The date was June 15, 1992. It was campaign season. President George H.W. Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle were losing ground in the polls, and on this Monday morning Quayle was scheduled for a few campaign stops. After a 45-minute speech in Manhattan on the failure of Democratic policies in New York, it was time to head down to the Munoz Rivera School in Trenton, New Jersey, where the vapid veep was scheduled to sit in on the "Weed and Seed" anti-drug program, followed by a staged spelling bee.
Enter spelling bee participant William Figueroa, a chubby Puerto Rican 12-year-old from South Trenton whose unintentional stint in the political sphere would soon become the subject of many a comic routine. Figueroa stood at the chalkboard. The word was given: Potato. He printed it out in chalk: P-O-T-A-T-O.
"You’re close," Quayle said, "but you left a little something off. The e on the end."
Young William was pretty sure he'd gotten the word right, but since this was the Vice President talking, he added the "e" anyway and sat down as scant applause came from the onlookers. When the event wrapped up, a reporter approached him, clutching a dictionary. He asked, "Did you know that you spelled potato right?"
The rest is pure gold. At a press conference held afterward, a reporter (perhaps the same one as before) was called on by Quayle for a question. The inevitable question came, "How do you spell potato?" Quayle (according to his 1994 memoir, Standing Firm) "...gave him a puzzled look, and then the press started laughing. It wasn’t until that moment that (Quayle) realized anything was wrong." Apparently, none of Quayle's staff had informed him of his gaffe.
Word of Quayle's "Spud Problem" spread quickly, and William Figueroa enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame. Local paper The Trentonian carried a quote from Figueroa the following day saying the spelling bee "showed the rumors about the vice president are true -- that he's an idiot" (Figueroa now claims that he was misquoted). David Letterman got the kid's number from the newspaper and invited him onto his show. While on national TV, Figueroa refused to call the Vice President an idiot (Trenton mayor Doug Palmer had apparently warned his parents that "Weed and Seed" funding could be slashed if William angered Dan Quayle). He did say this, however: "I know he’s not an idiot, but he needs to study more. Do you have to go to college to be Vice President?"
"Potatogate" went beyond late-night punchlines. It was the perfect opportunity for politicians to laugh and point. Bill Clinton and Al Gore turned that hay into political gold, and even flew Figueroa in to the Democratic National Convention to deliver the Pledge of Allegiance. He became known as The Potato Kid throughout the United States. In his grandparents' home country of Puerto Rico, he was known as "El rey de la papa" (The Potato King). He marched in Trenton's Puerto Rican Day Parade.
What is William Figueroa doing these days? In August of 2004, New York Times reporter Mark Fass caught up with him to ask a few questions. It turns out that the boy who would be king was a high-school dropout with a child of his own by the age of 16. By 24, he'd had 3 kids and was working at Wal-Mart.
Not exactly a storybook ending, I know.