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Well, what is going on here? Barring an untimely death, a Yale graduate will occupy the Oval Office for at least 20 consecutive years, from January 1989 through January 2009: George H. W. Bush ’48, Bill Clinton ’73JD, George W. Bush ’68, and, possibly, John Kerry ’66. No university has ever had a 20-year run. Harvard’s FDR, all by himself, is the nearest contender. And last winter there were even more Blues in the running—Senator Joe Lieberman ’64, ’67LLB, and Governor Howard Dean ’71.
Ought we to chalk it up to historical accident, the political equivalent of a run of good cards? Or did some deeper set of factors come together to produce this extraordinary run of candidates and presidents? There were reasons why the first six American presidents hailed either from Virginia (Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe) or Massachusetts (John and John Quincy Adams): the size and importance of those two colonies in the independence struggle. Was there something special in the experience of those who attended Yale—not Harvard, Chicago, or Berkeley—between the fall of 1960, when Joe Lieberman was a freshman, and 1973, when Bill and Hillary Clinton graduated from law school? Was there, in short, something in the air?
The fundamental and clearest presidential pattern at Yale is the extraordinary power of privilege: the intense web of connections knitting together America’s upper classes through family ties, business relationships, philanthropic and civic activities, social and recreational life, and of course, education. An interest in “public service,” even if it did not include electoral politics, flowed quite naturally from these networks. “In the first half of the twentieth century,” writes Yale historian David Greenberg ’90, “wealth and breeding constituted real credentials for assuming public roles. Truman Secretary of State Dean Acheson ’15, banker-diplomat W. Averell Harriman ’13, and Time magazine founder Henry Luce ’20 fulfilled Yale’s promise to groom young bluebloods for national influence.” Some argued that, if Harvard got the presidency, Yale got the State Department—although, for most Americans, whether Harvard or Yale dominates presidential politics has all the competitive interest of a polo match.
Our political system appears to be in thrall to the most rarefied realms of the American class system. Three of this year’s four Yale presidential candidates—Dean, Kerry, and Bush—were in the less-than-1 percent of their contemporaries who attended exclusive private boarding schools. It was no historical accident that Howard Dean’s grandmother asked George W. Bush’s grandmother to be a bridesmaid at her wedding; those young women knew each other in the networks of upper-class Northeastern white Protestantism. (My grandmothers, second-generation members of Jewish immigrant communities in Pittsburgh and Baltimore, didn’t know Bush’s grandmother and wouldn’t have been invited to her wedding if they had.)
By the late 1960s, admission to Yale was no longer founded on those networks. Students from the middle class and working class breathed the air of privilege, and plenty found it intoxicating. Others found it toxic. Journalist Jim Sleeper ’69—now a lecturer in Yale’s political science department, but then, he says, a “pimply faced Jewish kid from public high school” who took George W. Bush’s dry cleaning to the laundry when he was a freshman—observed “highly ambivalent reactions. If you weren’t already part of it, you either spent time aping it, or smoldering in rebellion against it. On the one hand, I was in awe of it. On the other, I took the train to New York City every weekend.” Eventually, though, “you really saw there was something about these WASP kids: understated expression, willingness to assume social leadership, ability to bear pain with grace—some of it phony, and some of it the real deal.”
The connections developed and cemented in these retreats of privilege and wealth nurture the political careers of today’s candidates. Roland Betts ’68, Senior Fellow of the Yale Corporation, was George W. Bush’s rush chairman at DKE. He is also the son of a close associate of Vincent Astor; has worked as an entertainment lawyer at the elite New York law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison; and, as an entrepreneur, has financed nearly a hundred movies. And although he is a Democrat, Betts was the principal partner in the deal that set Bush up in business as head of the Texas Rangers and eventually yielded his personal fortune.
Senator John Kerry’s fellows created a “Yale ’66 Classmates for Kerry” fund that has expanded across the country. John Harvey ’66 held a fund-raiser for his classmate back in November. “I was registered as a Republican,” he told the New York Times, “so class loyalty has some significance.” Leo Kayser III ’66, another Republican, serves on the Classmates steering committee and has given the maximum to Kerry—and to Bush. Yale is thicker than party.
Historian Peter Dobkin Hall, who taught at the School of Management for many years and is now at Harvard’s Kennedy School, knows the histories of Harvard and Yale like no one else. He argues that there is another reason why Yale’s political elite is in ascendancy now, compared with that of Harvard. They both “created national elites” in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, says Hall. But in the first half of the twentieth century “Yale excelled in creating national networks of leaders and influential types—kind of a centripetal force—while Harvard leadership tended to be concentrated in powerful institutions located in major metropolitan centers.”
In the century after 1760, the percentage of Yale graduates born in Connecticut declined from 84 percent to just 27 percent. Perhaps even more important, the percentage settling in Connecticut after graduation went from 65 percent in 1760 all the way down to 13 percent on the eve of the Civil War. Yale has had a long history, in other words, of drawing students from around the country—and sending them back out just as far. When Hall looked at the period from 1900 to 1940, he found that fewer than half of Yale’s entering undergraduates came from New England, while Harvard’s undergraduates were overwhelmingly recruited from the Northeast, especially New England. Yale accepted roughly twice Harvard’s percentage from the Midwest, three times that from the South.
Hall has not investigated the classes graduating in the second half of the twentieth century. He finds it interesting, however, “that most of the current Yale political eminences—the younger Bush, Dean, and Lieberman—all come out of localized political cultures rather than, like Kerry, coming up through the Beltway-anchored national political culture.”
Consider the geography of Harvard’s chief executives: the Adamses and JFK from Boston, the Roosevelts from New York. Now Yale’s: William Howard Taft (Ohio), Gerald Ford (Michigan); the Bushes (not just Connecticut, but also Texas); Bill Clinton (Arkansas). Even the vice presidents: John C. Calhoun was from South Carolina, Dick Cheney from Wyoming.
“Yale’s influence is based on the creation of elites everywhere else, and they’re interconnected, through class organizations,” explains Hall. “Yale was the first of the institutions to have classes that convene regularly and stay in touch—very self-consciously constructing a network of people staying in touch with one another. With alumni directories, they could go to any small town and know where the Yalies were.”
Given these extraordinary national networks, Hall finds it “most interesting that Yalies were so unsuccessful” in national politics at first. Until the elder Bush, “Yale’s track record in terms of national leaders of the first rank was zilch. Then there is this unbelievable, unprecedented eruption.”
At the root of that emergence may lie what Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham ’56, in his essay “Quarrels with Providence” (Yale Alumni Magazine, March 2001), calls a centuries-old spirit of “remonstrance and dissent.” Yale, he writes, commands its graduates to “improve and reform.” Even in the late nineteenth century, “the resident clergy operating under the imprimatur of Dwight Hall, many of them as fierce in their beliefs as Jonathan Edwards, recruited missionaries to bring the light of Christian learning to China, to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, to the Indian reservations on the Dakota plains … The Harvard turn of mind tended to produce sophisticated apologetics for the party of things-as-they-are; the dissenting spirit at Yale usually voted with the party of things-as-they-might-become.”
Consider the Law School, which Lapham sees as one source of Yale’s ethic of reform. The Law School “approaches politics and the notion of the res publica as its raison d’être,” he said in an interview. “As opposed to the law school at Harvard, where you expect people to go into corporate law, the one at Yale tends to attract people with a social conscience.”
Even though Yale routinely produces corporate lawyers, and Harvard boasts numerous engaged, vigorous public intellectuals, many perceive this distinction. “Yale Law School is generally conceded to be the nursery of legal ‘intellectuals’—folks who think outside the box,” writes Peter Hall, while Harvard “is generally considered to be the training ground of legal mechanics—folks who do what they do superbly well, but are not great innovators.” Douglas Smith ’71, a management expert and author of, most recently, On Value and Values: Thinking Differently About We in an Age of Me, says that Yale is the school known “for caring more about educating professionals fully cognizant of the role of lawyer as public servant.”
The public service ethic pervaded Yale. Whether they paid attention to it or not (and plenty did not), graduates of the era that produced the current crop of presidents and candidates say that it could be felt throughout the campus. “What impressed me very deeply, as one of the undergrads who wouldn’t have been admitted to the old Yale,” says Jim Sleeper, “was a certain strain of high-souled dissent in the old Yale.” He can still quote from President Kingman Brewster’s address to his freshman assembly of September 1965: “To a remarkable extent this place has detected and rejected the very few who have worn the colors of high purpose falsely. This is done not by administrative edict or official regulation [but] by a pervasive ethic of student and faculty loyalty and responsibility and mutual regard which lies deep in our origins and traditions.”
Yale issued “a call,” adds Douglas Smith. “Here was a special obligation that was being described, that we were being called to and that was a civic obligation. Being Yalies meant that we were there to learn how to be leaders, to be called to this civic duty.”
That strain of dissent gave rise to Kingman Brewster’s presidency in the 1960s. “Brewster, Chauncey, and the other Old Blues who changed Yale couldn’t have changed it were it not for something important in the old Yale tradition itself,” says Sleeper.
Geoffrey Kabaservice ’88, ’99PhD, writes in The Guardians, his recent biography of Brewster, that Yale’s president from 1963 to 1977 had an activist vision of Yale as a newly revitalized source of the nation’s intellectual, political, and moral leadership. Brewster changed Yale by opening up admission to those outside the “legacies” and the traditional elites. But more than that, Peter Hall speculates, he brought a “moral seriousness” to “what Yale was teaching people about leadership and national life.”
In a typical speech, to the Yale Club of Cincinnati in 1964, Brewster emphasized “what could best be called a ‘public motivation.’ Yale has engendered it to an extraordinary degree. I think this characteristic which marks Yale men everywhere as public volunteers does not stem from preachments or exhortations. Other students at other institutions were preached at and exhorted quite as much as we. It stems rather from the ethic of Yale as an experience. Yale expects participation in something larger than yourself, and opens to all the invitation to responsibility and to leadership.”
Brewster chose officers who issued the same call. On Freshman Sunday, September 1959, to take just one early example, Chaplain William Sloane Coffin Jr. ’49, ’56BDiv, prayed, “Eternal God, we praise Thy name for the men of this University, thousands upon thousands, whose footsteps, yet remaining, testify that their living was a light to the darkness of their time. Grant now, we pray, to us who follow, a like concern to share in the action and passion of our time; a like determination to end all that is stale, irrelevant, false in our university, nation and world; and a like courage to live beyond self-concern, not fearing failure and so refusing life’s greatest ventures, but daring to commit ourselves to Thy love for us and to Thy will for all mankind. So may we be responsible in the measure we have received, worthy of the heritage into which we now enter.”
The administration officials also opened the university to the ferment and change of the times, permitting protest and keeping communication lines open to dissident students. In doing so, they kept Yale from fracturing along racial or age or political lines. When Harvard and Columbia students took over buildings as antiwar protests in 1968 and 1969, both administrations called police, who were only too happy to knock heads. In contrast, when Vice President Spiro Agnew lashed out at Kingman Brewster in the spring of 1970, hundreds of students—I was one of them—marched to Brewster’s house in support of our own university president. Brewster, says Jane Hunter ’71, ’81PhD, who came to Yale from Cornell in the first class of female transfer students and now teaches American history at Lewis and Clark College, “allowed Yale students to simultaneously declare their solidarity with Yale and with their generation.” This way, he and other members of the Yale administration encouraged Yale graduates to define themselves inside, rather than outside, the political system.
But what about Harvard? Wasn’t “the invitation to responsibility and to leadership” issued there too? Yes, but with a difference, says Douglas Smith. “I went to Harvard Law School, and I’ve never been in a more socially Darwinian environment than Harvard. The sense you got was that you were entirely on your own. At Harvard, students weren’t called to be leaders; they assumed they would be leaders in their field, which is entirely different. The environment at Harvard reinforced self- interest.”
New York Times White House correspondent Elisabeth Bumiller, who is married to a Yalie and has plenty of opportunities to observe them in her job, says, “Yale graduates seem to have a much deeper loyalty to Yale than Harvard graduates have to Harvard.” Three to four decades later, many Yale students still feel warmly about their university administration; as Atlantic Monthly correspondent James Fallows, Harvard ’70, comments, “No one has ever said that about a Harvard administration at any stage in its history.” He describes life at Harvard in terms of “the Siberian prison camp bonding that makes one tougher—strength through hardship.”
“Maybe you can say Yale was the most fertile soil” for national leaders, says Sam Chauncey. “The fertility is there because of the role models—Cy Vance, John Chafee, Bill Scranton, John Lindsay—and the leadership institutions, the political union, colleges, things that seemed to reward leadership. The trouble with Harvard is that the soil isn’t any good. You could say the same about Princeton, even more so, which hasn’t turned out very many leaders at all.”
Chauncey added: “Some seeds don’t germinate. And some seeds do. The ones that do have something in and of themselves.”
It is possible to see a certain moral seriousness—frequently earnest, occasionally self-righteous—in all four members of the political class of 2004. “Back then Yale, like most campuses, was a hub of idealism, networking, and, in retrospect, more than a little sanctimony,” New York Times senior diplomatic correspondent Steven R. Weisman ’68 once wrote about the era that produced Bush, Kerry, Lieberman, and Dean. Maybe that atmosphere suited an intense reformer like Kerry, who wore shirts bearing the monogram JFK—his own initials and the initials of his presidential hero—long before he threw Vietnam War medals over a fence at the Capitol. Maybe it even suited George W. Bush, who used to mock the Yale sanctimoniousness. Today, Bush has become “exactly what he complained about,” Weisman notes. The president claimed the moral high ground after 9/11. In doing so, he achieved a stature far beyond that of the easygoing “good old boy,” and used it to lead the country into two wars within three years.
As a leadership strategy, moral vigor works like little else. As a personal quality, it makes a would-be leader memorable. Ralph Dawson ’71, one of Howard Dean’s two African American roommates in the spring of 1968, remembers that when he was overwhelmed with sorrow and fury after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, it was Dean who suggested trying to “see if we could do something.”
So Dawson and his other roommate, Don Roman ’71, got funding from Pierson College master John Hersey ’36 and flew to Memphis to take part in the march that King had planned to lead. “Howard didn’t go,” Dawson says; “Don and I went. Howard gave us the inkling that we ought to do something.” That urge to “do something,” nurtured, modeled, and encouraged at Yale during the 1960s and early 1970s, is one of the factors behind the run of Yalies in the White House. In all likelihood, the run isn’t over yet. Just ask Senator Hillary Clinton ’73JD. And—if Yale is still doing its job—check in after a few decades with Barbara Bush ’04 and Anne Dean ’06.
The Yale Woman and Politics
“For women in the earliest coed classes, things were different. First, anywhere you looked, the place was built by men, for men. It wasn’t a place where women naturally felt at home. Add to that the totally lopsided numerical ratio, plus the fact that women were spread out among all the colleges. That put them terribly in the minority—as well as the spotlight—making it much harder for women to have friendships with other women. There was always pressure for them to mix with at least some of the men, and they missed the experience of bonding with other women, which is part of college life.
“Also, they felt so grateful for having been admitted that they felt like guests. If you’re a guest somewhere, you behave differently from if you’re in a community that makes communal decisions. And there were almost no women faculty. If you see that it’s only the men who have become the leaders, as a woman, how can you see yourself in that role?
“There should be more women running for political office, but perhaps there aren’t enough women alumni yet. The old boy network persists and continues to handicap access for women in subtle ways.”
The 60s at Yale
“The university’s commitment to service has been conveyed over many decades. The people involved in Dwight Hall, for instance, were a consistently strong presence communicating the idea that an individual can make a difference on campus and in the community.
“I found it to be a supportive environment at Yale—support to express opinions, to engage in debate, and to consider public service —conveyed by Kingman Brewster and others at the university. What I felt from the administrators and faculty was real encouragement to become involved in public policy issues and debate.During that time, we found people over 30 we could really trust.”
Howard Dean’s Yale
“In some ways I consider myself separate from the other three candidates of 2004. Yale changed so much between the class of ’68 and the class of ’71. Brewster and [dean of admissions] Inslee Clark remade the institution, and I was the beneficiary of that. My class was the first class to have women in it; it was the first class to have a significant effort to recruit African Americans. It was an extraordinary time, and in that span of time is the change of an entire generation.
“I was not a political activist on campus. I did a lot of teaching and tutoring. At Yale I did feel a push in the direction of public service. Recently I uncovered an old sociology paper I’d done as a freshman that depicts me at 40—I’m a second-term congressman with a wife who edits books for a living. That dream sort of died along with Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy—with the Nixon administration and the Vietnam War. I became disillusioned with public service in terms of politics and eventually ended up in medical school, trying to improve the country one life at a time. But the public service piece was always very strong.
“Brewster was the most significant college president in the ’60s and ’70s, maybe nationally and certainly in the Ivy League, and that did have an influence on all four of us. He believed in public service, and he set an extraordinary example in terms of his personal skills—skills that enabled him to work with the impulses, in all of us, toward producing a positive result. Brewster was the guiding light of the institution, including all his considerable political skills, which we may have derided at the time but which were responsible for catapulting Yale into the forefront.”
When Yale Men Meet
“The phrase ‘Yale man’ has acquired in my mind more and more luster over the years. When I run into a Yale man I somehow feel that I am with a kindred spirit. A part of that kindred-ness comes from his gentility and his not being all jumped up about it. It’s a certain sweetness of character.
“With Bush and Kerry, we have the delicious spectacle of two Yale men who are very similar in certain ways, both coming from the patriciate, both members of that unnamed society, but very different in other ways—absolute antipodal exemplars. I think the race is going to be bloodier than a Mel Gibson movie. I think each of these guys probably drives the other nuts. I think Kerry looks at Bush and thinks, ‘Here’s this total slacker, a guy who never read a book, never broke a sweat, frat boy, dodged the war—and he’s the President of the United States and I’m not.’ And Bush looks at Kerry and thinks, ‘Here’s this toff with his nose in the air, show-off about his war record, married a bunch of rich women, couldn’t snap a towel in the locker room if he tried.’
“They strike me, Bush and Kerry, as classic illustrations of the Isaiah Berlin formulation. Bush has done a lot of questionable things, but he has led. He may be leading us to hell, but by God he has led. Kerry seems to be very classically the fox. It’s a little bit true what the Republicans say: Kerry does seem to have about 12 positions on just about everything. Maybe it’s simply an aspect of his undoubted intellectualism; he may well have a restless mind, and restless minds often don’t stay made up.”
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