Question: When the Bush administration took office, one high official took as his chief foreign-policy adviser a man who in 1984 had published an English-language translation of Aristotle's "Politics." That broad-minded official was: James Baker, Dick Darman, George Bush, Dick Cheney.

Answer: Dan Quayle.Carnes Lord, Aristotle interpreter and Quayle adviser, has since moved on to the National Defense University. His replacement is Karl Jackson, Asia scholar and Berkeley professor. Quayle's chief of staff is William Kristol, one of the most savvy and serious conservative thinkers around. Quayle has surrounded himself with people of stature.

Having a first-rate staff is important because George Bush's little medical problem has raised the Quayle question. And Jay Leno's Dan Quayle - by now, America's Dan Quayle - is a dolt. Well, dolts are not known for surrounding themselves with highly intelligent staff.

Dolts do make it to the Senate, but this one got there by defeating Birch Bayh, a feat that Richard Lugar and William Ruckelshaus, two talented Indiana politicians, never managed to pull off.

Finally, I know many dolts in Washington but I don't know one who could have matched for depth and dexterity the two-hour analysis of the INF Treaty that Quayle offered when I first encountered him in April 1988.

Quayle's real liability is not intellectual but emotional. What is undoubtedly true, and unnerving, about Quayle is his nervousness. He is unsure of himself, particularly in front of a camera or a crowd. He seems in terror of making some terrible gaffe, and that makes him hesitant and deadeningly deliberate.

This public uncertainty is a very significant failing for a political leader, particularly in a television age. The standard today is Peter Jennings cool. A democratic public, used to the soothing reassurance of its television presences, positively demands it of a president. A leader who cannot give the appearance of command suffers from a serious political liability.

Quayle's disastrous media presence is a compound problem. It gives the impression that his judgment is unsound too. In reality, it is not. When Quayle has been called upon to display judgment, he has done rather well.

First, as noted, his choice of staff. Further, on the key issues of the day, Quayle has taken the riskier minority position and been vindicated.

During the months leading up to the gulf war, Quayle recognized early and argued consistently that Saddam had to be confronted and defeated. He didn't just think this. He gave the administration's single most persuasive speech on the subject (at Seton Hall University, Nov. 29), making a case steeped in history and serious moral reasoning for the justness of the coming war.

And after the war, Quayle's was one of the few voices within the administration that favored finishing the job. He took the minority view and was right again.

In sum: Quayle is a man of some intelligence and good judgment, but flawed by a profound lack of assuredness. Is this the second best person in the country to be president? No. But that is never our standard for v.p. Was Geraldine Ferraro the second best person in America to be president in 1984? Yet her nomination was treated as something of a national celebration.

And then there's Harry Truman. Yes, yes, we know: Lloyd Bentsen knew Harry Truman, Harry Truman was a friend of Lloyd's, and Dan Quayle is no Harry Truman. But there was a time when Harry Truman (the senator and vice president) was no Harry Truman (the great president) either.

In 1944, when the Democratic Convention picked Truman for the ticket, Time magazine explained the choice of "the mousy-looking little man from Missouri" thus: " has been so consistently `regular' that the bosses know he can be trusted to go down the line."

It was downhill from there. After a brief honeymoon following Roosevelt's death, Truman's press began to turn Quayle-like. He was called alternately "bewildered" and "a sedative in a blue serge suit." He became, before late-night television, the butt of national jokes, as in "To err is Truman" and (my favorite) "Delirium Trumans." As historian William O'Neill writes: "Truman was regarded by most people as second-rate." He ended up as one of the great presidents of this century.

Quayle is considered fifth-rate. And while that is not a predictor of greatness, he certainly has the qualities to be an adequate steward for the country. That is not a ringing endorsement, but Quayle has not produced a record that merits a ringing endorsement. What he has produced is a sober and decent record that entitles him to a little less of the condescension and abuse that is so commonly heaped on him.

In 1944 the opposition party, out of ideas and facing a popular war president, was desperate. So it concentrated its attack on what the Republican national chairman called "the exposure of the unfitness of the Democratic candidate for vice president, Sen. Truman." Sound familiar?

It is a sign of the Democrats' desperation that they are reaching for the Quayle issue. It will be interesting to see the Democrats run on a plank of atrial fibrillation.

It will be doubly interesting to see a campaign based on the proposition that Quayle is not qualified to be president coming from a party that last campaigned on the proposition that Michael Dukakis was.