Candidates’ classmates watch as race closes

While most voters will look to the past few months of campaigning to decide their vote in tomorrow’s presidential election, some will look back as far as 42 years. For many alumni who attended college with President George W. Bush ’68 and Mass. Sen. John F. Kerry ’66, recalling their shared days at Yale is an inevitable part of evaluating the political playing field.

The classmates, fraternity brothers and political companions who spent four of their most formative years together with Bush and Kerry, enjoy the benefits of having known the two men before the negative advertisements and political spin. Some alumni said they are still friends and political supporters of the two candidates.

Having gone to Yale in a politically charged era, alumni say it is not a coincidence that their classmates both chose careers in Washington, D.C.

“While people are focusing on how strange it is that the two candidates, even though they come from two political parties, are from essentially the same educational background, I’m not surprised by that,” said Donald Etra ’68, a friend of the president since their days in Davenport College and the secret society Skull and Bones. “It was clearly a tradition of public service that was imbued to us by the professors, and there was a feeling on campus even then that — we had to return some of the benefits we got to the country by way of public service.”

Before they entered the political arena, however, Bush and Kerry were just regular college guys, their fellow Elis said.

“We used to drop water bombs out of the third floor on unsuspecting people downstairs — it was childish,” Steven Perskie ’66, who lived below Kerry in Jonathan Edwards College, said. “It was what 19, 20-year-old guys did at the time.”

Similarly, Franklin Levy ’68 recalled fond memories of his time at Yale with Bush. Levy served as house chairman of Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity during Bush’s 1966 term as fraternity president.

“To be honest, I remember we used to go to meetings, and it just wasn’t a very serious time,” Levy said. “He kept us out of war with the other fraternities, and we had good parties.”

But watching the presidential campaign today, many of Bush and Kerry’s college acquaintances say they can trace the two candidates’ differing personalities back to the contrasting ways in which they were perceived on campus.

“Bush [was] a very likeable, friendly guy — remembered everybody’s name,” said Alan Cross ’66, who lived with Bush in Davenport and knew Kerry from Skull and Bones. “Kerry [was] also a friendly person and not as superficially friendly as Bush, but very concerned, very politically aware.”

Levy said that despite all the formalities of a political career, he can still see glints of the old Delta Kappa Epsilon president on the campaign trail.

“In the town-meeting debate where he stood up and spoke to people, it was much more informal,” Levy said. “That was really the old George Bush.”

Those who knew Kerry, on the other hand, say that at least to some degree, Kerry is not the same man he was while he studied at Yale.

“The John Kerry I knew at Yale and the John Kerry that I perceive as presidential candidate are two different people,” Perskie said. “I find him far more balanced, far more broad in his scope, far more mature in his thinking than either of us was then.”

Etra, who vaguely knew Kerry through Yale Political Union events, said Kerry’s drive and ambition were always clear. Even then, he was running for president, Etra said.

While over the course of the campaign the two candidates have faced sharp criticism on their personalities and performance, their friends from Yale insist that such accusations must be assessed with skepticism.

Kerry has been labeled as an elitist out of touch with the common people, but Perskie said that it is only a matter of style.

“For people who only look at style, it’s very easy to make the mistake of pigeonholing anybody,” Perskie said. “What I’m looking for at the moment is what kind of things is he talking about, what kind of things is he saying, and in those respects, as I said, I’m very pleased and encouraged to see the choices that he’s making, and I think he’s anything but a true elitist in substance.”

Meanwhile, friends of Bush claim that his critics’ portrayal of him as unintelligent and stubborn is not a fair one.

“When people say that he’s not intelligent, I think they’re judging on the fact that he’s not one of the greatest wordsmiths of the time,” Levy said. “He wasn’t at the top of our class. He wasn’t at the bottom. He was in the great middle like everybody else.”

All of the alumni interviewed expressed intentions to vote for the candidate they knew better, for reasons relating to policy as well as familiarity. Some even said they are active in their pick’s political campaign.

“I’m clearly going to vote for the president — he’s the best man at the time and unequivocally I believe he’s the best man for the country,” Etra said. “I also believe strongly in friendship: he’s my friend, and I’m going to vote for him.”

Peter Day ’66, a Kerry supporter who lived in JE with him, expressed a similar rationale.

“It’s sort of a gut feeling,” Day said. “I think I know him well enough that if he were president and I had the opportunity to talk to him, if I disagreed, I would not hesitate to tell him that he’s wrong. And I think that he’s got enough character that he would listen because he’d want to know why even if he didn’t agree with you. Basically, he’s a sound person with a lot of integrity.”

Etra advised all students, regardless of whom they plan to vote for, to reach out to many people at college.

“I think it’s important to make as many friends as possible because you never know which one of them is going to become president,” he said.

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