JAMES DANFORTH QUAYLE, III, "MURPHY BROWN SPEECH"
(19 MAY 1992)
Jill M. Weber
In late April
1992, Americans witnessed the worst domestic rioting since the turbulent days
of the late 1960s. In
protest of the verdict in the Rodney King case, in which four white police
officers were acquitted of beating a black motorist, hundreds of Blacks took to
the streets of
In May, Vice-President
Dan Quayle became the Bush administration's point man on the riots. Adopting
the tone of a "right-wing media commentator," Quayle offered an
assessment of the riots, emphasizing the "poverty of values" in
In spite of the initial controversy, Quayle's "Murphy Brown Speech" served to inaugurate the Bush campaign's new emphasis on economic empowerment and family values. Over the next few years, "family values" would become a distinctively Republican issue, helping Bush little in the 1992 election, but eventually becoming a winning issue for many Republicans. Throughout the 1990s, polls generally showed that the majority of Americans viewed Republicans as better equipped to protect "family values" than their Democratic rivals.
Brown Speech" reveals how a vice-president tried to seize the political initiative
to advance his own political agenda. While the speech may have been ridiculed
at the time, it nevertheless inspired a debate over the family, welfare
policies, economic opportunity, and the role of government in social policy,
which continues to this day. Many remember Dan Quayle's "Murphy Brown Speech"
as a political "gaffe" that reinforced his reputation as a political
lightweight. In the long run, however, many concluded that Quayle had been "right"
about the problems of "family values" in
Quayle, III was born on
Quayle's career in public service began while he was in law school. In 1971, he worked as an investigator for the Consumer Protection Division of the Indiana Attorney General's Office and later that same year became an administrative assistant to Governor Edgar Whitcomb. From 1973-1974, he served as the Director of the Inheritance Tax Division of the Indiana Department of Revenue. In 1976, Quayle ran for the United States Congress on what he identified as a "somewhat populist campaign" that was anti-busing, anti-welfare, and anti-big government. Despite being a "candidate without credentials," the twenty-nine year old Republican candidate defeated the sixteen-year incumbent in a "huge upset victory" and went on to serve two terms in the House of Representatives.
Quayle's career as a representative, Richard Fenno suggests, disclosed a "basic clue to his later behavior--his conservatism." Fenno, who traces the development of Quayle's political career in The Making of a Senator, notes that Quayle's voting record in the House "reflected strong conservatism and an equally strong Republican party loyalty." Quayle advocated conservative values and accepted financial contributions and support from New Right organizations; still, the young politician was careful to distinguish himself from the far right of the party. According to Fenno, at the time, Quayle described himself as "somewhere between a moderate and a conservative" and as "a moderating influence on the far right groups." Quayle's voting record, however, cast doubt on his claim.
Quayle's conservatism became more apparent in his 1980 U.S. Senate race. Campaigning primarily as an "agent of an orthodox conservative philosophy," the young candidate promoted views that were "indistinguishable from those of his party's standard bearer, Ronald Reagan" and strategically negotiated his relationship with the New Right. Frenno, who worked closely with Quayle at the time, observed that Quayle remained an "arms length" away from the movement and promoted a "sympathetic but general" message to Christian groups. Quayle's attempts to present himself as a solid, but not-extremist conservative seemed to have appealed to both moderate and conservative voters. In another surprise victory, Quayle defeated the three-term incumbent and went on to serve two terms in the U.S. Senate where he established himself as a "fiscal and social conservative and a hard-liner on national defense."
Quayle's success is explained in part on his ability to make himself "acceptable to many independents and moderates" while "building on his base among conventional and Christian-right conservatives." Such attributes, James M. Perry and Jeffrey H. Birnbaum speculate in the August 17, 1988, Wall Street Journal, helped him gain the attention of presidential hopeful, Vice-President George H.W. Bush.  During the 1988 national election, Bush asked Quayle to join him on the ticket as his vice-presidential candidate. Quayle accepted his offer and in November 1988, the Bush-Quayle ticket won the election. In January the following year, at the age of 41, James Danforth Quayle, III took the oath of office as the 44th vice-president of the United States.
Though Quayle has seen great
success as a political candidate, he has been a controversial figure throughout
his political career. Fenno recounts two
Contextualizing the “Murphy Brown Speech”
Vice-President Quayle delivered his
"Address to the Commonwealth Club of California" on
The riots in south central
The Bush campaign was struggling with other issues as well. The riots, Mayer contends, also forced Bush to "prove that he cared" about those living in the inner city. Contesting accusations that the past two Republican administrations had "turned their backs on the cities," Bush argued that a decline in moral fiber and values was behind the riots. Similarly, press secretary Marlin Fitzwater argued that liberal social policies of the 1960s brought on the conditions for the riots. He explained: "Those who would try to come up with social programs that redistribute the wealth or that deal with the direct handouts, or create programs of the '60s and '70s, we believe are wrong." Consistent with the Bush campaigns' proposals, the administration called for reform in the welfare, justice, and education systems and placed an emphasis on family values. As Dan Blaz reported in the Washington Post in May, Bush emphasized "efforts to strengthen the family, the importance of providing opportunity and empowerment to inner-city residents, the limits of government and the need for greater personal responsibility on the part of all citizens, urban and suburban." Despite Bush's efforts to garner support for his administration and its policies, Smith suggests that he was "identified with a crisis in confidence in the nation's direction."
Vice-President Quayle took the lead
in the administration's efforts to justify its policies on poverty and race in
Interpreting the "Murphy Brown Speech"
vice-presidents "have had relatively little autonomy, and thus, relatively
little power," Denise M. Bostdorff has written. Forced
to remain subordinate to the president, vice-presidents typically are "controlled
completely by the scene" and dominated by the situation around them. In
his biography, Quayle suggests that the 1992 presidential campaign was one such
instance. He writes, "For the first time, I felt powerless. I knew in my
heart and in my mind that the campaign was seriously off track . . . ." Though
Quayle originally adhered to the campaign team's recommendations, he suggests
in his autobiography that the
Quayle began his speech by condemning the riots and the rioters. "Who is to blame for the riots?" he asked. "The rioters are to blame. Who is to blame for the killings? The killers are to blame" (10). Refusing to grant legitimacy to the rioters' anger over the King verdict, Quayle stated, "No matter how much you may disagree with the verdict, the riots were wrong" (10). Quayle's insistence that "there is simply no excuse for the mayhem" (10) revealed the Bush administration's intolerance for "lawless social anarchy" (12). However, Quayle's acknowledgement that "after condemning the riots, we do need to try to understand the underlying situation," suggested that the Bush administration also recognized that the rioters' may have had some legitimate grievances (11).
At a time when the Bush White House
and campaign team seemed "ideologically and strategically adrift,"
Quayle adopted a "time-honored Republican strategy": pit himself and
his party against those who allegedly scorn traditional conceptions of family,
religion, and patriotism. Initially
working outside the supervision of the President, Quayle laid the foundation
for a more aggressive "family values" campaign in his Commonwealth
Club address. Though he built his message upon the president's assertion that
the "major cause of the problems of the cities is the dissolution of the
family," Quayle more stridently highlighted the alleged connection between
family values and economic and social success. Insisting
that a "poverty of values" (23) was a predominant cause for the
lawlessness in the
Quayle's plan for "transforming
underclass culture" included maintaining law and order on the streets and
creating a different incentive system for the poor (25). According to Quayle,
the government needed to promote safety and "freedom from fear," and it
needed to get "control of the streets" (27). Assuming that Americans "all
agree the government's first obligation is to maintain order (26)," he
repeatedly assured the nation that he and the President were "for law and
order" (28) and identified anti-poverty programs as one way to assure
safety and security. The crux of effective anti-poverty programs, Quayle
insisted, was empowering individuals to break the cycle of poverty. Adopting a
more "staunchly conservative stance" than the president had taken,
Quayle insisted that a renewed commitment to "our Judeo-Christian values"
(40) would give the poor hope that they could seize the opportunities available
to them, which in turn would lead to stronger families and communities. He
asked all Americans to join the effort and "talk again" about family
values (40). Advancing his own political agenda, he invited a response. "So,
let the national debate roar on," he stated. "I,
for one, will join it. The President will lead it, the American public will
participate in it, and as a result, we will become an
even stronger nation" (44). Openly claiming family values as a Republican issue,
Quayle had found a cause that he believed would galvanize conservative support
and appeal to
Quayle's solution to the "poverty of values" was to give the poor an economic stake in their communities (23). He claimed that Bush's "empowerment agenda" (43) would help the poor "move from permanent dependence to dignified independence" (41) by giving them the strength to help themselves. However, critics complained that in describing how his plan would restore family values, Quayle implicitly reinforced negative class and racial stereotypes. For example, Quayle used the term "underclass" to describe a group whose members remained dependent on welfare for "long stretches of time" and whose young men were "often drawn into lives of crime" (18). Claiming that the underclass defied the "rules of American society" (18) and suffered from a "welfare ethos (12)," Quayle perpetuated a cultural myth that, in his critics' view, cast the poor as victims of their "own decimated family structure and failed morals." Adding that these problems were "particularly acute for African Americans (18)," Quayle perpetuated racialized images of poverty and, according to his critics, reinforced the negative stereotype of "blacks as lazy."
Quayle, however, did not place all
the blame on the poor themselves. In the most notorious line of the speech, he
pointed to the cultural elite's role in perpetuating the breakdown of American
values by singling out a famous TV character: "It doesn't help matters
when primetime 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" (38).
Although Quayle later claimed that he included the reference because he was "bothered
by all the cute glamour" surrounding Murphy Brown's pregnancy, Dana Cloud has speculated that he
deliberately attacked Brown "in order to insure media attention to an
otherwise obscure speech." William
L. Benoit and K. Kerby Anderson also have documented
the comment's success in attracting media attention to his speech, noting how
quickly journalists "leaped on Quayle's attempt to blame a fictional
character for society's ills." Yet
whatever Quayle's motives, the speech quickly became known as "The Murphy
Brown Speech," focusing attention on the vice-president's criticisms of
Over the next few days, Quayle
continued to come under fire. Some news outlets, like USA Today, accused Quayle
of invoking racial politics as a means to "shift responsibility from
government and its programs to individual morality." Others
portrayed the speech as Quayle's latest political blunder. Focusing on the White
House's hesitation to endorse Quayle's critique of Brown, the Boston Globe highlighted the President's
attempts to distance himself from Quayle's attack. On
Over the next six weeks, Quayle continued to lash out against the "cultural elites" who, he claimed, "respect neither tradition nor standards." In a sequel to his "Murphy Brown Speech," delivered to the Southern Baptists Convention in June, Quayle illustrated how the cultural elites had broken from traditional middle-class ideals. He said: "They believe that moral truths are relative and all 'lifestyles' are equal. They seem to think 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 of opposite sexes. They are wrong." These attacks attracted still more media attention, with the press soon comparing Quayle's "attack dog tactics" to Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew's criticism of the "liberal media" during the Nixon administration. As Andrew Rosenthal of the New York Times concluded: "Although Quayle rejects such comparisons and his language is more measured than Agnew's, Quayle is clearly trying as Agnew did to draw a line in society to help his party win the election."
In one of the few scholarly investigations of Quayle's "Murphy Brown Speech," Smith elaborated on these supposed parallels between Agnew's 1969 speech and Quayle's 1992 family values campaign. Masking his political goals in epideictic language, according to Smith, Quayle attempted to draw attention away from the Bush administration's failure to respond effectively to the riots and re-order the agenda in the presidential campaign. Like Agnew before him, Quayle made an effort to put the media on the defensive by labeling them a cultural elite whose values differed from those of the "average American." Trying to use his unpopularity among journalists to his advantage, Quayle portrayed himself as a courageous champion of Judeo-Christian values, and he accused the media of intolerance toward those who believed in family values, personal responsibility, and hard work. Unlike Agnew's speech, however, Quayle's address did not seem to intimidate the media. Instead, Smith concludes, Quayle's speech only seemed to invite more "skepticism and scorn."
In another scholarly analysis of the "Murphy Brown Speech," Benoit and Anderson examined how the show's response further obscured the important issues at stake. Benoit and Anderson argue that the producers of the Murphy Brown Show did a "generally good job of responding" to Quayle's criticisms in an episode of the show entitled "Murphy's Revenge." In this episode, the producers challenged Quayle's charge that the show glamorized single motherhood. The story line instead emphasized Brown's difficulties raising her child. The tired and overwhelmed mother's failed attempts to even shower or sleep, according to Benoit and Anderson, were "recurrent, humorous, and non-glamorous themes." During the show, Murphy Brown and her co-workers also directly responded to Quayle's charges, using humor to ridicule his views. For example, in a soliloquy, Brown pointed out the absurdity of Quayle's "life-style choice" statement:
What was that crack about "just another life-style choice"? I agonized over that decision. I didn't know if I could raise a kid by myself. I worried about what it would do to him. I worried about what it would do to me. I didn't just wake up one morning and say, "Oh, gee, I can't get in for a facial, I might as well have a baby."
Brown's co-workers also attacked the vice-president. For instance, Frank says: "This is the same guy who gave a speech at the United Negro College Fund and said 'What a waste it is to lose one's mind.' And then he spent the rest of his term showing the country exactly what he meant." Introducing Quayle's past public blunders into the show's plot, the producers did not merely respond to his accusations but sought to undermine his credibility.
"Murphy's Revenge" alluded to the important social issues raised by Quayle's speech, but in the end it treated the conflict more as a personal dispute between Quayle and Brown. In the episode's conclusion, Brown offered her response to Quayle:
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 twelve years [pause] or we could blame me. And while I will admit that my inability to balance a checkbook may have had something to do with the collapse of the savings and loan industry, I doubt that my status as a single mother has contributed all that much to the breakdown of western civilization.
Like the media coverage of Quayle's speech, "Murphy's Revenge" ridiculed Quayle more than it responded to his arguments. As Benoit and Anderson have commented, it justified Brown's personal decision, while "reinforcing negative stereotypes about the vice-president." In this sense, Quayle's reference to Brown backfired. "Unfortunately," as Benoit and Anderson conclude, Quayle's "transparent attempt to attract attention by attacking a popular fictional character shifted the rhetorical focus away from the larger social problems to a particular situation comedy."
At first glance, the largely negative reaction to his "Murphy Brown Speech" undoubtedly only further undermined Quayle's credibility. As Smith has suggested, the speech might have been more effective had it been delivered by a more respected source and been "isolated from political agendas." Other scholars likewise have emphasized how the speech only seemed to reinforce negative images of Quayle as a political "lightweight." Reflecting on the response of the press, for example, Benoit and Anderson call Quayle's reference to Murphy Brown, an "ill-conceived publicity stunt" that "backfired." The reference only distracted attention from the serious issues at stake and caused a public relations nightmare for the White House. Yet, in some ways, the "Murphy Brown Speech" might be judged a rhetorical success. Strengthening Quayle's reputation among cultural conservatives, it helped make family values a Republican issue, and in the long run it contributed to an important debate over social and economic justice.
The Legacy of the "Murphy Brown Speech"
Despite the media's fixation on the
Murphy Brown comment, Quayle's speech helped to reaffirm the Bush
administration's commitment to law and order and a new approach
to urban policy. Consistent with the Republican's agenda of economic
empowerment, Quayle discussed Bush's plans for giving the impoverished a stake
in their communities. He highlighted Bush's "Weed and Seed" crime
prevention program, his "Home Ownership and
Quayle's speech also helped spark a nationwide debate over single-parent homes, welfare families, economic opportunity, and the government's role in family affairs. After the initial media frenzy died down, a number of academics, citizens, and politicians began debating the question: Was Dan Quayle Right?
Although Quayle's comments were ridiculed by some, Michael Morgan and Susan Leggett note that "they struck a responsive chord with many who believed that something had gone seriously wrong with the contemporary American family." In one of the most famous responses, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, a prominent family sociologist, offered social scientific research to support her claim that Quayle was, indeed, "right." According to Whitehead, an accumulating body of research indicated that children from intact families did better than children from single-parent homes or stepfamilies. Yet politics have distracted attention from this research. Whitehead writes: "Every time the issue of family structure has been raised, the response has been first controversy, then retreat, and finally silence." Identifying the Murphy Brown controversy as just the most recent example of this phenomenon, Whitehead insisted that Americans needed to discuss the issues raised in Quayle's speech and seriously address the negative consequences of single-parent homes on children and society.
With the help
of Whitehead and others, "family values" became a major theme in the
debate over poverty in
Dana Cloud has taken a different view of the "family values" debate, claiming that conservatives have "scapegoated private families--especially those headed by single parents, racial minorities, and the poor--for structural social problems." In her analysis of the 1992 presidential campaign, Cloud identified three common themes within the Bush-Quayle and Clinton-Gore campaign rhetoric. She found that both assumed African Americans now had equal opportunities to get ahead, constructed a "good black"--"bad black" dichotomy, and vilified angry or unsuccessful Blacks. Linking these themes to those introduced in the "Murphy Brown Speech," Cloud credits Quayle with helping "to set up an impending (and now realized) bipartisan assault on welfare, affirmative action, and other social programs."
Ten years after his "Murphy
Brown Speech," Quayle celebrated the long-term effects of his remarks in
an interview on CNN. Citing initiatives like the National Fatherhood Institute
and the Million Man March as proof of wide-spread interest in the fatherhood
cause, Quayle stated, "we have made a lot of
progress on the issue." Though
Quayle's "Murphy Brown Speech" may have faded from the public eye,
the issues it raised continue to provoke controversy and debate. It is, in
short, an important voice in the ongoing debate over social and economic
Last Updated—September 2006
Jill M. Weber is a Doctoral
Student at The Pennsylvania State University. She would like to thank J.
Michael Hogan and
 Jeremy D. Mayer, Running
on Race: Racial Politics in Presidential Campaigns 1960-2000 (
 The May 2, 1992, USA
Today reported that support for Bush "dropped sharply" following
the riots. "Poll:
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of Family Values," San Francisco
 Here and elsewhere passages in the "Murphy Brown Speech" are cited with reference to paragraph numbers in the text of the speech that accompanies this essay.
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