“Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
Twenty-one years after they were first quipped by Democratic Senator Lloyd Bentsen during the 1988 vice presidential debate, the words still haunted Dan Quayle— much more than misspelling ‘potato’ with an “e,” which could’ve happened to anyone. The Republicans had won the war (the election and the Persian Gulf conflict), so why was he so obsessed with having lost this battle? The late night hosts had replaced him with Dubya and Sarah Palin as a go-to punchline long ago—and besides, Carson was dead, Letterman scandalized, and Leno was banished to the 10 p.m. slot on NBC. Dan had even been vindicated in the whole Murphy Brown single mother controversy, as a straight line could now be drawn from Candice Bergen’s character to the universally maligned Octo-Mom. But as the American poet Bret Michaels put in another oft-quoted refrain from that very same campaign year, “I guess every rose has its thorn.”
Dan sighed and rewound the unlabeled VHS tape yet again.“That was really uncalled for, Senator.” Really? That was the most stinging rejoinder he could come up with? Weak sauce. Even Senator Bentsen’s comeback to his comeback was better. “You’re the one that was making the comparison, Senator.” It was like a clever 67 year-old’s variation on “I know you are, but what am I?” If Bentsen sounded like an older bully picking on the new kid at the political playground, it’s because that’s precisely what he was. A much older bully.
Thoughts of Bentsen’s one-liner would occur to Dan at the most inopportune times—while trying to sink a putt at the Legends of Indiana Golf Course in Franklin, during Dancing With The Stars, during sex with his wife Marilyn after Dancing With The Stars. One time he’d made the mistake of asking her to call him “Jack Kennedy” during sex. (After all, her name was Marilyn.) She got frightened—and said she’d never share her bed with a Communist. “Geez, Marilyn, it’s called role-playing…”
Similarly, ideal comebacks would also seize his mind inappropriately. Stuck in traffic, he’d day-dream about a rap battle response to Senator Bentsen. What rhymes with Jackie O? Tacky ho! That’s perfect. Nah, he’d better not—a diss record would be off-brand—plus, the PMRC would have a field day with his hip hop hypocrisy.
Dan would pace his yard, muttering to Bentsen/himself like as if he were Hamlet speaking to Juliet’s ghost—although he supposed Lloyd would have something wise-assed to say about that comparison as well. A regular Doonebury, that codger. When the muse struck, Dan scrawled furiously, day and night, writing down what he’d come to call “Bentsen Burners.” He had told Marilyn he was writing a sequel to his best-selling memoir Standing Firm, titled Standing Firmer, but then one day curiosity got the best of his wife and she opened the file cabinets he kept his “Retort Reform” journals in. There it was, page after page, notebook after notebook, of lines Dan wished he had said, but didn’t, to Senator Bentsen on that fateful October evening. Like a good Republican wife, Marilyn didn’t say anything about it.
Dan smiled as he read over the words that could—no, would—determine his legacy. Perhaps he should P.J. O’Rourke in for a punch-up? Unnecessary! This stuff was gold.
“I’m no Jack Kennedy? Well I guess that explains why I had to pay full price for those Sinatra tickets—and for such bad seats!”
“Well, you’re no Leslie Nielsen—even though you look just like him.”
“No Jack Kennedy. Fair enough. But you have to admit, I’ve got great hair.”
“I know I’m no Jack Kennedy. I don’t cheat on my wife with loony Hollywood starlets, although if Sharon Stone will have me… (wait for laughter).”
“I’m glad I’m not Jack Kennedy. Didn’t you hear? He got shot in the head.”
“So you admit you knew the victim. Do you have an alibi for the afternoon of November 22, 1963, Senator Bentsen?”
“Now that you mention it I’m no TED Kennedy either—I didn’t drive my car off a bridge and let a woman drown along with my dreams of ascending to the presidency.”
Who said it was too late to construct the perfect response to the smart-aleck “You’re no Jack Kennedy?” remark? Sure, Senator Bentsen had passed away in 2006, but history was written by the victors and Dan had heard that anyone could update his Wikipedia page.