Bush mixes humor with humility in Commencement talk

So much for Phi Beta Kappa. At the 300th Yale Commencement Monday, President George W. Bush ’68 told the graduates, “C students — you too can be president.”

In a move that symbolized the reconciliation of a man and his alma mater, Bush returned to Yale for the first time in years to receive an honorary degree and speak at Commencement. Following a few bars of “Hail to the Chief,” the president delivered a 12-minute speech that evoked more cheers and laughs than protests from graduates and guests alike. Bush spoke about his present love for Yale, his undergraduate days and the meaning of a college education.

“I’m a better man because of Yale,” he said.

Facing a sea of yellow protest signs, Bush charmed his audience with his Texan drawl and self-deprecating humor. While many booed when Yale President Richard Levin awarded Bush a doctor of laws, Bush quelled any audible protest the moment his first words reverberated on Old Campus, wishing congratulations to all graduates, family and friends.

It is Yale tradition to allow only U.S. presidents to speak at Yale Commencement — former Presidents John F. Kennedy and George H. W. Bush ’48 spoke at past ceremonies — but Bush joked that the stipulations have become even stricter recently.

“Now, you have to be a Yale graduate, you have to be president and you had to have lost the Yale vote to Ralph Nader,” Bush said.

Recalling his undergraduate days at Yale, Bush jokingly talked about his courses, a Japanese Haiku class in particular, and his hours in the Yale library.

“One of my academic advisors was worried by my selection of such a specialized course. He said I should focus on English. I still hear that quite often,” Bush said. “But my critics don’t realize I don’t make verbal gaffes. I’m speaking in the perfect forms and rhythms of ancient Haiku.”

The president graduated in the same class as Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead. With both showing a penchant for Sterling Memorial Library, and its comfortable couches, Bush said he and Brodhead had a mutual understanding.

“Dick wouldn’t read aloud, and I wouldn’t snore,” Bush joked.

While many members of the Class of 2001 may be unsure where their Yale degree will lead them, Bush said he too was not certain what career path to take upon graduation. Before reaching the White House, Bush earned a business degree from Harvard University, worked in the oil industry, was an owner of Major League Baseball’s Texas Rangers and then became governor of Texas.

“Life writes it own story,” Bush advised the graduates. “Along the way, we realize we are not the author.”

While Bush said a Yale degree can be very helpful along that uncertain path, he said it is not necessary for success — and certainly not political office, making a reference to Vice President Dick Cheney who did not complete his Yale degree.

“If you graduate Yale, you get to become president,” Bush said. “If you drop out, you get to be vice president.”

Bush concluded his speech by acknowledging his estranged relationship with the University and encouraging students to visit Yale soon after graduation.

While Bush did not heed his own advice, he told graduates: “I hope it doesn’t take you as long.”

The lighthearted tone of the president’s speech at Yale contrasted greatly with the commencement address he gave at the University of Notre Dame Sunday. Delivering a political message, Bush called upon graduates there to combat poverty by joining the private sector, especially religious institutions.

“Our society must enlist, equip and empower idealistic Americans in the works of compassion that only they can provide,” Bush said at Notre Dame.

At Yale, Bush sat center stage, clad in a blue robe with stripes on the sleeves signifying his prestigious award. He was flanked by 11 other honorary degree recipients, including former Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin LAW ’64, “Law and Order” star Sam Waterston ’62 and former president of Mexico Ernesto Zedillo — whom Bush called his “gran amigo.”

He attended the ceremony accompanied by his wife Laura Bush and National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, who sat alongside Yale President Richard Levin’s wife, professor Jane Levin, in the front row of seats facing the stage.

President George W. Bush waves to the crowd of 25,000 graduates and family as he receives a standing ovation for his Commencement speech.
LISA TANNENBAUM
President George W. Bush waves to the crowd of 25,000 graduates and family as he receives a standing ovation for his Commencement speech.

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