Friday, October 3, 2008

'Potatoe Boy' Weighs In on Dan Quayle's Election Gaffe

[Note: Originally published at The article was taken down along with the election 2008 website.]

By Maxim Lott

Sarah Palin and Joe Biden may have made a few mistakes during Thursday night's vice presidential debate, but it remains to be seen whether their mistakes will stick in voters' minds like one infamous vice presidential gaffe from the 1992 election.

Few political gaffes are as memorable as Vice President Dan Quayle's misspelling.

Quayle told a grade-school boy in New Jersey that he had misspelled the word "potato" during a photo-op spelling bee. With the cameras rolling, Quayle directed the boy to add an "e" to the end of the word.

"Potatoe" became a defining moment in the election, and it turned Quayle into political laughingstock.

But it also was a life-altering event for 12-year-old William Figueroa, who that day earned the nickname "Potatoe Boy."

Now a 28-year-old father, Figueroa says he doesn't talk with people much about what happened. He says he rarely brings it up.

"It always comes out somehow. I really can't escape it, to be honest." he told from the store he manages in New Jersey.

During the staged spelling bee, Figueroa was asked to come to the blackboard and spell a word that was included in flash cards that had been presented to Quayle. Figueroa spelled the word right, but Quayle corrected him.

"You're close," the vice president told Figueroa, "but you left a little something off. There's an 'e' on the end."

Figueroa added an "e" and sat back down.

Quayle was lambasted for the incident. He claimed he had misspelled the word because he was referring to incorrect cards prepared by his staff. But the damage was done.

When George H.W. Bush named him to be his running mate in 1988, Quayle was only 41 and was criticized as being young and inexperienced. Bush and Quayle won that election. But in 1992, they lost re-election when voters picked Bill Clinton and Al Gore.

Figueroa doesn't see Quayle's gaffe as indicative of the former vice president's intelligence.

"Me, personally, I think it was an innocent mistake. It was blown out of proportion by the media," he said. "They already had an image of who he was, and what I did was just another stepping stone adding to that."

Figueroa said that after the gaffe, he was inundated by media requests. He was invited onto David Letterman's TV show and was asked to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the 1992 Democratic Convention.

He told Letterman he knew Quayle was wrong, "but since he's the vice president, I went back to the blackboard and put an 'e' on the end. ... Afterward, I went to the dictionary, and there was potato like I spelled it."

But out of the spotlight, Figueroa was having big troubles of his own.

"There were a lot of opportunities that I missed because of problems with home life when I was younger," he said. "My father was a drug addict -- still is. I was just a young man, so in order to get anywhere, be driven to an interview or anything, I had to give him monetary compensation. All the money I made (from interviews and ads) was basically stolen for drugs."

Figueroa said he occasionally talks with his father, but he said they are "not on good terms" and generally leave each other alone. Attempts to reach his father were unsuccessful.

Figueroa said he works long hours with his job as a manager at a Verizon store in New Jersey. He has three daughters, and a stepson with his fiancee, Coco.

"They are all on the school honor roll -- except for the baby," he said, laughing. "They are good at spelling."

Watching the vice presidential debate wasn't an option -- work keeps him busy -- and he also hasn't had time to look into the candidates' platforms.

"Before the election, I plan to sit down and take a full day to do research before I decide who I think would make best president," he said.

But he's looking for a good leader, not a good speller.

"I don't believe in the Democrat and Republican labels," he said. "I just care about who would be the best person to run the country."