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The Night Dubya Joined the Whiffs

It seemed fitting, somehow, that the week before the reunion of the Class of 1968, the celebration began in the comic strip Doonesbury.

“Can you believe our rush chairman invaded Iraq?” asks a drunken Old Blue. Upon being informed that his fraternity brothers have arrived at the White House, the president tells an aide, “Cordon them off. I’ll be right there.”

As it happened, at the Class of 1968 reunion festivities on May 29, President Bush’s classmates had unlimited access to our host—if you could get past the crush of people around him—as well as free run of the White House, from the East Room to the Rose Garden, where you could peek into the Oval Office. Tables and chairs were set up throughout the main floor, but most people spent their time roaming the area and soaking in its history.

The next day we boarded our own Hogwarts Express, a chartered train that left from Union Station in Washington for New Haven and another two days of reunion celebrations. Thirty-five years ago, a four-and-a-half-hour train ride with several hundred members of our class would have taken a toll on our livers. For us over-the-hill guys—“I didn’t know we were supposed to bring our fathers,” one of my classmates said—the fizz was more Perrier than Budweiser.

The President of the United States was in better physical shape than most of us. But of course George W. Bush has time to work out and jog every day, a luxury most of us don’t have. His hospitality insured that, as the largest gathering of our class since graduation, the reunion was a resounding success. Classmates who had never been to a reunion came to this one, and the White House was aglow with nostalgia, humor, warmth, and yes, a little bit of incredulity.

It was also fitting that the evening was preceded by some soul-searching. More than a few classmates vowed not to go, in private protest against the war in Iraq or other policies. If the anguish was a little self-important, it must be said that our class has always been a hotbed of self-importance. We are, after all, the Class of 1968—graduated in a year that, as Ron Rosenbaum wrote in our 25th reunion class book, was “different from all other years.” We were the first Baby Boomers, born after the 20th century’s worst apocalypses. We came of age in an era of cultural and political revolution. When we were seniors, Time magazine made the members of our generation its “Man of the Year.” And who did they put on the cover? A member of our class! (He was snapped by a photographer looking for emblematic faces in front of the Yale Co-op.)

With great respect to my classmates, my own feeling is that George W. Bush did more to honor our class than we did to honor him. No denying that we are a diverse and cantankerous lot, and yet each of us was made to feel welcome. For a couple of hours, the president and Mrs. Bush stood and greeted everyone in a receiving line. The president then spent another few hours of mingling, autograph-signing, picture-taking, hugging, and laughing. There were no speeches, only a presentation by the Whiffenpoofs of a plaque, two bulldogs, and an honorary membership in Yale’s most celebrated singing group. The Whiffs confer nicknames on their own, a time-honored tradition; the newest member’s was “Fermez La” Bush. (The nickname may or may not have something to do with the fact that, as Bush acknowledged, he can’t carry a tune. A real Whiff later said the admission was an understatement.) With their arms around each other’s shoulders, Bush and his Whiffenpoof classmates joined with everyone else in rousing versions of “The Whiffenpoof Song” and “Bright College Years,” waving napkins and all.

What was most striking was that President Bush seemed to be enjoying himself as much as his guests were. It was the biggest party he had thrown as president and, according to security people, bigger than anything thrown by his party-animal predecessor. When it was all over, we went off into the night, many of us heading toward New Haven in the morning. Our host headed toward Poland, Russia, France, and the Middle East. One classmate had said to him, “You must be under so much pressure.” He shrugged and looked nonchalant, as if the course were a gut. Well, OK, maybe it is hard to believe he invaded Iraq. But for one memorable evening, it all made absolute sense.  the end


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