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Right, Left, & Commencement
Appearing a day apart, Hillary Clinton ’73JD and George W. Bush ’68 served to remind their audiences of the breadth of Yale’s political spectrum.

Yale routinely attracts an impressive list of speakers to campus, but the University outdid itself for the Tercentennial Commencement. The 300th edition of the festivities included U.S. senator Hillary Rodham Clinton ’73JD as Class Day speaker, and U.S. president George W. Bush ’68, who gave a short address at graduation ceremonies.


Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush reflected the breadth of Yale’s political spectrum.

On May 20 under a bright blue sky, the junior senator from New York and former first lady received an enthusiastic welcome from a crowd of graduating seniors who had temporarily traded their mortar boards for straw hats, baseball caps, serapes, antlers, wigs, Valkyrie horns, cheese wedges, even an impressive “Y” crafted from sticks and flowers. Clinton began by apologizing for her lack of inventive headgear. “Hats do a number on your hair, and as you know, hair matters,” she quipped. “This is a life lesson that Yale never taught me.”

But one serious thing Clinton did learn about at the Law School in the 1970s was the plight of children. “Every child deserves a chance to live up to his or her God-given potential—this has become my personal mission statement,” she said.

Clinton challenged the Class of 2001 to “dare to care about all those who need our help to fulfill their lives,” and she noted that “beneath the surface of prosperity and progress there are questions begging for you to address.” The senator also admonished the students to “dare to care about our political process.” To remain on the sidelines was, said Clinton, “a personal copout and a national peril.”

U.S. president George W. Bush '68 echoed this theme the next morning when he accepted a Doctor of Laws degree. “Each of you has unique gifts, and you were given them for a reason. Use them and share them,” said Bush, adding that public service was “one way—an honorable way—to mark your life with meaning.”

That the 43rd president visited the Yale campus at all marked the successful culmination of a year of personal diplomacy by President Levin and several alumni to help heal an apparent rift that had developed between the Bush family and the University. There had been disagreements with the University’s left-leaning political orientation, and when Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush '48, was awarded his honorary doctorate in 1991, there was a feeling that the degree had been too long in coming.

The return of this prodigal son meant that graduation would not be business as usual. Bomb-sniffing dogs examined every nook and cranny of the Old Campus, and any thought of on-stage high jinks by graduates was squelched by the presence of grim-faced Secret Service agents who guarded the Commencement platform. Each of the 20,000 people intent on watching the festivities had to proceed through metal detectors before taking a seat, and a security team scanned the crowd from a vantage point on Harkness Tower.

But even the tight security couldn’t suppress a spirit of celebration—and protest. Many of the 2,800 degree recipients, some of whom had joined pro-union demonstrators at the corner of Elm and College streets before jumping back into the traditional march to Phelps Gate, registered their disapproval of Bush administration policies by waving signs and banners that read “Execute Justice, Not People,” “Stop Global AIDS—Make Yale Proud,” and “Grow Trees, Not Bushes!” Sterling professors Bruce Ackerman, Peter Brooks, and Robert Shulman called the administration’s decision to honor the president “premature” and, with more than 200 like-minded faculty, boycotted Commencement.

When President Levin praised Bush, the last of 12 honorands, for his commitment to “public service, pragmatism, and common sense,” there was a chorus of boos, hisses, and catcalls, along with a groundswell of sign waving. But then the U.S. president began to employ the “interpersonal skills” that Levin highlighted in the degree citation. “To those of you who received honors, awards, and distinctions, I say, well done. And to the C students,” said Bush, alluding to his own performance in the classroom, “I say, you, too, can be president of the United States.”

This self-effacing remark drew a laugh, as did Bush’s explanation for why he was allowed to break tradition by delivering a graduation address. “Most people think that to speak at Yale’s Commencement, you have to be president,” said Bush. “But over the years, the specifications have become far more demanding. Now you have to be a Yale graduate, you have to be president, and you have to have lost the Yale vote to Ralph Nader.”

Bush in fact finished third among the three major presidential candidates in the University’s voting district, and the good-natured admission had a calming effect on the crowd. So did his acknowledgement that although he had taken “the academic road less traveled” and there were professors who couldn’t remember his time at Yale—there were times he couldn’t remember either—Bush owed his instructors something. “I’m not sure I remembered to thank them the last time I was here, but now that I have a second chance, I want to thank the professors of Yale,” said the president. “I’m a better man because of Yale.”

By the time the ten-minute address was through, the audience was, if not won over, then at least quiet.

Some in the crowd were upset over the politicization of the ceremony and felt that the speech made light of the graduates’ achievements. “Frankly, I was flabbergasted that Bush was proud of his bad grades,” said Jacob Remes, a member of the Class of 2002 and one of the organizers of the demonstration.

But even Remes had to admit that he was “tickled” by some of the Bush quips, and others were less grudging in their praise. “Knowing how much the deck was stacked against him, Bush did very well,” said Tobin Oat, who received a master of fine arts degree in set design. His father, Larry, agreed and added, “I enjoyed the president’s humor, and it meant a lot to me that Bush came to Commencement.”

In closing, the president called his alma mater “a source of great pride,” and then added, “I hope that there will come a time for you to return to Yale to say that, and feel as I do today. And I hope you won’t wait as long.”  the end


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