The most important question in this year’s presidential election is not “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” or “What about your gaffes?” or even “Joe Biden said what?” No, the key inquiry comes from none other than John Cusack, the eternally boyish star of Say Anything, Grosse Pointe Blank, and High Fidelity, who asked on the leftist site Truthout.org: “Is Obama just another Ivy League ***hole?”
Most National Review readers would be inclined to say yes, though they might not put it quite so vividly. But the salient part of Cusack’s question lies in the words “just another.” Ever since Ronald Reagan, a Eureka College graduate, rode off into the sunset, the ensuing run of presidents has been distinctly mediocre — and all have been Ivy graduates (college or law school). Regardless of who wins this November, the streak will continue, since Mitt Romney (though he may not entirely fit the Ivy mold) has law and business degrees from Harvard. Is Cusack, an NYU dropout, onto something?
Before proceeding further, I should explain what the Ivy League is. Officially, it’s a group of eight colleges in the Northeast (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Yale) that play football against one another, rather badly. It was not formally organized until the early 1950s, when the reaction from Harvard was probably, “Wait a minute, we’re in with who?” (Actually it would more likely have been whom.)
Unofficially, of course, the Ivy League, even avant la lettre, has for centuries been a symbol of everything Middle America hates: rich, snobbish, exclusive, Eastern, and too smart for its own good. With the exception of Cornell, a post–Civil War parvenu, the schools were all founded before the Revolution, and ever since, they have been filling the ranks of America’s Establishment: intellectuals, bankers, lawyers, businessmen — and now, increasingly, presidents.
In that capacity, their record has been decidedly mixed. To be sure, the Roosevelts (Theodore and Franklin, both Harvard grads) managed to stay highly popular while taking bold actions that changed the country and the world, for good and for ill; but if you look at the last 50-odd years of presidents, starting with JFK, the Ivy grads have been talkers and dreamers, while the non-Ivy grads have been doers. LBJ (San Marcos State) had Vietnam, to be sure, but also the space program, civil-rights legislation, and the Great Society. Richard Nixon (Whittier) established relations with China and the USSR, signed the first strong environmental legislation, ended the Vietnam War and the draft, and even began affirmative action. Jimmy Carter (Annapolis) . . . well, we’ll come back to him. And of course Reagan dealt a mortal blow to Communism and at least a glancing one to dirigisme, while making the political world safe for conservatism.
Now let’s look at the Ivy Leaguers. JFK (Harvard, after a semester at Princeton) is best remembered — except for his untimely death — for almost starting a nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis; Gerald Ford (Yale Law) was overwhelmed by events during his brief term in office; Bush 41 (Yale) let Reagan’s defeat of Communism play out, won an easy war, and then raised taxes and couldn’t even get reelected; Clinton (Yale Law), while coasting on the peace dividend, flopped with Hillarycare and lost the Democrats’ 40-year hold on the House; Bush 43 (Yale, Harvard MBA) made grandiose plans but had considerable trouble following through; and Obama (Columbia, Harvard Law) narrowly passed a health-care law that everyone hates, plus he’s given some nice speeches.
This pattern has been going on for a long time. George Washington (no college) established the standard for every president since; Jefferson (William and Mary) bought much of the continent from France, defeated the Barbary pirates, and got the slave trade abolished; and Monroe (William and Mary) had a doctrine named after him. In between these, John Adams (Harvard) showed irresolution against the French, was pressured into signing the Alien and Sedition Acts, and lost control of his own cabinet; and Madison (Princeton) started a disastrous war with Britain that saw the nation’s capital set on fire.
Then came John Quincy Adams, who set the pattern for most modern Ivy League ***holes (IL*s) in the White House: earnest, smart, eager, ambitious, self-righteous, and uncomfortable with practical politics. In his first annual message to Congress, he proposed, to general mirth, that the federal government should establish a national university and build an astronomical observatory. The Washington political machine, much smaller back then but no less vicious, chewed him up and spat him out, and in the 1828 election he was routed by alpha-alpha male Andrew Jackson, whose success ushered in a series of hastily countrified hacks, time servers, generals, and amateurs that ended only with Abraham Lincoln (a genuinely countrified amateur, and a brilliant one).
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.