Dan Quayle's moment of embarrassment. William Figueroa, 12, was the boy who knew how to spell "potato" even though the veep insisted on adding an "e" to the end.
Just the other night on television, Jay Leno was poking fun at some gaffe by George W. Bush, whose picture morphed into a photograph of Dan Quayle on the screen behind the comic.

Six years out of office with two failed presidential bids now behind him, ex Vice President Quayle still ranks as America’s favorite dumb politician because of what happened in Trenton on June 15, 1992.

That’s the day, you probably recall, a Trenton sixth grader had to teach the Vice President of the United States that potato is not spelled with an e on the end.

In his 1994 memoir, Quayle devotes a whole chapter to the events in a classroom at Trenton’s Munoz Rivera School — and the impact of them on his career.

"It was a defining moment of the worst kind imaginable,’’ Quayle wrote in the autobiography. "Politicians live and die by the symbolic sound bite.’’

Quayle ruefully reported on a Washington Post article that suggested the Trenton flub got such wide media play because "it seemed like a perfect illustration of what people thought about me anyway.’’

Less than five months after the incident, Quayle and President Bush were voted out of office, replaced by Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Ever since, the ex VP has been a straight-faced political joke.

To understand why, it’s important to know something about the way politics and the media work in America. "Image is all’’ in politics, Quayle said, and the media not only project images, but also brings out any flaw in the picture.

Quayle’s image had been fodder for America comedians since the beginning, in 1988, when GOP presidential nominee George Bush tapped the 42-year-old Senator from Indiana as his VP.

When Quayle got on the victory podium with Bush for the first time at the GOP convention that summer someone remarked that he "looked like a guy who had just won a game show.’’

Quayle knew his boyish looks might hurt him and worked hard to present a studious image during the campaign. Despite a few blunders by Quayle, the Bush ticket prevailed in the election of 1988.

Days later, seeking to stifle the buzz in political circles that he was intellectually challenged, Quayle sat down with a group of top American political reporters for a televised two-hour discussion.

The newsmen, and many viewers, were left with the impression that, for all the jokes about him, the new vice president was a well-informed, politically savvy young man.

Through most of his term — traveling the world to represent the president, meeting heads of state, giving speeches to all types of groups — Quayle managed to avoid any serious gaffes. At least that’s how he put it in his bio, Standing Firm.

June 15, 1992, started with Quayle flying out of Washington at 8:15 a.m. for a speech in New York that would be "about everything that was wrong with that city.’’

Quayle told the Manhattan Institute in a speech at the Waldorf-Astoria that New York was a mess because the liberal political policies of the past 40 years had failed.

In the book, Quayle said he knew little about his next stop, in Trenton, other than it was to help spotlight the city’s Weed and Seed program, which still provides anti-drug education to grade schoolers while they also are being watched by adults until their parents get home from work.

When he got the Munoz Rivera School, Quayle spoke with some women involved in the program, saw a drill team perform and looked in on some self-esteem classes before his aides started hustling him off to another classroom for a staged spelling bee.

"What are we supposed to do?’’ I asked Keith Nahigian, the advance man who had prepared this little photo op,’’ Quayle wrote.

"Just sit there and read these words off some flash cards, and the kids will go up and spell them at the blackboard,’’ the handler told the VP.

"Has anyone checked the card?’’ another aide asked.

"Oh, yeah,’’ responded Nahigian. "We looked at them and they’re just very simple words. No big deal.’’

Enter William Figueroa, 12, a sixth-grader from the Mott School in the South Ward who had been bused to Munoz Rivera to take part in the vice presidential event.

Figueroa knew how to spell potato, and he wrote it in a legible script on the blackboard when Quayle announced his word for the spelling bee.

Quayle looked at the blackboard, then at his contest card, and gently and quietly told the boy, "You’re close, but you left a little something off. The e on the end.

"So William, against his better judgment and trying to be polite, added an e’’ and won applause for it from those assembled in the classroom, including Mayor Doug Palmer, Quayle wrote.

The misspelling wasn’t mentioned until the end of the press conference afterward, when one reporter asked Quayle, "How do you spell potato?’’

"I gave him a puzzled look, and then the press started laughing. It wasn’t until that moment that I realized anything was wrong,’’ Quayle wrote.

"None of the staff people had told me. Caught off guard, I just rattled on a little to fill the air — something about how I wasn’t going to get into spelling matters — but I knew something was really amiss.’’

Indeed. At about the time of the gaffe, in fact, The Trentonian’s night reporter was arriving at the office and hearing the editor’s plea for a story suitable for page 1.

"What are you talking about? You’ve got the vice president in town today,’’ the reporter said.

"You know Quayle’s not going to say anything newsworthy,’’ the editor responded.

"I’m not talking about his political message. I’m saying watch for Quayle to foul up something,’’ the reporter said.

Soon after, the reporter who had covered Quayle’s Trenton tour showed up in the newsroom and was ask how the event had gone.

He said Quayle delivered the usual political pap, prompting the night reporter to holler out, "Yeah, but what did he foul up?"

"Well,’’ the reporter responded, "Quayle can’t spell potato.’’

The editor had his front-page story, complete with the only media interview with Figueroa, who said the experience made him believe all the talk about the vice president being "an idiot.’’

Soon after the paper hit the streets, the scene in the Trenton classroom was playing on national television, just as Quayle had warned his wife it would be when he got home from Trenton the night before.

Comics loved it, and a staffer from the David Letterman Show called The Trentonian the morning after seeking help locating Figueroa so he could be invited on the show.

The next day, after his father sent him for a haircut and warned him to speak a bit more diplomatically about the vice president of the United State, Figueroa made his national television debut.

The Trenton kid wowed the Letterman audience. He told of the spelling bee, saying, "I knew he was wrong, but since he’s the vice president I went back to the blackboard and put an e on the end and went back to my seat.

"Afterward, I went to the dictionary, and there was potato like I spelled it.’’ Figueroa wouldn’t call Quayle an "idiot’’ again, in deference to his father, William Collazo, and Palmer, who had called the boy’s mother and warned that funds for Weed and Seed could be cut off if the VP got mad enough.

"I know he’s not an idiot,’’ he told the goading Letterman, "but he needs to study more. Do you have to go to college to be vice president?’’

From then on, the potato incident would become a campaign weapon for the Democrats backing Clinton and Gore. Figueroa was flown in to deliver the pledge of allegiance at the Democratic National Convention that summer.

Image-conscious Quayle laughed it off on the outside. But as his book indicates, he was fuming mad about the gaffe and blamed his aides for letting it happen and the press for exploiting it.

He referred to Gore saying in a speech that a leopard had changed it "stripes,’’ and said if he had said that, "there would have been a week of Quayle jokes on the late-night shows and three dozen editorial cartoons set inside zoos.’’

The media’s "obsession with my small verbal blunders went beyond the bounds of fairness,’’ Quayle wrote in his book.

Now, fast forward five years to 1997, when The Trentonian decided to look up William Figueroa to see how he was doing after his hour of fame.

By then, he was a 17-year-old high school dropout who had fathered a child and was working a low-paying job at an auto showroom.

Quayle, Mr. Family Values, couldn’t be reached for comment on what had become of his "potato’’ nemesis.
1992: Gaffe with an 'e' at the end
By PAUL MICKLE / The Trentonian
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