We long ago lost track of Dan Quayle’s whereabouts, but we hope he’s on a golf course enjoying a cocktail and a slight chuckle of sweet vindication.
For the benefit of younger readers, we should explain that Quayle served as Vice President of the United States during the late 20th Century and was best known for having once misspelled the word “potato.” The incident occurred at a public school spelling bee, where Quayle affixed an extraneous “e” to the end of the word when reading it off an incorrect card provided by the professional educators who had organized the event, and it was endlessly replayed in the news, on late night comedy shows, and in countless conversations. Ensuing widespread ridicule, much of it coming from people who would go on to spend the internet age calling one another “loosers” on astoundingly illiterate comment boards, effectively ended Quayle’s career in public life. A few apologists for Quayle argued that it could have happened to anyone whose every public utterance is being videotaped for posterity, but they could not dissuade the public from the media’s aggressively promulgated view that Quayle was the dumbest person who ever lived.
This vaguely-remembered chapter in American history was brought to mind last Thursday when President Barack Obama, once touted by the very same media as the most brilliant person who ever lived, publicly misspelled the word “respect.” The incident occurred at a White House tribute to the great soul singer Aretha Franklin when Obama made reference to her classic hit “R-S-P-E-C-T,” leaving out the same “e” that Quayle had inadvertently added to “potato.” Lexicographers will find both errors equally objectionable, although we think Obama’s is more egregious because it not only got the title of a fine soul song wrong but left out of the mnemonic notes..
Obama’s many apologists will argue that it could have happened to anyone whose every public utterance is being videotaped for posterity, and they will have a point, but there’s no need for it. The gaffe will not be endlessly replayed on the news, the late night comics won’t heap on ridicule, the internet conversationalists will concede they don’t know how to spell the word, and the president’s critics will find more substantive examples of why the president is the dumbest person who ever lived. Like the president’s numerous other comic malapropisms, ranging from the 57 states that he’d claimed to have visited to his apology to Austria for not speaking Austrian to his morbid pronunciation of “corpsman,” and other similar non-teleprompted howlers uttered with a frequency George W. Bush himself could not keep up with, this inconsequential error will be politely overlooked.
Still, the incident is worth at least briefly noting. There’s the galling double standard regarding how such gaffes are treated when made by a Democrat such as Obama rather than a Republican such as Quayle, for one thing, and this should be more widely recognized the public. That same double standard applies to the news and entertainment media coverage of far more important matters, and the public has often fallen for similar unfair accounts of who is stupid and who brilliant.
Former Alaska governor and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin was even more effectively ridiculed to the margins of public life than was Quayle, and her public prediction that Obama’s weakness would provoke Russian President Vladimir Putin to invade the Ukraine was offered as proof as her extraordinary stupidity. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s claim that Russia was a “geo-political foe” elicited the same sort of snickers, along with the sneering conclusion that the right was still stuck in an outdated Cold War mindset that had been oh-so-jingoistic and gauche in the first place. Contrasted with sophisticated and nuanced view that all the world’s problems had been Bush’s fault and that electing a more apologetic person of a darker hue would immediately set things right, the Republicans naturally seemed quite ridiculous to an electoral majority in the past two presidential elections.
The consequences of this deception are now clear even to such formerly reliable Obama supporters as The New Republic, which has come around to warn that Obama must “respond intellectually” to Putin’s predicted incursion into Ukraine. The magazine’s criticisms are carefully phrased, but basically it argues that Obama should stop regarding Putin as an insufficiently placated potential friend and start regarding him as a geo-political foe. A headline writer at The Boston Herald goes even further, conceding that “Romney was Right.” Meanwhile, over at The New York Times, which once reacted to Obama’s habit of saying “you and I” even when “you and me” is called for by attempting to re-write the time-honored rules of grammar on his behalf, their snarkiest columnist is even making snide reference to the “R-S-P-E-C-T” blunder to launch into the bigger blunders on the world stage. When a Democratic president’s mistakes are so catastrophic that such sympathetic media are forced to acknowledge it, something is seriously awry.
Excuses will eventually be made, of course, and in the end it will all be nothing more than an opportunity remind a forgetful public how that stupid Dan Quayle once misspelled the word “potato.” Here’s hoping that somehow things work out in the Ukraine and Iran and the islands of the Pacific and the American economy and all the other places where the American public was assured of who’s stupid and who’s brilliant, but we also hope that Palin and Quayle can share a cold cocktail on a warm golf course somewhere and share that satisfying chuckle of vindication.
— Bud Norman