat Buchanan says it, and the president says he's willing to do anything to be re-elected (except, apparently, mention Buchanan's track record) and the vice president says we need to talk about more important stuff.
"Oh, we're not at all comfortable with Buchanan's remarks," Richard Taylor, Republican national committeeman for Maryland, declared during Quayle's visit here. "No, no, that's not the Republican Party of mine."
Here's the difference: Taylor's standing in a little corner of a hotel corridor when he says it, and he's talking to one man. Bush and Quayle go in front of the nation every day and fail to say it.
And here's another difference: Taylor, like a lot of others in politics, begins to hedge his bets.
"I don't think Pat's racist or anti-Semitic," he says. "He just makes those statements. He's a funny sort of guy. He's mild and reasonable. Those remarks of his are wrong, but I'm trying to give him the benefit of the doubt personally."
Buchanan's defense? Well, the Hitler remark was made 18 years ago, so leave it alone. (Does he have a similar statute of limitations on Bill Clinton's draft record?) Or, he'll imply, the racial stuff's quoted out of context.
This is known as lying. The politicians have all learned to talk in code, but Buchanan's spent most of his adult life as a commentator. He hoists ideas for a living. Thus, he has the liability of a clear track record, which consists of an Us vs. Them mentality, an instinct for the things that divide instead of unite people.
George Bush shows some of the same instincts. In Georgia, for instance, he's now launched an advertising campaign focused on welfare problems, just in time for next Tuesday's primary there.
Is there a soul in America who thinks welfare is this country's overwhelming problem? Of course not, any more than Willie Horton or the great U.S. flag flap were our compelling problems. But it doesn't matter. Welfare's a code word for race, and racial tension is always a great divider, the little wink to closet racists that this president is their kind of guy.
And so we have Pat Buchanan walking around with this track record of his, this history of antagonism toward minorities, and the two great leaders of the country, George Bush and Dan Quayle, under fire from Buchanan every day, and yet utterly incapable of hitting him where he lives.