It’s not absolutely required that you attend Yale before running for president, but it’s strongly recommended. Over the past three decades, Yale graduates have occupied the Oval Office for 18 years, thanks to Gerald Ford (1941L), George H.W. Bush (1948), Bill Clinton (1973L) and George W. Bush (1968). And of course that streak is certain to continue for the next four years after President Bush faces off in November against John Kerry (l966).
But the trend runs deeper still. While it’s not widely known, Vice President Dick Cheney is also a Yalie and, paired with Bush, will comprise an all-Yale GOP ticket this fall. I picked up this obscure datum from a highly reliable source: Dick Cheney. One night at a Washington dinner, the table talk turned to college impressions and ’round we went, talk-show style, each of us giving a bite-sized bio. When it was Cheney’s turn, he said, “I was in Neal’s class at Yale.” One doesn’t contradict the liberator of Kuwait in public so I simply nodded. But my expression must have betrayed skepticism: We band of brothers got to know each other fairly well after four years in the New Haven compound, and I had no recollection whatsoever of brother Dick. So Cheney added amiably, “I flunked out.” A ripple of expectant laughter went around the table, but it was immediately clear that Cheney was not setting up a punchline. He was merely reporting a fact. It was a moment so thoroughly extra-Beltwayish as to be what we’ve learned to call Reaganesque.
Look elsewhere in the administration and, despite the twanging from the West Wing, you’ll find a lot more New Haven than Odessa. At Justice is hard-nosed John Ashcroft (1964). On his way to the United Nations is the righteous John Danforth (1963D). In Baghdad is the courageous Paul Bremer (1962). When he needs economic advice, the president can turn either to supply-siding Arthur Laffer (1962) or to his classmate from the other side of the political aisle, Nobelist George Akerlof (1962). Scott McClellan seems to be settling in as White House spokesman, but if Bush ever needs backup, who better than presidential mouthpiece David Gergen (1963).
Lest you think there is institutional bias at work here, consider that the greatest single moment for Yale Democrats occurred last fall. The primary contest turned out to be all Yale, all the time. Howard Dean (1971) had moved smartly to the front but John Kerry (1966) was building momentum, and Joseph Lieberman (1964) seemed poised to make a move if the frontrunners stumbled. Then, with the nomination finally settled, Old Blues started thinking the unthinkable–was it possible that nominee Kerry would turn to one of his fallen brothers, Dean or Lieberman, as his running mate? Could we be looking at a historic (and for the public at large, insufferable) Yale sweep? For tactical campaign reasons, probably not. But then again, let’s not rule out Hillary Clinton (1973L).
Well, you get the point. A small school–a fifth or sixth of the size of a state university–has produced for our generation a wildly disproportionate percentage of national leadership. What’s the deal–who was passing out the political steroids? Is this a trend that will continue? The answers are, respectively, “the campus culture” and “no.”
Before the zeitgeist of the Sixties blew it away, Yale’s culture taught its sons–daughters would come later–that they should prepare to lead. Not to cope, not to interface, not to relate, but to lead. Yale was directionally agnostic. The leadership obligation could be discharged in politics, in business, in things academic, diplomatic, or philanthropic. But the terms of the transaction were clear: Yale would deliver the education, the credential, and the network, and would hold an IOU against the day when its sons could report faithfully, “We did our best.” This culture was, of course, overtly and unsustainably elitist. But it explains the implausible political drama now unfolding on the national stage. Why it won’t continue is also clear. The campus culture has changed, and the students have now joined the rest of the human race.
I’ll close with a pop quiz: Of all those young men who quick-stepped through Yale beginning in the late 50s and up through the early 70s, who was considered by his peers as most likely to become president of the United States? I have not seen a poll on this question, but I have no doubt as to the answer: It was John Heinz (1960). He seemed destined to go all the way.
–Neal B. Freeman (1962) is chairman of the Blackwell Corporation in Vienna, Va.