POLITICS MARCH 12, 1990
Last December the vice president traveled to New York to deliver a speech at Yeshiva University. He began with references to Albert Einstein and the Talmud, analyzed an excerpt from George Washington's 1790 letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, and announced a crusade to repeal the United Nation's "Zionism is racism" resolution before closing with an anecdote about meeting Elie Wiesel. Asked how he would like to be remembered by Jewish history, Quayle told Wiesel, "I would like to he remembered as a Ghristian who helped make Israel more secure, and who helped make the world a little more tolerant."
The speech went over brilliantly. No one belabored the point that the Talmud isn't Quayle's, or any otherpolitician's, bedside reading. I he vice president got a prolonged standing ovation, and solidified his favorwith Jewish groups. In a New York Times column that is the single most favorable piece of publicity Quayle has received since taking office, A. M. Rosenthal wrote that Quayle had "honored his country, himself, the supportive Bush-Baker diplomacy—and given the nations a chance to undo a great wrong."
For one still struggling to overcome Jay Leno's jokes on "The Tonight Show," the speech was aminor coup. Those familiar with the workings of Quayle's office immediately credited Bill Kristol,his bright, young chief of staff. Though Quayle has long been unswervingly pro-Israel, the speech had Kristol's fingerprints all over it. Speaking at Yeshiva on Human Rights Day, focusing on "Zionism is racism," arguing that anti-Zionism is a cloak for anti-Semitism, and quoting Jeane Kirkpatrick on the L.N,'s loss of moral authority are all hallmarks of the neoconservative milieu in which Kristol is steeped. Though the intellectual sophistication and political savvy he has brought to the vice president's office have yet to make Quayle a credible talmudist, Kristol shows signs of progress in the difficult task of winning him the respect of his peers and the public.
Son of the writer Irving Kristol and the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, Kristol began bridging theworlds of politics and academe early in his career. When he was still a Harvard undergraduate with libertarian leanings, he interned in the White House office of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a colleague of his father's from The Public Interest, who was then advising Nixon on urban policy. Remaining at Harvard for a Ph.D., he wrote an impressive dissertation on the role of the courts in the American Constitution under the guidance of Harvey Mansfield, who initiated him into the mysteries of Leo Strauss, the conservative political theorist whose disciples also include Games Lord, Quayle's foreign policy adviser. (Kristol considers himself a Straussian as well as a neoconservative.) After several years teaching political philosophy, in 1985 Kristol accepted an offer to serve as special assistant to Secretary of Education William Bennett, whose appointment Kristol's parents had lobbied for.
In less than five months, Kristol became Bennett's chief of staff. At Education, his conservatism acquireda New Right patina: he became a strenuous opponent of abortion, school-based birth control clinics, andAIDS education promoting the use of condoms. He forged links with supporters of family values, such asEducation Undersecretary Gary Bauer, who later became Reagan's chief domestic policy adviser, and directed the drafting of the secretary's crusading speeches in favor of school prayer and against value-neutral education. At the time he told The Washington Post he saw the point of the office as "not to humquietly," but "to change the world out there." Despite his ideological zeal, however, Kristol acted as a restraining influence on Bennett's tendency to rage unproductively on his opponents, and was widely credited with increasing his boss's effectiveness.
Kristol left Education in 1988 to manage the campaign of his college roommate and fellow StraussianAlan Keyes, who ran against Maryland Senator Paul Sarbanes. Keyes got creamed, but after the electionKristol appeared, at age thirty-six, as one of the most eligible conservative political hands in Washington.Bennett, who had not yet been appointed drug czar, wanted Kristol wherever he ended up. Jack Kemp offered him a job at HUD. White House chief of staff John Sununu proffered the directorship of the Economic Policy Council. And Quayle, on the recommendation of Ken Adelman, former head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, pushed Kristol to become his chief domestic policy adviser.
Kristol took the Quayle job against the advice of friends who were unimpressed with the vice president and thought the perch an unlikely one from which to influence administration policy. Kristol saw an opportunity to promote conservative ideas in working for someone who he was convinced wanted to be an "activist" vice president. He began working on speeches but was soon picking up odds and ends that were falling through the cracks, revealing himself to be more capable than chief of staff Robert Guttman. Once again, Kristol was promoted to run the office within a few months. It is a mark of his career to date that he has advanced speedily without creating ill will. Even Guttman, whom some say Kristol steamrollered, has only praise for him. "It was not my kind of job," Guttman insists.
Since becoming chief of staff in May, Kristol admits to becoming more of a practical politician. "I'm still anactivist by temperament and by conviction," he says. "But I may be a little mote patient, as anyone would be who had been in this town five years and gotten a little bit older." Unlike many academics who make the transition to government, Kristol has become as adept at negotiation and strategy as he is at issues and specifics. Budget director Richard Darman likens him in this respect to Henry Kissinger and Moynihan, two other academics who have flourished in politics. Even before he became chief of staff, Kristol was invited to attend the daily 7:30 a.m. White House senior staff meeting in Guttman's place. At the morning meeting, Darman says he "is treated with a great deal of respect by the other people at the table." Kristol is creative, thoughtful, and likable, Darman says, and "has a good sense of the importance of ideas and especially original ideas in the advancement of his principles."
Sununu likes Kristol as much as Darman does and considers him a conservative ally at a table of wets."He's not just there because of his position," says the chief of staff, who makes a point of calling on Kristol at the morning meeting, and calling him back into his office for advice throughout the day, and often late into the evening. Through his closeness to Sununu, Kristol has become influential on a range of domestic policy issues, including the White House's legislative strategy on the minimum-wage hike and its proposed tax-credit alternative to the ABC Child Care bill now before Congress. The vice president's chief of staff ordinarily wouldn't be involved in issues like these.
Kristol's basic strategy is to carve out a number of niches for Quayle to occupy. He wants the vicepresident to handle a few selected issues quietly and well, without taking unnecessary risks. Andso far that's exactly what Quayle has tried to do. As head of the Space Council, he has played a key role in winning the president's backing for a manned mission to Mars, and for the space program in general. Kristol's good relations with Darman are probably responsible, at least inpart, for NASA's twenty-four percent increase in Bush's proposed 199! budget. "Quayle has done a surprisingly good job," says Bruce Murray, a liberal scientist who recently attended a dinner at the vice president's home to talk about space policy. "He's gone from a flat-footed non-start to figuring out what to do in a few months."
As head of the U.S. Competitiveness Council, Quayle gets similarly good reviews for his recent efforts onbehalf of a product liability reform bill sponsored by Senator Robert Kasten of Wisconsin. Business leaders were pleased that Quayle (or Kristol) got the issue mentioned in the president's State of the Union address. "There is now a sense that Quayle is a force to be reckoned with within the administration." says Bauer, now head of a conservative group called the Family Research Council. "Eventually that will trickle down." Or as Kristol puts it: "As more people meet him in these kinds of contexts they see someone who is very unlike some of the caricatures."
An important test for Quayle was the attempted coup in the Philippines, which took place in December when Bush was 30,000 feet in the air on his way to the Malta summit. Quayle had to run the meeting in the White House situation room. The vice president effected a rapid consensus among national security adviser Brent Scowcroft, Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell, Assistant Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, and CIA Deputy Director Robert Gates about how to respond to President Aquino's request for military assistance. He didn't do anything more than was required, but according to an official, Quayle's competent management of the crisis until 5 a.m, won the respect of those at the meeting who previously had doubts about him.
Kristol thinks that word of Quayle's competence is bound to spread once it has solidified within the WhiteHouse. "The key thing in the first year was to establish himself as an important player within the administration and on the Hill," says Kristol. "The second-level audience it was important to pay a lot of attention to was the Republican Party. The third circle is the public. If you had people in the West Wing today who were saying Dan Quayle's not a player, he's not involved, he's not influential, all the greatest p.r. in the world wouldn't work because it would be totally undercut."
It's a nice theory, but can Quayle really do anything about his pathetic twenty-nine percent public approval rating? "The fact that we have not made huge progress on the public image front yet is neither asurprise nor particularly disturbing," Kristol says. He thinks the vice president's image will gain this year, as Quayle improves his television skills with coaching from Roger Ailes and travels around the country to campaign for Republican candidates. But there are limits to what even a Roger Ailes can do for Dan Quayle. Appearing on "This Week with David Brinkley" from Panama after the invasion, Quayle looked as glazed as ever and barely made sense. "I'm convinced that the president's correct and courageous decision to do what he had to do in Panama will not be of long-term consequences in a negative sense," was the best defense of the operation he could muster. Kristol is honest with Quayle about his problemswith television—he told him that he should have practiced more before going on the Brinkley show—butit's an open question whether Quayle can convince the public to take him more seriously without taking some dramatic step.
For this reason, some prominent Republicans believe Kristol should steer the veep on a more aggressivecourse. They want Quayle to dispel his bimbo image by choosing a target and showing some teeth, SpiroAgnew-slyle. "He was burned so badly in the campaign that he's programmed for caution," says one conservative consultant. "He's decided if he doesn't screw up he'll be on the ticket in '92. Kristol's job is to get him to take some chances." Ultimately, this source argues, Kristol himself will be judged by whether he comes up with a few winning plays that transform Quayle's reputation, rather than by how many calls he returns. Bauer too thinks "an old-fashioned donnybrook in which you hold your ground and look serious" might be just the ticket for the vice president. Kristol, however, disagrees. Along with Darman and Sununu, he thinks that Quayle stands to do his image more harm than good if he takes a hazardous dive and belly-flops.
For Quayle, the situation may be no-win. But for Kristol, it's almost no-lose. When the veep gaffes orstumbles, most people take it as confirmation of what they already think: he's dumb. By the same token, when Quayle does something well, they assume that somebody else must be responsible. The insiders Quayle wishes to cultivate look behind the scenes, where they discover Bill Kristol, the clever aide to whom they can award credit. Capable, well-liked, and helpful to the press, Kristol fits the billing of Quayle's master-minder perfectly. Darman and Secretary of State James Baker benefited from a similar dynamic under Reagan. Unwilling to believe that the president was possessed of any intelligence or acuity, reporters portrayed his advisers as the invisible hands working the puppet strings.
Moreover, Kristol knows how to distance himself from the vice president if the situation becomes trulyhopeless. He has made clear to friends that he is not wedded to Quayle's ambitions. Come 1996, Kristolmight be fbund working fot <andidate Kemp or candidate Bennett against candidate Quayle. But if Quayle by some weird fluke does become- president and Kristol stays on as his top deputy, the joke will surely be told, as it was of Sherman Adams, chief of staff in Eisenhower's day: God forbid that Bill Kristol should someday die and Dan Quayle become our president.
By Jacob Weisberg