BuzzFeed News launched a new show on Facebook Watch on Monday, That Literally Happened, which revisits some of the most notorious events and trends of the ’90s.
The first episode digs into one of the era’s most notorious political gaffes: the time former vice president Dan Quayle misspelled potato. Yep. Potato.
For those who don’t remember, on June 15, 1992, Dan Quayle was making a routine campaign stop, pushing then-president George H.W. Bush’s “Weed and Seed” program at a Trenton, New Jersey, middle school, when he found himself presiding over a mock spelling bee.
In a room filled with reporters, Quayle called 12-year-old William Figueroa to the board, prompting him to “spell potato.” Figueroa stepped up, correctly spelled potato, erased the word, and went to sit down — until the vice president stopped him, saying, “Hold on now, add a little to the end there.”
Befuddled, William added an “e” to the end of the word at the vice president’s urging, then quickly erased it. He then sat in his seat as a room full of adults applauded the mistake. It wasn’t until a reporter came up to Figueroa later that he realized he was right.
The gaffe was replayed for days on TV and helped spread an image of Quayle as inept, although he blamed an incorrect cue card he was holding.
“It was more than a gaffe,” Quayle later wrote in his memoirs. “It was a ‘defining moment’ of the worst imaginable kind. I can’t overstate how discouraging and exasperating the whole event was.”
Now, 27 years later, BuzzFeed News tracked down Figueroa to find out what was going through his mind as all this happened. You can watch his reaction in the episode:
Figueroa, who now lives in Florida, where he’s a manager at a big box store, said he still gets a kick out of telling friends and family that, yes, he was the infamous potato kid.
Some of his children even learned about the incident in social studies, before he had a chance to tell them.
“I just thought it was, you know, some fun thing,” he said. “I didn’t know it had some political ramifications.”
Figueroa vividly remembers that time in his life after the spelling bee.
After the gaffe, he received a dictionary from Merriam-Webster, was featured in an exhibit in the official potato museum, and was given a free trip to Puerto Rico, but he said that appearing on David Letterman’s show was the true highlight.
Figueroa said the former vice president has not reached out to him personally over the years, even though he hoped he eventually would.
Still, he said, if Quayle showed up on his doorstep tomorrow, there would be no hard feelings.
“We’d just have a conversation, like, you know, like adults. It’s different now,” he said. “So if he wants to talk, that’s fine with me. I know it was a bad day for him, but it was a good day for me.”
There is one thing Figueroa is still upset about, though — that Quayle got to star in a commercial for potato chips and not him.
“I’ve always been like, ‘Why didn’t I do a potato chip commercial?’” he said. “I should have been the one doing that.”
Merriam-Webster was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.