You're Wrong About

Dan Quayle v. Murphy Brown

May 09, 2019 You're Wrong About
You're Wrong About
Dan Quayle v. Murphy Brown
Show Notes Transcript

“Why did we make fun of Dan Quayle for misspelling the word ‘potato’ when we should have made fun of him for arguments like this?” Mike tells Sarah how a real vice president blamed a fictional single mom for causing one of the most divisive events of the 1990s. Digressions include "Designing Women," "Alien" and "The Brady Bunch." Listeners finally learn that Sarah has a lovely singing voice.

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Sarah: Yeah, there were a lot of boiler plates sitcoms like that in the eighties. Like, you know, Hello, Larry was a show like that. Have you ever watched that?

Mike: No.

Sarah: It's about a single dad who moves to Portland with his daughters. And it's like, Portland is a long way from LA, because you fucked up your life. Yeah.

Welcome to You're Wrong About, the show where we expose the sorted truth behind Nick at Night. I just thought of that.

Mike:  Is that what we do?

Sarah:  I don't know. Dan Quayle is pretty sorted, man. 

Mike: I feel like this explains all the differences between us, that you had cable growing up and I didn't.

Sarah:  You had video games.

Mike: That's true. Yes. I am Michael Hobbes. I'm a reporter for the Huffington Post.

Sarah:  I'm Sarah Marshall, I'm working on a book about the Satanic Panic.

Mike: Our Patreon is patreon.com/you’rewrongabout, and today we're talking about Dan Quayle v. Murphy Brown.

Sarah:  Which I'm extremely excited about, because I don't know if you even know this about me, I love Murphy Brown and I loved Murphy Brown when I was a teenager. Yes, I have the Faith Ford cookbook. Faith Ford played quirky on Murphy Brown. They started airing it on Nick at Night or something, some cable channel when I was 16. And I remember sitting on the couch studying for the SATs and watching Murphy Brown. And I was like, wow, a show about a woman who yells at people, you know? Cause it's all about like Murphy Brown, she's a no nonsense newswoman and 80’s DC and she yells at her guests. She's this confrontational, flinty, waspy, Candice Bergen. 

Mike: Do you remember the controversy? Do you remember 1992, when all this happened?

Sarah: I never saw those episodes, but I know that Murphy Brown had a baby as a single mother. And what I know is that Dan Quayle decided, for some reason, to attack Murphy Brown - a television show - for depicting Candice Bergen having a baby without getting married first. 

Mike: Yes. And thanks to this controversy, he reached the lowest ever approval rating for a Vice President in modern American history. This was not a good, strategic move on his part. 

Sarah: Interesting. So tell me, take me on this journey.

Mike:  Well, I feel weird about this because I've always had a weird sympathy for Dan Quayle. 

Sarah: Interesting.

Mike: It is a theme of this show that people are more than the worst mistake they've ever made. And the spelling bee thing. For people who do not know, he misspelled the word ‘potato’ when he was judging a spelling bee in 1992 during the election campaign. And it became the defining feature of his public life. He's still super bitter about it. There's a whole chapter in his memoir about it 

Sarah: I guess I would be too, because people just roasted him about that.

Mike: And it always felt to me, if it's a politician that you like, you wouldn't actually care if they misspelled something. And I don't actually think that spelling is particularly correlated with intelligence.

Sarah:  It's not. That's why you don't think that.

Mike: It always just seemed a little bit unfair to me, but thanks to researching this episode, I now have a dozen legitimate reasons to dislike Dan Quayle.

Sarah: Oh, good. Okay. 

Mike: But I want to start with Murphy Brown, with Murphy brown having a baby. This is basically how this entire thing starts. Do you remember May sweeps? Do you remember what sweeps was? 

Sarah: Oh yeah. That was when the sitcoms would be like, we adopted Leonardo DiCaprio. We traveled through time. Yeah, it was great. It was one of the little rain dances of American television in the 90s. 

Mike: So basically there were four times per year when television shows would set the ad rates for the rest of it the year. 

Sarah: Oh, is that why they did that? I think I just thought it was ratings Olympics that everyone had for fun.

Mike: De facto it was, but of course  because you're setting the ad rates for the rest of the year, of course you want to do the biggest stunts imaginable during these times, so you can charge more for ads.

Sarah:  Right. Do you know if the wedding of Luke and Laura was a sweeps week broadcast? 

Mike: Well, this is the thing. This says so much about us as a country that the three most reliable things you could do during sweeps month was have a baby, get married, or kill someone. These are the three things that Americans respond to. 

Sarah: These are the three pillars of straight society.

Mike:  And when I started researching this, I was thinking that Murphy Brown had a baby due to social justice wokeness. I'm a single mom going to have a baby type of thing, but like it was sweeps month. It was the middle of May. They did on May 18th. They did it to boost ratings.

Sarah: It makes sense. 

Mike: As early as January, they had started hyping this. I've been reading these old transcripts from like CBS this morning on Lexis Nexis. And they're all like, unless you've been hiding under a rock, surely you know that Murphy Brown is having a baby. This was a super hyped thing. 

Sarah: Okay. Do you think there was a sense of like wow, career women can have babies? Like we never knew before.

Mike:  Yeah. And also, it was the number one TV show.

Sarah:  Really? I had no idea. I thought I was a weirdo for liking it. 

Mike: No. So Candice Bergen won Emmys for playing Murphy Brown so many times she asked them not to nominate her anymore.

Sarah: I think it does say something really good about late eighties and nineties, early nineties, America, that all these terrible things are happening. You know, Anita Hill, Amy Fisher, and so many awful things we've talked about that reveal that America's understanding of gender was dangerously medieval. And yet at the same time, America was like, oh, that Candace Bergen, I just love watching her be assertive. 

Mike: Yeah. Basically the story was, she's seeing this guy. He's an anti-apartheid campaigner, because this is before 94, right? So South Africa is still under apartheid. He meets Murphy Brown somehow. They end up sleeping together. She gets pregnant. She tells him, “This is your baby.” And he basically said, “Well, sorry, South Africa is too important to me. I'm not going to stay around and help raise the baby.” 

Sarah: Wow. Murphy Brown had a baby as a single mom because of apartheid. Okay. 

Mike: So it was this whole big thing where he basically leaves. She decides to have the baby anyway. It's not really controversial at the time. I looked for old op-eds and things saying like, this is disgusting.

Sarah: Everyone was like, that is classic Murphy Brown. 

Mike: And it's under the rubric sweeps. Right. It's just like a stunt, everybody really likes it. It's an extremely likable character, so it's fine that she'll be having a baby. They handled the pregnancy really well. I think Pat Buchanan wrote an article about it, but no one real is mad about it. 

Sarah: Like no one in the White House, no one who's looked at as a significant voice in Congress or what have you. 

Mike: Yeah. So May 18th, 1992, Murphy Brown has the baby. It's the most watched television event of the entire month. May 19th, the next day is when Dan Quayle gives his speech criticizing her. 

Sarah: Is he like I am in the Rose Garden and I don't think Murphy Brown should have had a baby. Or is it in the context of something else? 

Mike: This is the thing. So first of all, this is in the middle of a political campaign.

Sarah: Oh, right. It's 92. So of course they're going to talk about something that week.

Mike:  Yes. And what we've totally forgotten about now is that at the time Bush and Quayle were coming in second in the polls, after not Clinton, Ross Perot.

Sarah:  Oh my God. We totally forgot that. As a country, he was doing really well for a while.

Mike: He was getting, a month after this controversy, he was getting 37% in the polls. And most of the votes that he was pulling were from Quayle and Bush, they were losing their minds because they had always had this sort of fiscal conservative sort of old school conservative, like cutting government spending, responsible government, responsible economics type of framing, and he stole all of that. Basically Bush and Quayle are getting increasingly desperate. 

Sarah: And so they decided to attack America's most beloved Candice Bergen.

Mike: Well, the thing is that Ross Perot isn't really making a case on any sort of cultural social issues, he's just making the case on economic issues. And so Bush and Quayle have lost that argument, they can't really say we're going to be the fiscally responsible president. So what they do is they have to change their message to something that is going to be more socially relevant for people. 

So what they decide to do, behind the scenes, and it seems like this is actually a Dan Quayle joint, this is something that he decided without the approval of H.W. Bush, was he wanted to make the campaign much more about family values. Because that was an area where Ross Perot wasn't really saying anything. And Bill Clinton had already been busted for Jennifer Flowers. So it made a lot of sense for the Republicans to then say, well, we're the pure ones. We're the moral ones. We're standing up for values and family and traditions. And it was all they had left.

Sarah:  Because Bush famously was like the candidate in 88, who said, read my lips, no new taxes. And then he imposed new taxes. So he lost his only piece, you know, maybe not his only piece, but certainly one of his most significant pieces of credibility and his first term.

Mike: And that's what Perot is hammering them on over and over again. And so they have to change the grounds of the battle to something completely different. And so Dan Quayle gets this idea of making it more about traditional families. 

Sarah: Tell me about Dan Quayle as a human being. 

Mike: What's interesting about Dan Quayle, and I think this is really important for how the speech is received later, is that everyone already hates Dan Quayle. Dan Quayle is someone who, basically the beginning of his career, has always been seen as an intellectual lightweight. So Dan Quayle got elected in 1971. He's a member of the House of Representatives for two terms. His jam is he always runs as a populist and then governs as just a standard Republican. So he gets elected over and over promising, I'm a Washington outsider. I'm against this culture of graft in Washington, blah, blah, blah. In his first election, he put out a platform of anti-busing, anti-welfare, and anti-big government.

Sarah: Yikes. Who's he representing?

Mike: Indiana.

Sarah:  Oh, Indiana. 

Mike: Yeah. That's where he grows up. Yeah. And then the minute he's in office,  he just votes for every Republican thing and completely drops this whole I'm a Washington outsider thing. 

Sarah: Oh, Dan.

Mike: It's not clear that he ever had any legislative projects or achievements.

Sarah: You feel that it was a cookie cutter example, at least in his behavior and reputation, of these sorts of men that seem to come out of political machine dispensers in America in the eighties?

Mike: Yes. I was trying so hard to find something about him to make him likable or personable and I failed at my job. I just wanted to find anything that would set him apart. 

Sarah: Not everyone can be like Lee Atwater and have a terrible childhood trauma that's immediately understandable as awful.

Mike: There's rumors that he's cheating on his wife. He also apparently dodged the draft. There are a couple little scandals, but his main scandals throughout his entire political career, even as he enters the Senate, a couple of terms in the Senate, he just makes gaffe after gaffe. 

So one of the things he says is, I made a misstatement and I stand by all of my misstatements. He also does these weird Mobius strip twisty sentences, where he's like, we don't want to go back to tomorrow, we must move forward to today. They're almost like tone poems.

Sarah:  It's really nice. You can think about that and be like, hmm.

Mike: One of his colleagues says he's personable, he's handsome, he's fun to be around, and he's a quarter of an inch deep. 

Sarah: Oh, he had great hair, didn't he? He had a nice head of hair. 

Mike: Nice head of hair. He's got a beautiful family.

Sarah: Wait, I'm going to look at a picture of Dan Quayle right now. Yeah, he does have a Kennedy jaw. He had a face unlined by concern of any kind. Right.

Mike: He basically looked like Liam Neeson's child in Love Actually.

Sarah: He did look like that kid and he would have chased a woman down in an airport and thought it was romantic, right. That's classic Dan Quayle. Yeah. He has that energy. And you just have the sense of, if only he hadn't had such a lovely head of hair, he wouldn't have been given so many responsibilities he wasn’t ready for.

Mike: Yes. And so he's a dark horse candidate for VP. It's a little bit weird that HW Bush picked him as the VP in 1988.

Sarah: Do you think he does that to pull focus from his own unlikability?

Mike: A little bit. The main reason, looking back, is that this is back at a time when politicians from Republican and democratic parties were both aiming at the center, the median voter, they were both trying to pull voters from the other side of the aisle. And the nice thing about Dan Quayle at the time was that he was very appealing to the Christian right.  The Christian right really liked him.

Sarah:  Why did the Christian right like him? 

Mike: He did talk about family values. He appeared publicly with his family a lot. He talked about his Christianity a lot. He talked about, you know, the scripture teaches us, et cetera, et cetera. He was someone that referred to his Christian faith quite a bit.

Sarah:  And Christians are a really big voting block in America. 

Mike: Huge. Exactly. And the Republicans were only really just waking up to how big of a deal the Christians could be. But then he was also somebody who appealed to the center. So he wasn't like some sort of weirdo, Jim Baker type of figure, who was divisive. He was somebody who the Christian right liked, but he was also acceptable to sort of middle America. So George HW Bush brought him on to straddle these two groups.

Sarah: So he was a really useful strategic alliance creator. 

Mike: Yeah. And I just want to take a slight detour to talk about the spelling bee incident, which actually happened after the Murphy Brown thing. It's one month afterwards, but it's still in the middle of the same presidential campaign. 

Sarah: So people are already annoyed with Dan Quayle and looking for any reason to be like, Ugh, Dan Quayle. 

Mike: I mean any gaffe, right? It plays upon beliefs that people already hold. So people already think he's stupid. He's a lightweight, he's bumbling. And then he goes to the school, the kid has to spell potato, the kid spells it correctly. And then Dan Quayle says, you forgot the “e” at the end. Weirdly, this isn't actually a scandal until hours later. This all happens on camera. And then later there's a press conference and they ask him, oh, what are you going to do about trade with Japan, you know, normal questions. And then at the end of the press conference, one of the journalists asks, “Mr. Vice President, how do you spell potato?” And everybody burst out laughing. And basically because this little photo op just didn't produce any actual news, all of the news organizations just went with, ‘Dan Quayle misspelled potato’. 

Sarah: Right. Because it's the most interesting thing that happened that day. 

Mike: Yeah, exactly. And also the kid, whose name is Miguel Figueroa, the kid afterwards calls him an idiot.

Sarah: How old was the kid? 

Mike: He's 12. 

Sarah: I also love salty, twelve-year-old quotes, right? 

Mike: The kid is cool. The kid goes on Letterman, and he takes back the idiot quote. He's like, I was a little too strong. He's not an idiot, but he might need to study more. Do you know if you have to go to college to be Vice President?

Sarah: So he just accidentally is dragging him even farther.

Mike: Yes, but it just demonstrates the extent to which the seeds were planted for Dan Quayle. This was not a credible messenger for any campaign promise at all.

Sarah:  Yeah. So when and where does he talk about Murphy Brown? 

Mike: Yes. So, okay. Rewinding one month.

Sarah:  Back to today. No back to tomorrow. We’re going back to tomorrow.

Mike: But so back to May 19th, 1992. The second twist of the speech that is completely forgotten now is that it's a 40 minute speech. It's given to the Commonwealth Club, California.

Sarah:  It's a campaign event. 

Mike: Yeah, basically. Yeah. We want this to be like the new tone, the new message for our campaign. So there's a lot of eyes on this to begin with. Interestingly, he only mentions Murphy Brown once. The speech is not about single families, it's not even about family values. It's about the LA riots. 

Sarah: What? What? Whoa.

Mike: Yes. April 29th, three weeks previously, the LA riots had happened. 

Sarah: I had no idea.

Mike: Basically the country is in the middle of a moral panic about what caused the LA riots. What's going on in urban America?

Sarah: Wait, did Murphy Brown cause the LA riots? I thought it was the Savage beating of Rodney King, a black man who was brutally assaulted by the Los Angeles police who were known for decades to have been incredibly violent toward the black citizens of their city.

Mike: Dan Quayle disagrees with your analysis, Dan Quayle would like you to know that it's not solely Murphy Brown’s fault.

Sarah:  But she's part of it? 

Mike: Yeah. And this is what's so fascinating. 

Sarah: We're blaming Murphy Brown for the LA riots before we blame the Los Angeles police department. 

Mike: Yes. So after all of the cops are acquitted for beating Rodney King, of which there is footage, which we have all seen and is extremely disturbing and extremely clear that they are viciously beating this guy. So the night that happens, the LA riots begin. H.W. Bush gives what he calls an unqualified endorsement of the jury's decision. So there's questions about what he's doing in urban America, how he's responding to the riots, what caused the riots, immediately. After he endorses the jury's decision, he also says the court system has worked. What's needed now is calm and respect for the law. 

Sarah: Everyone calm down, and if you just continue to follow the rules and be randomly assaulted, we will get to you. There are enough lifeboats for everyone and storage.

Mike:  So he's already got Perot nipping at his heels in this campaign, he's got the LA riots, which makes him look terrible. He ends up issuing eight different public statements in the course of three days. He is extremely unpopular for this. He looks terrible. So Dan Quayle, what he says now, is that he basically took it upon himself to try to swing the campaign back to this family values message and explain the LA riots through the degradation of the American family.

Sarah:  So what is his argument? How does this work?

Mike:  So essentially his argument is there's a decline of morals in American society. Urban poverty is caused by welfare, it's caused by a culture of poverty. He says, “I believe the lawless social anarchy, which we saw is directly related to the breakdown of family structure, personal responsibility, and social order in far too many areas of our society. For the poor, the situation is compounded by a welfare ethos that impedes individual efforts to move ahead in society and hampers their ability to take advantage of the opportunities America offers.”

Sarah:  So we're giving people too much welfare and their ability to take care of themselves and act on their own behalf as being degraded. And we have to give less money to people who need it. 

Mike: He's basically saying, we've been too nice to the urban poor in America. 

Sarah: Everyone says that about America, it's a country that is too nice to the poor, legendarily. That's our reputation.

Mike: He acknowledged racism, right? So he said, ‘there's no question that his country has a terrible problem with race and racism. The evil of slavery has left a long legacy, but we've faced racism squarely, and we've made progress in the last quarter century.” So he points to the creation of a black middle class. Things are better for black people in 1992 than they were in 1964, the Civil Rights Movement worked. So essentially, you know, I don't understand why African-Americans would be mad.

Sarah: Why are you complaining? Slavery was only a few generations ago. 

Mike: Yes, everything is fine. And then he immediately pivots to talking about ‘the culture is the problem’. So he says, “During this period of progress, we have also developed a culture of poverty. Some people call it an underclass that is far more violent and harder to escape than it was a generation ago.”

Sarah: And this is the rhetoric that is forming  in the American political arena that is allowing for the creation of crack babies. And this is used as an excuse to write absolutely genocidal stuff about these children. And we can say, well, the crack babies are being born, there's this underclass. They are making bad choices.

Mike: Totally. And that's exactly the rhetoric. And what's interesting is at no point in the speech, does he mention law enforcement. He doesn't even give lip service to like, well, you know, we've got some bad officers in a couple of our police departments. He doesn't even do that.

Sarah:  Right. I assume that Dan Quayle speeches are like the term paper of a 10th grader who wrote it at six in the morning on the day it was due. Where it's like, but surely, you know, and in the end, the hustle and bustle of the land contracts, right?

Mike: Yeah. He's talking about how people used to be able to escape from poverty, but now people are stuck in poverty. And so the underclass seems to be a new phenomenon. ‘It is a group whose members are dependent on welfare for very long stretches and these men are often drawn into lives of crime. There is far too little upward mobility because the underclass is disconnected from the rules of American society.’

Sarah: Oh my goodness. 

Mike: ‘And these problems have, unfortunately, been particularly acute for black Americans.’

Sarah:  It's interesting too, because he's admitting that poverty is a condition of life that really messes with your mental health.

Mike:  I know. Right. And that it’s more difficult to escape than it used to be.

Sarah:  That's true. But then he's also blaming it on the people in poverty that it makes your life harder, and it degrades your ability to function and the ways that you need to and want to. But it's your fault and you have to fix it and it's your fault that you're not fixing it. And at the same time that I'm admitting it's harmful, I'm blaming you more for remaining in it because it is harmful. 

Mike: Totally. What's really interesting in this section of the speech, is that the only policies that he proposes to fix it are cutting welfare, like adding work requirements to welfare making you have to apply for eight jobs a week, whatever. And there's this program called Weed and Seed, which is terrible branding.

Sarah:  Oh. So it's not a nonprofit that teaches people how to farm weed. Cause that's what I was hoping for somehow.

Mike: But it's basically, you want to weed out all the bad people. That's like, go in with harsh law enforcement tactics to get rid of the gang members, whatever.

Sarah: Because they’re vermin growing in a place that's supposed to only have productive beings in it and you have to rip them out and throw them away somehow. It's really rather apt, in fact.

Mike: And then the seed part is you want to give  opportunity grants and enterprise funds to small business owners and job training and charter schools and these other things that are going to help the good people. But what's really interesting about that is this dichotomy that is everywhere in this speech between bad people and good people. And the key to urban poverty is getting rid of the bad people and helping out the good people. What it never acknowledges is that the bad people and the good people are the same people, right? Every time you arrest somebody for whatever, selling a bag of weed, that's a father, that's somebody who's paying half the rent with his girlfriend. That's a son that's helping his parents out with their living expenses. And so this idea that you're just going to pull out the bad people, and then finally the good people will be able to thrive. Many people point this out later, that's not how anything works. There's always collateral damage, even if it's violent criminals that you're taking off the streets.

Sarah: Well, and of course, if you're seeing entire communities as being somehow subhuman and you don't imagine that people live in communities just like yours and that family suffer if family members are taken away, especially if they're providers just like yours. I would argue that that, more than welfare, causes problems in people's lives.

Mike: Yeah. And so after all of this, after he proposes cutting welfare, Weed and Seed, finally, we get to Murphy Brown. So he pivots toward the very end of the speech to family values. He talks about how boomers, I love that he blames boomers despite the fact that he is a baby boomer, he says “many of our generation glamorized casual sex and drug, use evaded responsibility, and travel authority.

Sarah: I'm looking at you, The Big Chill.

Mike: So he's essentially saying, what really explains broken families, he loves to talk about broken families, are that people just don't value families anymore. 

Sarah: Right. It can't be the criminal justice system. It's Murphy Brown.

Mike: Exactly. I It's that nontraditional families, single moms, are being glorified. 

Mike: So I'm going to read the whole quote. It's long. 

Sarah: I want to hear this whole goddamn thing.

Mike: So he's talking about how there's all these broken families, kids growing up without fathers, mothers raising five, six kids because they get so much welfare for having extra kids, as we all know. So he says, “Ultimately, however, marriage is a moral issue that requires cultural consensus and the use of social science. Bearing babies irresponsibly is simply wrong. Failing to support children one has fathered is wrong. We must be unequivocal about this.”

Sarah:  Marriage is a way of getting health insurance.

Mike: It doesn't help matters when primetime TV has Murphy Brown, a character who supposedly epitomizes today's intelligent, highly paid professionals women, mocking the importance of fathers, by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.” 

Sarah: Did she call it that? 

Mike: No, I don't know where he got that, but that's a thing.

Sarah: Designing Women had an episode where the designing women learned about AIDS, and I bet Dan Quayle just saw red about that one, too. 

Mike: There's also this thing. So it comes out later that Dan Quayle has never seen an episode of Murphy Brown. He's completely basing all of this on the hype, right? He's noticed the hype around this baby. But what's really interesting about this argument, he ends up talking about the Murphy Brown thing for the next couple of months, at no point does he ever criticize the father. There's never a point where he says, you know, morally speaking, a guy that is just like, oh, I fathered a baby with this woman that I was dating. I'm just going to bounce.

Sarah:  I'm just going to go work on apartheid. 

Mike: Yeah. He never actually criticizes the father for that in specific terms. He does criticize Murphy Brown for having the baby anyway, but as the producers of Murphy Brown point out almost immediately, what do you expect her to do? She finds out she's pregnant. She tells the father she's pregnant. He says, I'm not interested. 

Sarah: Sweeps week, Murphy Brown has an abortion. 

Mike: Exactly. Dan Quayle is against abortions. It's not clear what she actually did wrong.

Sarah: Right. Aside from the fact that we shouldn't be blaming her for the LA riots, what is he even blaming her for? Was she supposed to put her child up for adoption? Was she supposed to marry some other guy? Is there a correct outcome? This feels like it connects to a lot of the American right arguments about what women can and can't do with their reproductive systems.

Mike: So that's the speech, basically. Murphy Brown comes in right at the end. People point out afterwards that when he blames Hollywood and sort of this culture of decadence, it's the only place in the whole speech where he blames anyone other than poor people for their poverty. 

Sarah: Poor people and Hollywood liberals. 

Mike: Literally  he never mentioned wages. He never mentioned lack of childcare.

Sarah:  So it's welfare and Murphy Brown.

Mike: Basically. Yeah. So in one of the few times that this happens in our show ever, the media response, the next day is pretty dope. So his speech, because it's a big campaign speech, leads all three of the networks news broadcasts the following night. The entire media, and Dan Quayle is still mad about this, the entire media focuses on ‘Dan Quayle, blames Murphy Brown for the LA riots’. Like that is the story immediately. 

Sarah: Dan, you can't get mad at the news for noticing something that you did in your capacity as vice president.

Mike: Yeah, exactly. He still says to this day that he was misinterpreted. 

Sarah: Well, what was he trying to say according to him? 

Mike: Well, what he says now is, you know, they took me out of context because I wasn't blaming single moms, which is true, he was blaming black single moms. That was the context that was lost.

Sarah:  So he was like, you misinterpreted me as saying something less horrible than what I actually said.

Mike:  Something much more sophisticated than my actual argument, which was completely abysmal.

Sarah: Yeah. Cause it's like, oh, you misremembered me as being a pop culture reactionary instead of someone who's passionate about denying basic rights to people of color. 

Mike: Yes. Yeah. So almost immediately his approval rating starts to tank. 59% of the country disagrees with his comments.

Sarah:  It should be really much higher than that, but still that's pretty good considering that it's us.

Mike: Yes. I also thought that Bush, H.W. Bush, threw him under the bus almost immediately. 

Sarah: Oh, what does he do? Poppy.

Mike: So the next day there's a press conference where Bush’s press secretary is, of course, asked, what do you think of Dan Quayle’s comments last night? And he says, we think Murphy Brown is an excellent program and by having the baby Murphy expressed a pro-life position. Which is actually true. 

Sarah: It's true. And also what Bush is able to do there, you'll notice, is that they're like, what did you think of your vice president making these comments about  how the LA riots were caused by decadent Hollywood liberalism and you know, and also welfare and so on. What do you think of that whole speech? He’s like, I love Murphy Brown, so end of conversation. It's like, what do you think of this scenario? They're just like, yes, Murphy Brown, excellent program. I've addressed the greatest controversy in my vice president's remarks now so please leave me alone with this radicchio salad.

Mike: He does go out of his way to say, “one thing that does concern me deeply is the fact that there are so many broken families in this country.”

Sarah:  Who broke them, George? What happens to a family when you send part of it to prison? 

Mike: Exactly. In a way he's roundly mocked for this, and it makes him look terrible. But what's really interesting is this controversy, which is massive, right? Cover of Time, cover of News Week, cover of everything. It's great for the show. When Candice Bergen wins an Emmy six months later in September, she thanks Dan Quayle.

Sarah: Candice Bergen is a wonderful dry champagne and I adore her.

Mike: But what's interesting is, you know, in the next couple of months there is an actual debate in the country about single mothers.

Sarah: Did Murphy brown go too far?

Mike: Basically what it does is even though everybody hates Dan Quayle, everybody uses this controversy as a jumping off point to talk about quote unquote broken families and the institution of single motherhood. And in some ways, they are correct in that, I found statistics on this, that in 1949 there were 130,000 children born to unmarried mothers. And by 1989, there were a million. So that's a huge increase.

Sarah:  That's partly because women stopped being seen as fallen if they had children out of wedlock.

Mike:  Well, this is the thing. There's a woman named Judith Stacy who writes a book called, Brave New Families, basically responding to this controversy and responding to the changing needs of the American family. By 1990, one in four women who have babies are single. Wow. It's a genuine social phenomenon, that there's far fewer traditional families in the country than there used to be. The right basically sees all of these single mothers, in themselves, as a problem. But then the left wing, the scholars, and the academics, point out that the real reason why there's so many more single mothers in America is because divorce got it a lot easier. 

Sarah: We used to have to establish a residency in Nevada or something like that. 

Mike: Yeah. Yeah. There's this great quote from Judith Stacy. She's talking about Dan Quayle. And she says, “Ignoring 20 years of economic decline, social neglect, and the erosion of public responsibility for collective needs, Mr. Quayle blames the greed, narcissism, and diversity of families for child neglect. He laments the possible ability that we're rearing the first generation of children who’s psychological wellbeing is worse than that of their parents. He fails to note, however, that these children are the first to be worse off economically than their own parents.”

Sarah: So it's all a diversion. It's a capitalist smokescreen, isn't it? It's a, oh my God. What's that behind you? 

Mike: This is what many people start pointing out, is that it is true that children of single mothers have higher dropout rates, and they get lower grades and they're more likely to be arrested as teens. And they're more likely to become teen moms. Every way that you measure the well-being of a person and success as a person, those statistics are almost all lower. And what Judith Stacy points out is that Dan Quayle wants to explain those poor outcomes through the singleness of the moms. So it's the mother's decision to raise kids as a single mom that is causing their children to get lower grades, to have higher dropout rates, et cetera. 

Sarah: And he's saying this is the only possible answer and not looking at what are the factors that correlate with single motherhood and what effects do those have on children.

Mike: And also what are the outcomes for rich single moms? None of those outcomes show up for rich single moms. So what they point out is that it's actually, Murphy Brown is not an example of a kid that's going to be deprived simply because their mom is single. That kid is going to be fine. The kid's going to have childcare. He's going to go to a good school.

Sarah: And he has a community of a whole cookie newsroom and a painter who lives in the house and is working on a mural for years.

Mike:  So if the outcomes for rich single moms aren't worse, then maybe it's not the singleness of the moms, maybe something else is causing the bad outcomes. There's also a really good argument about whether or not TV has caused this. So one of the things that Dan Quayle is blaming for the decline of the traditional family is that TV shows glamorize single parents. There's a lot more single parents on TV and that's actually true.

Sarah: But is that because TV is trying to represent real life or because real life is trying to represent TV.

Mike: This is the thing, in the 1950s, only 12% of TV families had single heads of household. And by the 1980s, 45% of the families on TV had single parents.

Sarah: Yeah, I feel like that was pretty typical of the sitcoms that I grew up with.  I did not have a lot of friends whose parents were married to each other. That was just the world as it was. And the idea that like Murphy Brown is encouraging single motherhood by glamorizing it's like, I think it reveals a lot about what you think TV is for. Because I know that this idea of, if we depict wholesome families, then people will want to emulate those wholesome families. And that's why we do it. And it's like, so you think that people find their way through the world by looking at positive role models and then emulating that and it doesn't matter what resources they're offered because they choose what they want to be and then they be that. And it's not that you have to give them the opportunities and the skills to do the thing that you want them to do or the thing that's healthiest for them.

Mike: Yeah. What's really interesting is it's actually true that there were more single parents on TV than there were in the U S population. However, the majority of the single parents on TV were men. It was all single dads, right? 

Sarah: Like, Hello, Larry. 

Mike: Exactly. When you talk about all of these single parents glamorizing single parents, it's like mostly dudes. 

Sarah: Oh. And Full House. That was a show that was like 45 single dads and she's 60 children. 

Mike: Totally. Yes. I found a list. 

Sarah: My Two Dads, two single dads. Yeah. Hollywood was dad crazy. 

Mike: Punky Brewster, Silver Spoons, St. Elsewhere, Double Trouble, Empty Nest. They also mentioned that in Baywatch, David Hasselhoff had a kid as a single dad. And also, they also mentioned Smurfs. And what's really interesting. And what a lot of scholars have pointed out since then, is that the real distortion of the family on TV is that the vast majority of TV families are harmonious. 

Sarah: Yes. Well, yeah.

Mike: They've done studies on it. 

Sarah: Yes. Most families in real life are dysfunctional and scary, at least in some regards.

Mike: There's a lot of divorced parents on TV's sitcoms, but they never get divorced during the sit-com. Right. It's always beforehand.

Sarah: Right. And they never sue each other. And there's never a custody dispute that ends in kidnapping.

Mike:  Exactly. The Brady Bunch, it’s always divorced parents or widowed parents, but they're back together. None of the heartbreak happens in the show, it's all before the show and everything is all hunky dory when the show is on. 

Sarah: Right. Mrs. Brady is arguably the first main character or maybe the first sitcom mom to be divorced, but we don't know because they don't say what happened to her husband. They could've gotten divorced, or he could have died. So I think it was like a soft intro to that idea and that was in the late sixties. 

Mike: And so there's more non-traditional families, but they're happy families, right? The argument, I guess, of the Dan Quayles of the world would say the problem is that you've got single parents and happy families, which gives the message that it's possible to be happy and raise well-adjusted kids in single parent households and that is bad. What do you think about that? 

Sarah: Well, I think that's really, to me still missing the point because the problem is, I don't think that the health of a family is decided by the configuration of adults or parental figures in it, I think that it's decided by, are these people emotionally healthy? Are they getting adequate financial and emotional resources? And are they not being asked to do an impossible amount of labor in order to both support themselves financially and take care of their children? 

And I think that to me, the big issue is that, in America, being a parent is incredibly difficult and there's no institutional support for you or almost none. Daycare is incredibly expensive. Prenatal care is inaccessible for a huge number of women. America creates traumatized populations and trauma makes it harder to be a parent. We're a country where it's incredibly hard to survive financially and emotionally. I don't think there's anything wrong with having a child without a partner to raise it with if you're capable of doing so, I just think that's something that people don't often have the luxury of choosing for themselves. And the reasons for people having inadequate resources for parenting are, I think, tied to factors that often also are the cause for people parenting as single parents, but single parenting is not the ill from which those symptoms descend. It's the fact that American society does not support parents or families.

Mike: And what a lot of studies point out at the time is that all of these poor outcomes for the children of single parents don't show up in other countries, right? German single moms, their kids aren't going to jail at higher rates. 

Sarah: I bet they're great. I want to be a German single mom when I grow up. 

Mike: Well, they have free healthcare, and you get months off of work when you have a baby and there's free daycare. There are all these other supports in your life. And so it's not that the morals of American women have fallen during this point. 

Sarah: No we’re all whores. It’s whoredom that's the problem. It's not capitalism, it's whores.

Mike: That would have been a  shorter speech. You know, one of the things that's really interesting is Dan Quayle and other people sort of in the Republican party at the time, they keep talking about how support for traditional families is falling.

Sarah:  And that's bad. 

Mike: And you know, they're correct in that, you know, there's something called a family values survey that I think it's Gallup or somebody does every year. And they asked, what do you think about drugs? What do you think about parenting? Whatever. In that data that they're using, there isn't evidence that there's more 16 year old’s being, I want to have a baby immediately. What it really is there's less intolerance for non-traditional families. 

Sarah: Right. So we've lost our wonderful intolerance with which we keep people in line. How will people know the correct way to behave unless they're being shamed continually?

Mike: There's a falling social stigma against single parents who are doing their best and trying their hardest.

Sarah:  People are less likely to be ostracized now and that's bad. Yeah, the more I think about it it’s like, why did we make fun of Dan Quayle for misspelling the word potato, when we should've made fun of him for arguments like this one.

Mike:  Tagline. Yes. 

Sarah: Right. It's like, you know what the most memorable thing about this guy is? The way he thought the word potato was spelled. 

Mike: You know, speaking of Dan Quayle’s moral turpitude.

Sarah:  I'd say moral vacuum, more than anything, go on.

Mike: After the speech he doubles down. One of the things that they learn is that most of the country doesn't like this stuff. Most of the country doesn't love Dan Quayle. The Christian right loves it. So Dan Quayle's job in this campaign essentially becomes to go around to Pro-life conferences, to Southern Baptist conventions, and just give the same speech over and over again.

Sarah: So this is like his Free Bird. They're like, do the Murphy Brown speech!

Mike: Essentially, he tweaks the message a little bit over the months. This is where we get all this stuff about cultural elites, ivory towers. He goes to the Southern Baptist convention, and he talks about how traditional families are under attack. And he talks about how the Hollywood elite believes that moral truths are relative, and all lifestyles are equal. “They seem to think that the family is an arbitrary arrangement of people who decide to live under the same roof. That fathers are dispensable and that parents need not be married or even opposite sexes.”

Sarah:  Would you like to talk about ways to make fathers better able at childcare? Because a lot of them don't do that and they are irrelevant to households in which they're either a dead weight or emotionally unhealthy. 

Mike:  Yes. This one sound I keep making when reading all that stuff. He basically creates the values voter in the next six months. 

Sarah: Wow. So these are crucial times.

Mike:  It really is because what you see is that, later on, this technique becomes the template for every future campaign. So what happened to this campaign, obviously they lost in 1992, as we know.

Sarah:  Spoiler. 

Mike: But all of the research shows that the message was resonating, but the messenger wasn't okay. If Dan Quayle hadn't been so disliked by the American public, these messages would have worked. This creates the Karl Rove's strategy that we got in 2000 where you don't go after the median voter anymore. What you do is you go for the people that are going to vote for you anyway, and you try to boost turnout. 

And this is what Dan Quayle's little experiment in 1992 demonstrates. You have to find issues that will get them to turn out, right? So this is how we get gay marriage and abortion and all these other cultural non-economic, non-bread and butter issues becoming central to political campaigns.

Sarah: You can just see the wheels turning for the GOP. One of the first little political golems they made. Okay, that wasn't perfect. But that was a pretty good prototype, like 70%. A better messenger next time, you know, we're learning things.

Mike:  And of course, Clinton and Gore completely accepted this framing. So there's been these academic analyses of what happened in the 1992 election. What one researcher points out is that all of the rhetoric, Republican, Democrat, and Perot, have the same three assumptions. First African-Americans already have equal opportunities to get ahead. 

Sarah: Sure. 

Mike: There's good black people and bad black people. And we have to punish the bad ones and we have to lift up the good ones. There's never any mixing between  the two. 

Sarah: And we can lift up the good ones by destroying the lives of the quote unquote bad ones. That's key. 

Mike: Yeah. And black people who respond with anger to anything going on in their communities…

Sarah:  Ever. 

Mike: Are completely vilified.

Sarah: And you can never get angry or else you reveal yourself as a monster or an animal.

Mike: Yes. And these are the three assumptions, the three bi-partisan messages that lead us to the end of affirmative action welfare reform, super predators. All of this swirling bullshit solidifies into the next 20 years of political life. And so it was the first time that marriage was proposed as an anti-poverty plan. It was the first time the Republican National Convention used family values as a theme of one of the nights. 

Sarah: Really?

Mike:  Yes.

Sarah:  It's amazing how much we take for granted as bread and butter American politics, is new.  It's more recent than Pretty Woman

Mike: Yeah, exactly. But this stuff was all constructed and this is the prototype of a successful strategy.

Sarah:  So I have this mental image of the sort of current Republican strategy that's the Excalibur buried in the rock. And Dan Quayle is the pure fool who can pull the sword from the stone. Because I can totally believe that he said all this in good faith. And you're like, you know, Dan Quayle, I don't believe you to be very good at reasoning. Sure. I believe that you believe this. It means that you shouldn't be holding public office, but if you were a private citizen who had these thoughts you could say, all right. You're completely missing the point, but I don't think you have the capacity to understand it. So just as long as you're not in charge of anything big and important, it should be fine. And unfortunately, he was the vice president, so that's too bad. 

Mike: And so the last gasp of this.

Sarah:  Murphy Brown had a beautiful baby. 

Mike: Well, there's that, but then also she does an episode six months later called Murphy's Revenge, where it's a pretty good idea, right? Because the name of the show is also the name of the main character. So they can use the footage of Dan Quayle criticizing Murphy Brown the show, and pretend that it's him criticizing the newscaster, Murphy Brown. 

Sarah: That's really smart. Wow. I love that they did that. 

Mike: It’s fun. Yes. And so there's this whole thing where they're pretending that Dan Quayle criticized the newscaster for having a baby and Murphy Brown of course gives a nice little clap back to all of this. And she says on the air, on the show, “These are difficult times for our country and in searching for the causes of our social ills, we could choose to blame the media, or the Congress, or an administration that's been in power for 12 years, or we could blame me.”

Sarah:  And Murphy Brown is the voice of reason in America in 1992.

Mike: Finally, although, of course, all of this stuff about the LA riots has completely been forgotten at this point. It's all about the attack on single mothers and I, a wealthy newscast, am perfectly within my rights to have a baby, which she is completely correct about. But they never really cover like urban poverty stuff.

Sarah: Yeah. Well, Murphy Brown was limited in its range. Unfortunately. 

Mike: So when this episode airs in September, a couple of months later, he goes to a hostel for single mothers, a sort of charity organization for single mothers. So he watches it there. And then  he's trying to do like a photo op he's trying to, whatever, trying to capture the moment back. It doesn't work, obviously it's super cynical. And then afterwards he still stands by it. So afterwards he's interviewed, what did you think of the episode? And he says Hollywood doesn't get it. I was never criticizing single mothers.

Sarah:  Dan, they literally played back footage of you to yourself. Are you the guy from memento? 

Mike: You know, I wanted a nice little epilogue for Dan Quayle that he learned things.

Sarah:  Some of our people don't learn stuff and that's okay. What did he do? What happened? 

Mike: He now works at a private equity firm and he's on the company boards. He did exactly what you would expect him to do. He also, did you know that he ran for president in 2000? 

Sarah: Oh yeah. I do remember that, actually. He dropped out fairly early, right?

Mike: He came in eight in one of the early contests.

Sarah: I find it really interesting that Dan Quayle, eight years after leaving the white house, was like, I think that America wants more of Dan Quayle. Knowing what his approval ratings had been and knowing what the experience had been like for him, he went for it again.

Mike: And you'd think that he would just fade into nothingness like a deadbeat dad. But he's kept coming back.

Sarah:  Like a stalker dad.

Mike:  Yeah. That's about it. Like I said, I disliked Dan Quayle a lot more than I used to. 

Sarah: Yeah. I don't dislike him more, but I'm more saddened by all of the darkness that he brought into our country's political arena.

Mike: Yeah. It's really depressing to see the genesis of these extremely cynical arguments.

Sarah:  Right. Yes. It's like the opening of Alien where the fetus gets smuggled back into the ship and bursts out of someone's chest and skitters away. You're like, well, I don't think that's going in a good direction, but let's just try and calm down and recover for a while and see what it comes back as, exactly. So Dan Quayle and Lee Atwater were two of the primary engineers of the world we now live in. Two guys who look like 45 year old Boy Scouts.

Mike: Do you have any closing thoughts? What did you learn?

Sarah:  I learned that Murphy brown was framed. Murphy Brown is innocent. 

Mike: The saddest thing about it is that I don't think it was a deliberate attempt to distract from the legacy of the LA riots, but that was the effect of it. 

Sarah: Right. Because if you don't believe that it was because of systematic racism and injustice and abuse and police violence, then you don't think it's cynical and terrible to focus on Murphy Brown, who you truly believe to be, you know, closer to the root problem.

Mike: And instead of talking about anything that actually explained the LA riots, we spent months in a debate about single parents, generally. 

Sarah: Yeah. He was criticizing single black mothers, a whole slice of humanity. And we were like, how dare you say that about the show that we watch.

Mike: Exactly. Like how dare you criticize this white, professional, six-figure income lady.

Sarah:  It's like today, if someone delivered a horrible speech about just violent and dangerous migrants in the caravan and the coyotes and so forth. And they’re like, and by the way, Game of Thrones is also a bad influence on our society anyway. And people were like, how dare you say that about Game of Thrones, sir. That is the thing that we are revealing ourselves to be more attached to emotionally.