Question: Once again, your humble readers call upon you to settle an argument, Mr. T. My dope of a brother claims that years after Dan Quayle criticized Murphy Brown for its single-mother storyline, Candice Bergen came out and said she agreed with him after all. I can't believe that. Is there any truth to it? — Dee B., Hampton Roads, Va.
Televisionary: None whatsoever, Dee. For those who have already forgotten, the whole dust-up assumed gigantic proportions when then-Vice President Quayle took his famous potshot at the show as part of the G.O.P.'s 1992 "family values" campaign. It again reared its ugly head briefly when former Quayle speechwriter Lisa Schiffren claimed in a 1998 Los Angeles Times op-ed column that Bergen had seen the light and stated in an interview that "the body of the speech was completely sound." Bergen fired back in a letter to the paper, explaining that her quote was taken out of context; she'd first called Quayle's take on the situation "an arrogant and uninformed posture."
Which it was when he said it, and continued to be six years later. The point Bergen and other critics made at the time was that Quayle, who admittedly never watched the series, was way off base when he claimed the people behind Murphy Brown were sending unwed teen mothers the wrong message by glorifying single motherhood. In truth, Bergen and the producers did no such thing since Murphy was a successful, professional adult and her situation was in no way meant to tell young girls to go out and get pregnant. And it also wasn't meant to undermine the traditional family structure. But Bergen said it herself, so why take it from me?
"In the beginning I was amused by all this," the star told TV Guide in 1992. "I always thought the Vice President was kind of cute, you know, in a defenseless way. But now that he's come back with this new persona that they've invented for him... The Administration has taken on such an arrogant, aggressive tone, and I find that really offensive. I think there are a lot of Democrats out there who are offended by the fact that the Republicans seem to claim the franchise on family values."
Furthermore, Bergen made sure no one took seriously the charge that she, as a loose-moraled Hollywood type, was giving irresponsible behavior a stamp of approval. "Before any of the episodes were done last season, I said we do have to be careful that we don't send out the message to women, to young women especially, that we're encouraging them to be single mothers," she explained. "I myself, as a parent [she had a daughter with late director Louis Malle], believe the ideal is that you have a two-parent family. I'm the last person to think fathers are obsolete."
Executive producer Steven Peterman waded in, too, taking the Veep to task for painting Hollywood types as privileged snots trying to foist their lifestyle agenda on the good, working folk of the country. "Doesn't it seem a bit humorous to hear Vice President Quayle, with his social background, talking about a couple of working-class kids like us as a cultural elite?" he asked, referring to himself and partner Gary Dontzig. But that wasn't even what bothered Peterman the most — it was the loss of a potential audience member that really got to him. "Quayle doesn't actually watch the show," he added.
Of course, that wasn't the show's last scrape with a government official who objected to a storyline. When Murphy was shown puffing on a joint to relieve the nausea caused by the chemotherapy she underwent in her battle with breast cancer in 1997, Drug Enforcement Agency administrator Thomas Constantine complained that the show's producers "were doing a great disservice" and "trivializing drug abuse." Executive producer Mark Flanigan countered that their intent was merely to show what's going on in the world, not to take a stand on the issue.
And lest you think any of this controversy hurt the show, far from it. On the one hand, Bergen admitted she "practically collapsed of a coronary" when she picked up The New York Times and saw herself on the front page, together with photos of Quayle and George Bush the elder when the brouhaha was getting the most press. "That's a little higher profile than I'm comfortable with," she admitted. On the other hand, when she picked up an Emmy in '92 (two of three the show was awarded that year), Bergen thanked Quayle during her acceptance speech. And rightfully so. The show was already a hit at the time, certainly — during its 1988-98 run on CBS, it soared as high as number three in the seasonal ratings — but a pitched battle with the White House? A network can't buy that kind of publicity.