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No, this isn't the latest Dan Quayle joke. It's true.

On New Year's Day, according to a White House announcement, U.S. troops in the Saudi Arabian desert will receive a visit and a pep talk from Vice President Dan Quayle.

It's no joke, but sending Quayle to exhort troops to battle is one of Desert Shield's more bizarre ideas. Somehow a gung-ho, hit-'em-hard speech to the troops by a vice president who used his wealthy family's clout to sit out the Vietnam War does not strike me as a morale builder.

What's Quayle going to do, echo the president's threat that Saddam Hussein will get his backside kicked?

Sure, the troops will applaud Quayle politely. He's brass. But anybody who's spent time around infantrymen or Marines can imagine the sardonic comments along the chow lines.

These guys can't buy a beer. Can't celebrate Christmas publicly. Can't flaunt a pinup. So for compensation they get a we're-in-this-together exhortation from Quayle, who skipped the draft by joining the Indiana National Guard and fighting what wags call "The Battle of Kokomo."

True, celebrities from Bob Hope to Steve Martin to slews of Congressfolk have toured the desert camps. So why not Quayle, the man who's a heartbeat away from the presidency?

Wrong guy, wrong place.

If administration insiders think they'll rebuild Quayle's image with TV film of the veep eating MRE rations with field troops, they're misguided. If anything, the scenes will revive the 1988 campaign rhubarb over Quayle's use of family pressure to duck the Army.

Quayle, by his account, had passed the physical in 1969 and was ripe for the draft. He had his parents contact an ex-National Guard commander who was editor of the family's newspaper. He then spent six months in a popular Indiana guard unit writing press releases.

"I wanted to go to law school as quickly as possible," Quayle said. "Serving in the National Guard was the patriotic thing to do."

Sure, Quayle will undoubtedly be filmed visiting guard units in the desert. But 1969 was a different war. A National Guard slot was an almost sure way to avoid combat. And yes, members of Quayle's generation made less honorable choices, faking illnesses or fleeing to Canada.

But 20 years later they aren't being sent as an American symbol to 300,000 troops on the edge of war.

I don't agree with critics who label politicians who sat out Vietnam and now aggressively talk of attacking Iraq -- Rep. Steve Solarz, D-N.Y., Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and even Defense Secretary Dick Cheney are mentioned -- as "chicken hawks."

When Quayle, though, makes saber-rattling speeches about flattening Saddam, they sound as tinny as Woody Allen threatening to bust Mike Tyson.

And Quayle as a warmaking expert is not exactly Karl von Clausewitz. On ABC's "Nightline," arguing that Vietnam is no parallel to a Persian Gulf war, Quayle analyzed, "Vietnam is a jungle. You had jungle warfare. Kuwait, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, you have sand."

Thanks, Danny.

Obviously Quayle's handlers want to expose him on TV among Desert Shield troops to stifle a "Dump Dan" movement in 1992. (Ironically, the long-shot replacement for Quayle on the '92 ticket is Pentagon commander Gen. Colin Powell.) But repackaging Quayle is a tough sell. In a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 69 percent said the thought of Quayle as president makes them "uncomfortable."

George Bush may never admit Quayle was his mistake.

OK, let Quayle go on being the charming First Golfer, presiding over space shots and making showy trips to Third World capitals.

But sending Quayle, who ducked the last war in law school, to rally combat troops around the battle flag is a ridiculous caricature.

Is this real life or a Doonesbury strip?

Matter of fact, posing the Boy Veep as a desert warrior IS the latest Dan Quayle joke. But it's not funny.

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