While most candidates for president emphasize their accomplishments on the campaign trail, Gen. Wesley Clark has drawn a distinction between himself and his opponents in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination by noting an honor he never received: a Yale degree.
“I didn’t go to Yale,” Clark said in a Keene, N.H diner on Monday. “My parents couldn’t have afforded to send me there. I went to West Point. I paid my own way through college. I worked my way through. I worked for this country, and I’m running in this race because I want to help Americans like me.”
With former Gov. Howard Dean ’71, Sen. John Kerry ’66 and Sen. Joseph Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67 all graduates of Yale, Clark’s comments, widely reported in the national press, were intended to highlight the former NATO commander’s humble roots. While the jab at the three Yale alumni did little to boost Clark’s success in yesterday’s New Hampshire primary — Kerry and Dean finished first and second in the closely watched race, while Clark finished a distant third — Clark press secretary Bill Buck said it was an effort to show the retired general’s ties to ordinary Americans.
“He understands how hard it is for working Americans to afford to send their kids to college in an era when college tuition is rising at record levels,” Buck said. “The point he was making was that there were others in this race that do not share that experience — who grew up on Beacon Hill and Park Avenue — and that [Clark] brings a unique perspective to this race.”
Although Kerry moved several times as a child, he currently lives in the wealthy Boston neighborhood of Beacon Hill, while Dean grew up at an upper-class address in Manhattan.
But Lieberman spokesman Adam Kovacevich said Clark’s comments were unfair in reference to the Connecticut senator, who was the grandson of immigrants and attended public schools in Stamford, Conn.
“It’s comical that Wesley Clark would talk about his humble roots exactly one week after earning a one million dollar windfall as a corporate lobbyist,” Kovacavich said, referring to recent reports of Clark’s compensation as a director of the German industrial gas company Messer Greisheim. “The fact is that Joe Lieberman’s family worked its way up to the middle class and he was the first person in his family to go to college.”
While Clark did not attend an Ivy League institution, his academic pedigree is at least as impressive as the Yale candidates: the general finished first in his class at West Point and studied as a Rhodes Scholar in Oxford. But Buck said Clark was pointing out that while he was able to attend West Point because it charges no tuition, other candidates had opportunities, like an Ivy League education, that most Americans cannot afford.
Although presidential candidates frequently talk about their personal histories on the campaign trail, Dean, Kerry and Lieberman — as well as the Yale graduate they are trying to unseat from the White House, President George W. Bush ’68 — seldom refer to their alma mater on the stump. While another Democratic candidate, Sen. John Edwards, often describes himself as “the son of a mill worker,” Dean, Kerry and Bush — all of whom graduated from New England prep schools before attending Yale — are usually hesitant to discuss their childhoods.
Kerry spokesman David DiMartino said that while Kerry does not frequently mention his college experiences, he is not ashamed of his Yale background.
“We don’t consider it a liability at all,” DiMartino said. “It’s not part of the stump speech because most people don’t care where he went to college, but we don’t try to hide it.”
David Greenberg, a Yale political science and history professor who recently published a book on Richard Nixon’s public image, said in an e-mail that a Yale degree “cuts both ways” for candidates seeking national office.
“We’re living in an era when being an outsider plays well, and anti-elitism plays even better,” Greenberg said. “On the other hand, Americans still on the whole tend to have a lot of respect for Yale and other first-class universities, and a Yale degree is understandably impressive.”
Jeremy Ershow ’06, who skipped class to campaign for Clark in New Hampshire yesterday, said he thought Clark’s effort to contrast himself with his opponents was on target — even though Ershow was disappointed that the general used Yale to make his point.
“He was trying to emphasize that he did not grow up in privilege — that nothing came to him on a silver platter,” Ershow said. “I think he was not talking about what it took to attend Yale in 2004, but what it took to attend Yale in 1968.”