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Yale can claim both of this year’s presidential nominees. But should it do so proudly? The two candidates have something curious in common beside an Old Blue pedigree: that their bright college years were largely wasted on them. Yale was wasted on John Kerry '66 because he was too preoccupied with getting ahead. It was wasted on George W. Bush '68 because he was so busy falling down.
If you want a feeling for Kerry’s college days, read the first few chapters of Douglas Brinkley’s Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War. The picture that emerges, despite Brinkley’s hagiographic intent, is of an opportunistic young politician making sure he gets noticed and forging the connections that will smooth his subsequent path. Spending most of his time on sports and debate while majoring in the non-discipline of political science—a choice he later said he regretted—Kerry coasted academically. Historian Gaddis Smith '54, '61PhD, the only professor on whom he seems to have made an impression, supported Howard Dean in the primaries. It’s evident that Kerry was a “good student,” but in the damning sense of one who pulls good grades by avoiding difficult courses and subjects.
What seems to have excited Kerry most at Yale was networking, especially at the Political Union. As president of the illustrious debating society, he was assured contact with a steady parade of congressmen, senators, and governors, many of whom he made a point of keeping in touch with. He collected his thank-you notes from Adlai Stevenson and pictures of himself with President Kennedy in a big, leather-bound scrapbook. For someone as eager to secure a position in the Eastern establishment as Kerry was, getting tapped for Skull and Bones was a culminating accomplishment. This may explain why he continues to take that silly institution so seriously, treating its threadbare “secrets” with greater reverence than Senate intelligence briefings.
Bush’s Yale story, by contrast, is of a hereditary member of that same establishment attempting to sabotage his preordained place in it. As Peter and Rochelle Schwiezer detail in The Bushes: Portrait of a Dynasty, the current president is a fifth-generation Yalie. In the words of his uncle William Bush, “Going to Yale was like going to Kennebunkport in the summer. It was just part of what you were expected to do.” Little George was even born in New Haven; there’s a poignant picture in the book of him, age one, sitting on his father’s knee, with both men in Y-letter sweatshirts.
But Bush never felt he belonged at Yale. Arriving at a moment when what Nicholas Lemann calls the “episcopacy” was giving way to a meritocracy, he found that simply doing the done thing was no longer sufficient. A C student (and another poli sci major), Bush later said he “didn’t learn a damn thing” at Yale. The reason was that he didn’t try. One year, the star of the football team spotted him in the back row during shopping period. “Hey! George Bush is in this class!” Calvin Hill '69 shouted to his teammates. “This is the one for us!”
Outside of class, Bush staggered in his father’s footsteps. Where George H. W. strived and excelled, George W. lazed and flopped. Big George was captain of the baseball team, but little George couldn’t make the starting lineup. Skull and Bones meant a great deal to 41, but as the Schwiezers report, 43 would have preferred the more party-oriented Scroll and Key (or, as other sources say, the even less formal “Gin and Tonic” club). He joined Bones, where no alcohol was served, only under family pressure. Bush held a grudge against Yale that was finally buried only when he returned in 2001 to claim an honorary degree and give a commencement speech reminiscing about how little he studied.
It may be unfair to attempt to judge how well or badly someone spent his time as a student decades after the fact. But what’s missing from these two Yale careers is any evidence of the kind of bracing engagement that defines a meaningful education. The ethos of Yale—as opposed to, say, Harvard—is not just academic excellence, but an embrace of intellectual adventure that doesn’t point directly toward professional success. There’s no hint of such an excursion in the collegiate career of either George Bush or John Kerry. Yale degrees may have helped them get ahead. But they both appear to have missed out on a Yale education.
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