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Dan Quayle & the Heterosexual
'Marriage Movement'

By Bill Berkowitz

Mr. Potato Head at it again
Graphic: By
Picture this if you will: It is a warm and lazy summer afternoon in Indiana. The Quayles are entertaining the Osbournes. The family of the former lead singer of the heavy metal band, Black Sabbath, is hanging out with the family of the former vice president of the United States.

A remake of The Odd Couple? An unusual pairing? Not as unusual as you might think.

The notion that marriage makes strange bedfellows was in full swing on May 9, the Tenth anniversary of Quayle's memorable speech condemning the television character, Murphy Brown.

Quayle, who in the days preceding the anniversary appeared on a number of talking-head television programs, marked the occasion by delivering an address at the National Press Club titled "Ten Years after Murphy Brown: A Mother's Day Progress Report on the American Family."

In the course of defending the remarks he made ten years ago, the former vice president added the current television programs Friends and Sex and the City to his list of offensive shows.

When asked what he thought about the MTV series The Osbournes, the program documenting the Osbourne family in a "reality" TV-format, Quayle, who confessed to having seen the show once, pointed out that "You have to get beyond this sort of dysfunctional aspect. You have a mother and a father involved with their children…. they are loving parents."

Although expletives are bleeped out of the highly rated show, the Osbourne gang engages in "frank discussion of alcohol, sexuality and body odors," reports Mark Sandalow of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Compared to the hit series Murphy Brown, wherein Candace Bergen played a successful television journalist who became a single mother, at least the Osbournes are "intact family," Quayle added. "It's a little bit different than our household. "I'm not encouraging anybody to live his life. But…many of the things he's trying to say are positive."

The Osbournes: Intact but Insane

Although former vice president Dan Quayle's legacy may not be one for the history books, he will certainly be remembered for the day in San Francisco, when before the city's Commonwealth Club, he took dead aim at television's Murphy Brown. Some conservatives claim that Quayle's speech was a turning point in the war to save the family.

After his wife, Marilyn, read a Washington Post Mother's Day piece by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead about the "unwed TV mother" Murphy Brown, she passed it on to her husband's speech writers. Quayle then proceeded to unload at what has been characterized as "the TV show's casual attitude toward fatherless childrearing."

Some marriage movement activists, including David Popenoe, believe that Quayle's comments "was the first time that the nation as a whole would seriously discuss issues like the dramatic rise of unwed births and single parenthood. For the most part, Murphy Brown's behavior was firmly defended by the media-partly, of course, because her nemesis was the conservative Dan Quayle."

Ten years ago, the reaction to Quayle's Murphy Brown speech fell along predictable lines - liberals sneered contemptuously, seeing it as another in a series of gratuitous election-year attacks on Hollywood. Conservatives were thrilled to hear Quayle bring the issue of single parent families into public scrutiny.

Quayle's comments became the first volley of the contemporary "marriage wars." During the past ten years, a substantial "marriage movement" has evolved; no longer a source of derision, marriage advocates dominated the 1996 welfare reform debate and are now key players in the debate over welfare reauthorization.

President Bush's $300 million initiative to encourage and promote heterosexual marriage is at the heart of his welfare reauthorization proposal, and it owes its existence, in large measure, to the marriage warriors at right-wing think tanks and foundations.

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Dan Quayle

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In an early-May article in the Village Voice, Sharon Lerner writes:

"With $300 million of funds from the soon-to-be reauthorized Welfare Reform Act allotted for marriage promotion, poor people can expect an unprecedented array of programs nudging them toward the altar, including billboards advertising the joys of matrimony; 'marriage education' for unwed, expecting parents; and 'marriage mentoring' programs in which married couples serve as role models for singles."

Since 1996, several states have incorporated marriage-boosting programs into its welfare programs. According to the Voice's Sharon Lerner, "Florida has instituted a mandatory marriage and relationship class for high school seniors. Utah… [has] designated an annual "marriage week," … earmark[ing] $600,000 for pro-wedlock projects, including a video. And Oklahoma's program (which is being called "the Governor and Mrs. Keating's marriage initiative") has used $10 million of welfare money to fund rallies and a year-long tour of public appearances by a husband-and-wife team of evangelical Christian 'marriage ambassadors.'"

Through op-ed pieces, articles, books, radio and television interviews, speaking engagements and reports rolling off the presses of conservative think tanks, a host of conservative-sponsored marriagecrats have reshaped the debate over welfare reform. In the past decade they have helped foster a powerful and effective "marriage movement."

Whether marriage promotion programs can provide the support necessary to keep struggling families together is certainly debatable. How the president's $300 million marriage initiative will play out during the welfare reauthorization debate is unclear. There is no doubt, however, that the right-wing mullahs of marriage are convinced that welfare recipients can only achieve and sustain self-sufficiency if they get married and stay married.

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