WASHINGTON -- Departing Vice President Dan Quayle says it's either the presidency or nothing for him in politics from now on. He's not interested, Quayle says, in running for governor back home in Indiana as some political advisers have suggested.
Current Democratic Gov. Evan Bayh, after completing two terms in 1996, won't be eligible to run again, but Quayle has told the Washington Post that the governorship holds no charm for him. And with two Republicans holding both Senate seats from Indiana, that route back to Washington appears blocked.
Quayle, who never made any secret of his White House ambitions once George Bush took him off the trail to political nowhere and made him his vice president, may be casting a knowing eye at the experience of another ambitious GOP vice president who ran for governor after leaving Washington, and lived to regret it.
In 1962, back home in California after his two terms as President Dwight D. Eisenhower's standby, Richard Nixon decided to restore his political viability (and avoid what he thought would be a second run against John F. Kennedy in 1964) by seeking the governorship. Ungrounded in state matters, he lost to Democrat Pat Brown.
It was after that setback that Nixon held his famous "last press conference" at which he promised reporters that "you won't have Dick Nixon to kick around anymore" -- another Nixon broken promise.
Since Nixon did in fact survive that defeat and eventually win the presidency, it can be argued that running for governor in Indiana would not be all that risky for Quayle. But as Lloyd Bentsen might say, Dan Quayle is no Dick Nixon, who left the vice presidency with a strong reputation for foreign expertise and general intelligence.
Nixon was widely disparaged as "Tricky Dick," it was true, but few regarded him as a dim bulb, which is the burden Quayle carried into the vice presidency and carries out with him. Polls up to the waning days of the Quayle tenure indicated that a significant number of voters still thought him unqualified to be president, no matter how much experience he gained playing second string to President Bush.
Beyond that, Indiana is not California, and even winning the governorship would hardly give Quayle a better launching pad for a presidential bid than being a former vice president. An office that once was the political equivalent of a gold watch for long and faithful service and a ticket to retirement, the vice presidency since World War II has been the best stepping-stone to either major party's presidential nomination.
In eight of the last nine presidential elections, one or both presidential nominees previously served as vice president. The only exception was in 1980, when Ronald Reagan, a former California governor, challenged and beat Jimmy Carter.
Having said that, it has to be observed that Quayle is not going to be able to sit on his laurels, if you can call his deeds in the vice presidency that, and see the Republican Party turn to him in 1996 or thereafter. There are too many able politicians active on the political playing field for that to happen.
Among others, Bush Housing Secretary Jack Kemp and Reagan Education Secretary William Bennett are taking leadership roles in a new conservative Republican organization called Empower America, with obvious designs on empowering themselves within the GOP looking to 1996. Two other Bush Cabinet members, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and Education Secretary Lamar Alexander, both have indicated interest in seeking the presidency four years hence.
Quayle, however, did show himself to be a prodigious fund-raiser for the party and a leading voice on the sharp critical edge of the national debate on social and family values. By continuing to fatten party coffers while combating what he likes to call "the cultural elite," Quayle can further endear himself to certain segments in the party and country over the next four years.
But his main problem remains, as it always has been, living down his reputation as an intellectual empty suit and a political pratfall artist in the eyes of voters at large who aren't that interested in the fortunes of the GOP or concerned about the pet targets of Quayle's sermonizing.