Jonah Goldberg

Almost exactly 20 years ago, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead wrote a controversial essay for The Atlantic titled "Dan Quayle Was Right."

In case you forgot (or never knew), let me fill you in on what Quayle was right about.

There once was a popular sitcom called "Murphy Brown." The title character, played by Candice Bergen, was a news anchor. The show had its moments, but it was also insufferably pleased with itself and its liberalism. At least until the arrival of the Aaron Sorkin oeuvre ("The West Wing," "The Newsroom"), it set the standard for such things.

Murphy Brown was rich, powerful and independent. In a 1992 episode, she got pregnant and decided to have the baby, without a husband or, as so many say today, a "partner." On May 19, 1992, then-Vice President Dan Quayle delivered a speech titled "Reflections on Urban America." His address was a response to the riots in Los Angeles that month, and he placed a heavy emphasis on the breakdown of the black family -- sounding a bit like Barack Obama today.

Quayle mentioned "Murphy Brown" once. "Bearing babies irresponsibly is simply wrong. Failing to support children one has fathered is wrong, and we must be unequivocal about this. 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. I know it is not fashionable to talk about moral values, but ... it's time to make the discussion public."

Quayle succeeded in launching a public discussion. His side lost. Feminists, Hollywood bigmouths and the usual suspects went ballistic. "Murphy Brown's" producers made the execrable decision to write a show in which Quayle had attacked the "real" Murphy Brown, not a fictional character. In full martyr mode, the make-believe Murphy Brown said, "Perhaps it's time for the vice president to expand his definition and recognize that, whether by choice or circumstance, families come in all shapes and sizes."

Quayle, of course, never said that families don't come in all shapes and sizes. What he said was that children raised by married, responsible parents do better than those who aren't. And that's where Whitehead came in. Marshaling the still-gelling social science at the time, she put numbers behind Quayle's assertions.


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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