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The New York Times

El Rey De La Papa -- The Potato King: How Do You Spell Regret? One Man's Take On It


August 29, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The New York Times. All rights reserved.

SOMETIMES, a single moment can eviscerate a politician's image, forever dwelling in voters' memories and late-night comedians' repertories.

And so it is that as the Republicans gather in New York City for their national convention this week, one name they surely do not want to be reminded of is that of William Figueroa, aka the Potato Kid, of New Jersey.

Twelve years and three presidential campaigns after Vice President Dan Quayle added an ''e'' to ''potato,'' thereby hardening a perception of ineptitude and doing nothing to help the re-election campaign of President George H.W. Bush, Mr. Figueroa lives with a measure of regret.

''I wish maybe something more could have come of it,'' said Mr. Figueroa, now 24, a father of three and the department manager for housewares and accessories at the Wal-Mart on Route 130 near Trenton. ''I try not to dwell on the past, all the things that could have been.''

Specifically, he says he regrets making only $8,000 from what he calls ads and endorsements after the incident. Even that money disappeared long ago, he says, some spent, some taken by his father.

''I didn't see half the money,'' he said, adding that he has no relationship with his father these days.

Mr. Figueroa's transformation from a chubby 12-year-old from gritty South Trenton to international celebrity to a young father ruing lost opportunity began in mid-June 1992 with the now-famous mock spelling bee at Munoz-Rivera Elementary School in Trenton. Mr. Figueroa attended the nearby Mott School, but was bused to Rivera that morning to participate in a spelling bee directed by Mr. Quayle as part of a pit stop for the Bush-Quayle campaign.

The rest, as they say, is history.

''I raised my hand, he picked me, I went to the board,'' Mr. Figueroa recalled of the vice president's visit. Young Mr. Figueroa spelled ''potato'' correctly on the blackboard, only to have Vice President Quayle, holding a flash card with the word spelled incorrectly, encourage him to add an ''e'' at the end.

With that, Mr. Quayle, Mayor Douglas Palmer of Trenton and the three or four other adults in the room began clapping. Mr. Figueroa returned to his seat, embarrassed and confused.

''I kept thinking, 'How the hell did I spell potato wrong?''' he said.

Minutes later, a reporter approached him with a dictionary and asked: ''Did you know that you spelled potato right?''

''I figured as much,'' Mr. Figueroa recalled thinking.

The fallout for Mr. Quayle is well known.

''It was more than a gaffe,'' the former vice president wrote in his memoirs, ''Standing Firm.'' ''It was a 'defining moment' of the worst imaginable kind. I can't overstate how discouraging and exasperating the whole event was.''

The repercussions for Mr. Figueroa are less familiar. After the local newspaper, The Trentonian, quoted him (inaccurately, he says) as saying that the blunder ''showed the rumors about the vice president are true -- that he's an idiot,'' Mr. Figueroa's parents tried to shield him from the news media. Their main concern, Mr. Figueroa says, was retribution.

''The government at the time had sent a letter to my parents stating that I should be quiet,'' he said, though unable to produce a copy of the letter. He said his mother, a nurse's aide, feared that further bad press for Mr. Quayle could lead to the revocation of her licensing. (His mother declined to be interviewed for this article.)

But soon the offers were too many and too enticing to turn down. Mr. Figueroa appeared on talk shows in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco. He led the Pledge of Allegiance at the 1992 Democratic National Convention at Madison Square Garden. He flew to Las Vegas, earning $4,000 to endorse a spelling video game.

Because his grandparents were from Puerto Rico, Mr. Figueroa became, briefly, one of the island's favorite sons. Though he was known as the Potato Kid in the United States, he became el rey de la papa -- the Potato King -- in Puerto Rico. An Associated Press photograph of Mr. Figueroa on a trip to New York in front of a baked-potato vendor named the Potato King ran in Puerto Rico, and the name stuck, he said.

People were ''proud of the young Spanish kid,'' Mr. Figueroa said. He marched in Trenton's Puerto Rican Day Parade and went to San Juan with his mother to appear on a television talk show.

But within a year or two, though his classmates in Trenton still called him ''P.K.,'' the news media had lost interest. Mr. Figueroa went on to West Trenton High School, but by the time he was 16 he had dropped out of school, got a job as a greeter at a local Oldsmobile dealership and become a father with the birth of a daughter, Amanda.

Soon, reporters brought the news of Mr. Figueroa being an unmarried, teenage father to the attention of Mr. Quayle, whose primary political cause had been ''family values.'' (His biggest pre-''potatoe'' mistake had been attacking Murphy Brown, the popular television character, for bearing an out-of-wedlock baby.) Though Mr. Figueroa didn't keep any news clips of Mr. Quayle's responses, he recalls that the former vice president ''kind of bad-mouthed the situation.''

Nowadays, Mr. Figueroa has two daughters and a stepson, and the potato incident is largely behind him. He lives in a small duplex in the Burg, a fading Italian neighborhood near South Trenton, with his girlfriend, Coco, who works at the jewelry counter at Wal-Mart; his stepson; and one of his two daughters. ''I try to keep my celebrity status to myself,'' he said. ''I try not to use it as a crutch.''

When he does tell people, they are ''either really, really surprised,'' he said, ''or they don't believe me: 'You're not the Potato Kid.''' Even so, he says most of his co-workers know of his 15 minutes of fame.

''My kids are what I live for,'' he said.

Then, he added with a smile: ''My daughter does excellent at spelling bees. And the 3-year-old's starting to spell, too.''

Photos: William Figueroa as a young man taking a spelling lesson from Vice President Dan Quayle, left, in 1992 and, inset, visiting last week at the site of his 15 minutes of infamy, the Munoz-Rivera Elementary School in Trenton. In some circles, he's still the Potato Kid. (Photos by Michael Mancuso/The Trenton Times via Associated Press and, inset, Liz Fox for The New York Times)

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