Who knew? All this time we thought Dan Quayle was such a shallow guy, and he was actually thinking in metaphors.
In his mind, Murphy Brown's out-of-wedlock baby is the metaphor for modern American immorality. Not Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator, who's taught a nation to approach complex problems by blowing up buildings. Arnold gets to be George Bush's physical fitness adviser, and nobody at the White House ever mentions the blown-up buildings as a metaphor for national violence, because the deeply thoughtful Arnold might drop a grenade down their shorts.
More sensitive souls have gone ballistic over the Murphy Brown remark because, given the vice president's history -- he's sort of our national symbol of a male Vanna White -- everybody wondered if he realized Murphy Brown was only a fictional character played by someone named Candice Bergen.
(Or, if he did make the distinction, maybe he thought Bergen was having her real-life baby out of wedlock. "Her poor family," Quayle might be thinking. "Poor Edgar Bergen and poor Charlie McCarthy. Why, Charlie's been struck dumb.")
What the hell, Reagan did this all the time. Remember him talking about the brave World War II pilot staying with his crashing plane, and comforting the kid bombardier the whole way down? It was Reagan's illustration of real American wartime bravery -- except, of course, it was strictly from an old movie, and the Gipper had merged the two inside his head.
Or what about that time with Tip O'Neill inside the House speaker's office? O'Neill showed Reagan a desk used by Grover Cleveland. Reagan said he'd played him in a movie. No, O'Neill pointed out, you played Grover Cleveland Alexander, who was a baseball pitcher. Grover Cleveland was a president.
In December of 1985, on "60 Minutes," Berkeley professor Michael Rogin said Reagan honestly couldn't tell the difference between movies and reality. Reaction? Viewers bombarded "60 Minutes" with outrage.
Reagan was our pleasant, absent-minded old uncle. Dan Quayle is our village idiot. But their shallowness matches our own, or how could they stay around so long? In our modern rush, we like the fact that they use easy-to-understand illustrations, and we pass over the resultant cheapening of the debates behind them.
It's about as deep as Quayle gets, using a television comedy to examine something very unfunny. It's Father Knows Best telling his grown-up daughter, This isn't how we raised you back in Springfield.
Quayle's point of reference is a world that never existed, which he's using to suggest a world that never will exist. Like 1950s television, he wants an America in which people do not have sex out of wedlock, do not unintentionally get pregnant, and all problems are solved at the end of the half hour.
Like Reagan's view of the world -- hindsight, shot in Technicolor on some MGM back lot, with wedding bells chiming over the closing credits -- it's a lovely picture. What gets Quayle into trouble is not merely the simplistic outlook, but the reminder of all his previous empty-headedness. Just when we were starting to think he might be, as they say, Growing Into The Job, he lets us know he isn't.
What he's learned, though, is how the White House wants him to play the game. True, George Bush and Marlin Fitzwater were backpedaling all over the place when the firestorm of reaction poured in.
But they knew what Quayle was doing. The remark was about as inadvertent as brain surgery. It's this year's version of the flag issue, a little something to take our mind off of serious discussion of real issues.
Families are coming apart? Yeah, let's blame it on an imaginary person, and maybe nobody will notice the poverty rate in this country. Los Angeles is burning? If we throw out a political non sequitur that's outrageous enough, maybe they won't mention the complete lack of feeling for cities. Out-of-wedlock births are epidemic? Let's pretend kids in housing projects are looking at the glittery Murphy Brown and saying, "I want to have a life like hers. So the first thing I do is, like, get pregnant, right?"
Friday morning at City Hall, Mayor Kurt Schmoke was asked about the Quayle remark. It was a softball question, just begging to be hit out of the park. But Schmoke's expression turned sad instead of flippant.
"I believe [the White House] polled the public first," he said, "and found people uneasy with [Murphy Brown's pregnancy.] There's a real ambivalence he's tapping into. It's calculated. It's no accident he said it."
"You know, I haven't been inclined to agree with Quayle on many things," Schmoke said. "And I don't watch 'Murphy Brown,' but I believe these comments about the show just come out of political polling."
Who cares if the White House actually buys into its own baloney? It's what sells that counts. Who cares if the cheapness of the approach takes our minds off the depths of the real problems?
That's show biz, folks. If Quayle's confusing it with reality, there's certainly precedent. Remember Reagan, the first time he ran for governor of California?
"What kind of governor would you be?" a reporter asked.
"I don't know," said Reagan. "I've never played a governor."
And Quayle's playing a vice president, which is not the same thing as being one.