Share This Page

The wisdom of Dan Quayle

| Thursday, March 28, 2013, 8:55 p.m.

Almost exactly 20 years ago, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead wrote a controversial essay for The Atlantic titled “Dan Quayle Was Right.”

In case you forgot (or never knew), let me fill you in on what Quayle was right about.

There once was a popular sitcom called “Murphy Brown.” The title character was a news anchor. The show had its moments, but it was also insufferably pleased with itself and its liberalism.

Murphy Brown was rich, powerful and independent. In a 1992 episode, she got pregnant and decided to have the baby, without a husband or, as so many say today, a “partner.” On May 19, 1992, then-Vice President Dan Quayle delivered a speech in response to the riots in Los Angeles that month, and he placed a heavy emphasis on the breakdown of the black family — sounding a bit like Barack Obama today.

Quayle mentioned “Murphy Brown” once. “Bearing babies irresponsibly is simply wrong. Failing to support children one has fathered is wrong, and we must be unequivocal about this. It doesn't help matters when prime-time TV has Murphy Brown, a character who supposedly epitomizes today's intelligent, highly paid, professional woman, mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.”

Feminists, Hollywood bigmouths and the usual suspects went ballistic. “Murphy Brown's” producers wrote a show in which Brown said, “Perhaps it's time for the vice president to expand his definition and recognize that, whether by choice or circumstance, families come in all shapes and sizes.”

Quayle, of course, never said that families don't come in all shapes and sizes. What he said was that children raised by married, responsible parents do better than those who aren't. And that's where Whitehead came in. Marshaling the still-gelling social science at the time, she put numbers behind Quayle's assertions.

Back then, Whitehead's essay was heretical. Today, it's conventional wisdom. Last year, Isabel Sawhill, a widely respected liberal economist at the Brookings Institution, wrote an op-ed article for The Washington Post titled “20 years later, it turns out Dan Quayle was right about Murphy Brown and unmarried moms.”

Sawhill noted that kids raised by married parents simply do better. They do better academically and are less likely to get arrested, get pregnant or commit suicide. They're also much less likely to be poor or stay poor.

None of these claims are particularly controversial among social scientists. And none of this is particularly aimed at gay marriage, pretty much the only kind of marriage liberal elites want to celebrate now.

But where Quayle was wrong — though only partially — was putting the blame on Hollywood.

The black family was falling apart decades before “Murphy Brown.” And since then, the white family has been breaking down.

I don't know why marriage for all but the well-off and well educated continues to disintegrate; maybe it would help if elites “preached what they practiced,” to borrow a phrase from Charles Murray. Forbes writer Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry notes that being married correlates about as positively with a person's wages as going to college does. But experts hammer the importance of college while ignoring marriage.

Maybe after the debate over gay marriage settles down, elites could focus on the far more pressing marriage crisis unfolding before their eyes.

Jonah Goldberg is the author of the new book “The Tyranny of Clichés.”

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.