Mr. P-o-t-a-t-o Head


Now we know. A sophisticate is somebody who knows how to spell potato.

This must be the kinder, gentler America of which President Bush spoke. It used to be that being sophisticated meant you had to wear correct clothes, be seen at trendy restaurants, read the right books and quote from them at smart cocktail parties, serve arugula, all that sort of thing. Now it's just a question of finding Dan Quayle vacuous and learning how to spell the names of a few common vegetables.

Since Mr. Quayle misspelled it on a visit to an elementary school Monday, later being corrected by a 12-year-old, those of us smug elite who know how to spell potato -- and doesn't it make you feel superior? -- are now fully defined for all to see as the mysterious "sophisticates," the enemies of "traditional American values" whose scorn Mr. Quayle wears "as a badge of honor."

Really, a nation going slowly mad cannot be a pretty thing to watch, and we have to ask ourselves whether or not that is what we are witnessing.

The most pernicious symptom is not the vice president's inability to spell the name of one of the most widely eaten foods in America. What does that matter? And it is not the fact that millions of American schoolchildren have just been given an atrocious example of how, in this age of epidemic Philistine mediocrity, it is unimportant to do their lessons and mind their teachers lest they end up career failures.

No, what is the most troubling symptom of our national decay is this insane conspiracy to pretend that Dan Quayle is a serious man who makes an occasional ass of himself and that these are exceptions to his behavior and character from which we can all get a good laugh.

In the introduction to their book on Mr. Quayle, Bob Woodward and David S. Broder complain that "the news media have generally taken notice of him only when he has done something to live up to his image as a boyish buffoon. So the real Dan Quayle remains largely unknown." Their 207-page, $18 search for the real Dan Quayle is a disappointing expedition, not for their lack of diligence or excruciating fairness, but for their utter failure to discover the smoking gun that would prove even tenuously that Dan Quayle isn't a buffoon, that the popular image of this man isn't, in fact, the man.

The Bush people, who were so careful in 1988 to restrict Mr. Quayle's schedule to heavily shepherded appearances at goat ropings and county fairs, now feel safe sending him to spelling bees. They even talk openly of Mr. Quayle as a big gun, as the glue that will hold together the president's conservative base in a configuration that, though it may be a minority, will be sufficient to snatch victory in a field in which Ross Perot and Bill Clinton will split the sane vote in America.

What has American conservatism been reduced to? And what has politics been reduced to when perfectly sophisticated political strategists decide their strongest asset is a man who, in an ABC-Washington Post poll, was found to have a "favorable" rating of only 26 percent, half that of Murphy Brown, a woman who doesn't even exist?

Robert Reno is a columnist for Newsday.

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