Two extremely high-profile politicians will address this year’s graduating seniors. Both President George W. Bush ’68 and New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton LAW ’73 have lived in the White House and went to Yale, but the similarity ends there.
Bush, a Republican, will receive an honorary degree and speak at Commencement. Clinton, a Democrat, will serve as Class Day speaker, addressing graduates the day before the commencement ceremony.
Bush was selected for an honorary degree along with about ten other distinguished individuals. The recipients of honorary degrees are chosen by a committee of the Yale Corporation, the University’s highest governing body, and are typically kept secret until the day of Commencement.
Honorary degree recipients traditionally do not speak at graduation, but exceptions have been made twice before for U.S. presidents. Former Presidents John F. Kennedy and George H. W. Bush ’48 spoke at past ceremonies.
George W. Bush’s Yale days have been well documented by the media. Bush is reported to have been extremely gregarious and athletic, but not particularly academically or politically minded. While at Yale, he was president of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity and a member of Skull and Bones and the Davenport intramural football team.
Like many Yalies at that time, Bush hailed from preparatory school. He went to Phillips Academy, a prestigious boarding school in Andover, Mass., and then headed to Yale, shadowing his father’s academic path.
During his recent campaign, the president distanced himself from his Yale roots, presenting himself as a true Texan rather than as a member of the New England elite, and rarely mentioned his undergraduate days. More recently, Bush declined an invitation to visit Yale in April during the second tercentennial celebration, honoring the University’s most active alumni, even though he was in nearby Waterbury, Conn., a few days before. His father spoke that weekend to Yale alumni and students about leadership.
But it seems Bush’s feelings toward his alma mater have warmed recently. Beyond agreeing to speak at graduation, the recently elected president hosted Yale President Richard Levin and Mrs. Jane Levin for a night at the White House in his first week in office.
Levin said the president and first lady Laura Bush were “very easy to get along with.”
Bush is also close to several members of the Yale Corporation. Trustee Roland Betts ’68 and Bush were not only classmates but also co-owners of the Texas Rangers. Bush also has a close relationship with trustee Judge Barrington Parker ’65, whom he appointed to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals two weeks ago.
The University is wasting no time in awarding Bush an honorary degree. His father did not receive an honorary degree until 1991, three years into his presidency, and the media reported that Bush Sr. was upset about the delay.
In some ways Bush is an ideal speaker for Commencement. He was born in New Haven and has both a father who attended Yale and a daughter, Barbara Bush ’04, who is currently a freshman. While at Yale, he was active within his residential college, involved in many intramural sports, a fraternity president and friends with everyone on campus — from University President Kingman Brewster to the custodial staff, his Yale peers said.
But Bush was not much of a student. When The New Yorker printed his undergraduate grades in November 1999, the nation saw that academics were not Bush’s top priority. The president never earned more than an 88 in any class, the equivalent of today’s B+. He never participated in any political organizations, like the Yale Political Union or the College Republicans.
In addition, Bush’s conservatism contrasts with Yale’s generally liberal student body. When Bush’s father received an honorary degree, students responded with public demonstrations on the day of Commencement. And, while Clinton was chosen to speak at this year’s ceremony by students, Bush was chosen by alumni.
Bush is the fourth U.S. president to have attended Yale in the 20th century. Of Gerald Ford LAW ’41, Bush ’48, Bill Clinton LAW ’73 and Bush ’68, only Clinton has been spurned thus far in the awarding of these prestigious degrees.
Honorary degrees are awarded at every Commencement ceremony. Recipients are given a variety of degrees types, from doctors of law to divinity to social science. At last year’s graduation, honorary degrees were conferred upon conservative journalist William F. Buckley ’50, architect Frank Gehry, playwright Tom Stoppard and former New York Senator Daniel Moynihan, along with six other prominent figures.
Sources indicate that Bush will not be the only heavy hitter at this year’s ceremony.
Although Clinton will already be on campus for Class Day, she will not receieve an honorary degree at Commencement.