On June 15, 1992, in a classroom in Trenton, New Jersey, Vice-President Dan Quayle cemented his reputation as an intellectual lightweight. As Quayle himself later noted, the gaffe he committed was a perfect illustration of what people thought about him anyway. In Trenton, Quayle was asked to judge with sixth-graders for a spelling bee contest. Twelve-year old William Figueroa was asked to spell potato, which he did on the blackboard. Quayle looked at the spelling bee flashcard that he was given and said, “You’re close, but you left a little something off. The e on the end.”
Yes, the flashcard in his hand was misprinted, and Quayle thought potato was spelt with an ‘e’ at the end. As Figueroa added an ‘e’ on the blackboard, puzzled reporters frentically scavanged for a dictioonary in that sixth-grade classroom. The incident was not mentioned until at the end of the press conference afterward, when one reporter asked Quayle, “How do you spell potato?’’ Quayle gave him a puzzled look, and the press started laughing. It made the headlines the next day and was on the television even before Quayle got back home.
It didn’t help that William Figueroa called the vice-president ‘an idiot’ afterwards. He was invited onto the Letterman Show. From then on, the incident became a campaign weapon for the Democrats backing Clinton and Gore. Figueroa delivered the pledge of allegiance at the Democratic National Convention that summer. (Figueroa later dropped out of school, and fathered a child). Bush and Quayle handily lost that election. In his 1994 memoir, Quayle devotes a whole chapter to the event and its impact on his career. “It was a defining moment of the worst kind imaginable,’’ Quayle wrote, “Politicians live and die by the symbolic sound bite”.