Former Vice President Quayle still ranks as America’s favorite politician to mock because of what happened in Trenton on June 15, 1992.
That was the day 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.
Dan Quayle devotes a whole chapter in his 1994 memoir to the events in a classroom at Trenton’s Munoz Rivera School and the impact they had on his career. He said: "It was a defining moment of the worst kind imaginable. Politicians live and die by the symbolic sound bite."
Quayle's stop at the Trenton school was to help highlight the city’s Weed and Seed program which provides anti-drug education to grade schoolers. His aides had arranged for him to be in a classroom for a staged spelling bee. In his book, Dan Quayle reports the following conversation between his aide and himself:
"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.
Here is the epidode captured on video for all time:
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.
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.
The media’s "obsession with my small verbal blunders went beyond the bounds of fairness," Quayle wrote in his book.
Fun With Potatoes - Mr. Potato Head
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