For more than seven decades after JQA, the only Ivy graduate to serve as president was Rutherford Hayes (Harvard Law). Then the arrival of the 20th century brought Theodore Roosevelt (Harvard) and William Howard Taft (Yale), followed by the Great Ivy Presidential Smackdown of 1912, a three-way free-for-all that pitted those two against Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson. The nation has yet to recover.
Now, you may have noticed that while the Ivy League has eight members, the same three schools keep popping up. Indeed, within the league, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton have hogged the presidency the way they used to hog the football championship. That’s why some think Barack Obama’s most path-breaking accomplishment was becoming the first Ivy president to break the Big Three’s monopoly.
Obama did go to Harvard Law School, though, and never mind black vs. white, East vs. West, or uniter vs. divider, because here’s the true, the fundamental conflict in Obama’s soul: Is he a Columbia ***hole or a Harvard ***hole? The answer is important, because those are two very different types of ***hole. Both are obsessed with showing you how smart they are, but the Columbia ***hole does it by telling you everything he knows, while the Harvard ***hole does it by acting bored with whatever you say. The Harvard variety is at least laid back, and the Columbia variety can be interesting; but put them together and you have a world-weary pest. That may not be an exact description of Obama, but he’s certainly getting there.
All right, I know you’ve been waiting patiently for me to get back to Jimmy Carter, so here goes. Carter graduated from high school in 1941 and went to Annapolis in 1943 amid stiff wartime competition. As the son of Deep South farmers, he would not have been a likely Ivy candidate in any case. But beginning in the 1960s, the Ivies have opened their doors to a much wider class of students (women, for example) and made much greater efforts to recruit nationwide. So if high-school hotshot Jimmy Carter had come along a couple of decades later, he would probably have been an Ivy Leaguer too.
All of which raises the question of whether Ivy schools mold their students to be a certain way, or whether the students were that way to begin with. Richard Nixon won a scholarship to Harvard, but it was during the Depression, and his family couldn’t afford the train fare. Would going to Harvard have removed the lifelong chip on Nixon’s shoulder over his social status, or just reinforced it? Probably the latter — though the Watergate tapes might have had fewer expletive deleteds and more quotes from Herodotus.
In any case, as the Ivies become increasingly national and offer generous financial aid, it’s growing more common for high achievers to go Ivy instead of enrolling at local universities. So the recent trend of Ivy presidential domination is likely to continue. What can we expect from the IL*s of the future?
Two trends are at work here. On the one hand, there is much greater ethnic diversity throughout the league, with Changs and Patels and Rodriguezes now joining the Winthrops and Whitneys and (more recently) Kennedys and Bernsteins. The typical student is no longer a banker’s son but the daughter of a doctor and a professor. So the Ivy students of today are less snobbish, perhaps, but more leftist, technocratic, self-absorbed, and hyperintellectual. The flip side of this greater openness is that the competition to get in is much stiffer, which means you have to spend your entire childhood and adolescence jumping through hoops. Today’s Ivy students are even more likely than earlier ones to be that annoying and ubiquitous overachiever type that you hated in high school — except now they start overachieving in kindergarten.
This explains our recent history, because the depressing truth is that the skill set required of a modern presidential candidate aligns quite closely with that of an Ivy League ***hole. Today’s office seeker needs the ability to figure out how each new test works, and provide the expected answers; to be offhandedly glib on a vast range of topics; to know that he has the best solution for everything, if only people would listen; to assume effortless superiority; to skim through CliffsNotes-type briefings and act as if he read the whole book; to move among the wealthy and influential as if he’s always been one of them; and to have other people do things while acting as if he did them himself. These are the skills that you need to get into an Ivy League university and to succeed once you get there. They’re also the skills you need to be elected president in today’s relentless, media-saturated, politics-obsessed, 24/7 world.
Unfortunately, they’re not the skills you need to patiently build support in Congress, or to arouse the public to action once Election Day is over, which is why IL*s make better candidates than presidents. And from a small-government perspective, this inability to enact grand schemes may not be entirely a bad thing. Still, after the current long run of Ivy League mediocrities ends, it would be a refreshing change if we could somehow have another Reagan, or even a Truman, once in a while.
– Fred Schwarz, a deputy managing editor of National Review, is a graduate of Columbia University.