By now it’s a story known to every schoolchild with one or more parents: On May 19, Vice President Dan Quayle gave a speech to the conservative Commonwealth Club of California in which he blamed the Los Angeles riots on the breakdown of American family values and said, ”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.”’
This one sentence about a popular character, in a speech that was otherwise concerned with election-year boilerplate about the ”dismantling” of the welfare system, sparked a media fire storm. Quayle-bashes-Murphy dominated everything from editorial pages to talk-show monologues for days. A Quayle spokesman later disclosed that the Vice President hasn’t seen Murphy Brown — indeed, the last show he followed regularly was Perry Mason.
So Quayle never watches Murphy but he was willing to recite a line crafted by his writers attacking it; this makes him as much of an actor as Candice Bergen. (Similar styles, too: They both have a tendency to become a little wooden and strident when they ”do” self-righteous anger.)
At first, Quayle’s Scud bombing of Murphy Brown seemed to be little more than the occasion for chuckles and humorous speculation. Like: Would Quayle be appeased if Murphy gave up her fatherless child to Major Dad, to be raised by a proper sitcom family? And if Quayle truly worries about the preservation of ”family values,” shouldn’t he and wife Marilyn feel obliged to adopt all the Beverly Hills 90210 teenagers? Those rich brats are always in a moral jam and could use some of the discipline the Quayles are so vocal in promoting. When Quayle blasted ”the media elite and Hollywood,” he sounded like a Spiro Agnew for the ’90s, a vice president who had turned into the rampaging id of his political party, expressing its darkest thoughts and drawing TV-camera heat.
Whether attacking or defending television, everyone, it seems, speaks in TV talk. When Ross Perot wanted to describe the Murphy-Quayle dustup, he reached for David Letterman’s favorite adjective: ”goofy.” Jerry Brown said the incident proves that ”presidential politics is a big Gong Show,” thereby pinpointing his pop-culture frame of reference: the ’70s, when that Chuck Barris game show and Linda Ronstadt dominated the biz.
Dan Quayle’s spleen venting about the way Murphy Brown subverts family values is only the most direct expression to date of a notion that has gained in intensity over the past decade — that TV has some sort of obligation to present only ”positive” examples of family life, that any portrayal of something other than the happy nuclear clan is detrimental to our American way of life.
But TV isn’t an arm of social policy or government propaganda; it has no more responsibility to be upbeat and positive than do, say, poetry or the theater. And as one democratic capitalist to another, Dan, I am shocked you’re not behind Murphy, a top-rated show making a big profit for CBS and its sponsors.
The fact is, for every edgy Murphy Brown, there’s a nice, supportive Coach; for all the dippy Dinosaurs, there’s the arctic intelligence of Northern Exposure. TV may serve up hot controversies, but it’s an easy-bake oven, always coming up with a fresh batch of warm entertainment-cookies. Someone pour Quayle a glass of cold milk, please.