WASHINGTON — The clock struck twelve in Washington. And there was change in the capital.
Although the oath of office had yet to be administered to now-President Barack Obama, a constitutional provision conferred on America’s first African-American commander-in-chief the full powers of the executive branch, which just minutes before belonged to another man: George W. Bush ’68.
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Indeed, Bush stood at a podium like this one eight years ago to take his oath as the 43rd president of the United States. He returned here today as an observer — alongside both Bill Clinton LAW ’73 and George H.W. Bush ’48 — and as a fading symbol of Yale in the White House.
In interviews with those close to the former president, Bush was described as confident and unwavering, even in the face of criticism, and sometimes to the point of stubbornness. In New Haven and in the Oval Office, Bush cherished his friends and mocked his critics — fundamental characteristics of a man whose presidency was marked by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, two wars and an economic recession.
‘BRING IT ON’
Born in New Haven in 1946, Bush spent most of his formative years in Western Texas, where his father, future-president George H. W. Bush ’48, owned an oil company. He later attended Phillips Academy Andover before arriving in 1964 at Yale, where he majored in history, served as president of the fraternity Delta Kappa Epsilon and played on the Yale baseball team.
The road from New Haven to the White House took Bush to Cambridge, where he received an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School, then back to Texas, where he returned to his father’s oil company. He later bought the Texas Rangers baseball team with classmate and Yale Corporation Senior Fellow Roland Betts ’68 and, in 1994, became Governor of Texas.
Ever since the 2007 military “Surge” began to temper the progress of the Iraqi insurgency, Bush has contended that he would be remembered for his bold support of freedom abroad, and that history will vindicate his actions.
In a November 2007 interview with German television station “n-tv,” Bush remarked: “I was unashamed, unabashed at spreading certain values to others — the main one being liberty, whether it be the freedom from forms of government or the freedom from disease and hunger.”
A staunch defender of his presidential record, Bush has admitted there were a few bumps along the road. In the final press conference of his administration last week, Bush listed “things [that] didn’t go according to plan” during his time in office, including Abu Ghraib and not finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
The event also saw Bush invite people to pass judgment on his work in office. “We all should welcome criticism on different policy,” he said. “It’s the great thing about our democracy.”
‘COCKY AND SELF-EFFACING’
Christopher Michel ’03, a former editor in chief of the News who served as deputy speechwriter and special assistant to Bush, said the former president’s attitude toward criticism stems from his time at Yale.
“I think one of the things President Bush took from Yale is that you can respect and learn from a diversity of viewpoints and still be firm in your convictions,” he said. “In Washington there is certainly a subsection of society that doesn’t.”
“He has a great sense of humor,” Michel continued. “He demonstrates incredible humanity and passion when connecting with people.”
Indeed, Bush has always been one to seek comfort in friends, and many of his friends from Yale followed him to the White House.
Betts was a major donor to the Bush presidential campaigns. And Clark Randt Jr. ’68 and Donald Ensenat ’68, also DKE brothers, were Bush’s ambassador to the People’s Republic of China and chief of protocol at the Department of State, respectively.
Bush’s penchant for giving nicknames to friends, staffers and even foreign leaders is legendary. Karl Rove was “Boy Genius,” Vladimir Putin was “Pootie-poot” and New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd was “the Cobra.”
“The attention he pays to individual staffers is incredible,” Michel noted.
But not everyone interpreted Bush’s monikers as signs of affection. Garry Trudeau ’70, author of the Doonesbury comic strip and outspoken critic of the administration, said Bush is a superficial charmer with a deep mean streak.
“He had an uncanny ability to detect vulnerability and to mock it,” Trudeau said, referring to Bush’s presidential years. “That’s what the nicknames were all about.”
As classmate Steven Weisman ’68, who later went on to cover the Bush Administration for The New York Times, put it: “[Bush] is at once cocky and self-effacing, stubborn and congenial.”
Although Weisman and Bush were not close friends at Yale, Weisman noted that Bush had a troubled relationship with his alma mater. Feelings of inadequacy at times made Bush resentful of those around him, Weisman added.
But, as Weisman remembers Bush insisting, “I turned out okay.”
The source of Bush’s scholastic malaise may lie in none other than the 1960s. The rise of hippies and musicians promoting a life of free sex, drugs and alcohol, nationwide ant-Vietnam War demonstrations, the Civil Rights movement and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy set the tone for a period that shattered the nation’s racial and social norms in sometimes violent upheaval. Indeed, in Bush’s graduating year alone, 1968, the city of Chicago was shut down due to riots, and both the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated.
As a student, Weisman said, Bush was not involved in the Civil Rights or Vietnam protests. And even Bush himself admitted to Weisman before the 2000 election that he was apathetic to the counterculture of the time during his four years at Yale. As a student he was best known as president of DKE, and demonstrated little regard for politics.
“But nevertheless he is a child of the sixties,” Weisman said. “Just on the political right.”
Trudeau disagreed, noting that Bush was a child of a different generation, one that could not comprehend the global changes around it.
“Bush and many of his peers didn’t understand the cultural and political forces that were transforming society,” he said. “Bush both feared and resented the counterculture. Our [generation’s] anthem was ‘For What It’s Worth.’ The last rock song that made sense to Bush was ‘Twist and Shout.’ ”
As president, Bush demonstrated a worldview in which everything is black and white, from his classification of the War on Terror as one of “good vs. evil,” to his belief in the doctrine of preemptive strike — the Bush Doctrine, as it has come to be known. And by all accounts, Bush’s sense of what he believes is right and wrong is unwavering.
“I’ve often spoken to you about good and evil, and this has made some uncomfortable,” said Bush in his farewell address to the nation last Thursday. “But good and evil are present in this world, and between the two of them there can be no compromise. Murdering the innocent to advance an ideology is wrong every time, everywhere.
Bush continued: “Freeing people from oppression and despair is eternally right.”
At Yale, Bush was not a particularly religious person, his Yale classmates said.
“It is hard to say exactly what the source [of his conviction] is, but it comes from his family, faith and his reading of history,” Michel said. “He is guided by his fundamental conviction that there is an almighty.”
It was the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 that impacted on Bush most, as a person and as a president, Michel said. Bush became more secure in the righteousness of liberty and democracy, he explained.
“The president is convinced that freedom is the surest path to peace.” Michel said. “He developed these ideals over a lifetime, but they crystallized after September 11th.”
Sept. 11 turned a president elected with a decidedly domestically oriented mandate — gay marriage, social security reform and stem cell research, for instance — into one responding to the most deadly single attack on American citizens in United States history.
Still, Lanny Davis ’67 LAW ’70, former adviser to President Bill Clinton LAW ’73 and a close friend of Bush, notes that Bush used his terms in office to attack some of the most troubling and divisive issues in the country.
“Mr. Bush also at times exhibited what President John F. Kennedy defined as political courage — the willingness to stand on principle against the base of your own party,” wrote Davis, a former News chairman, in a column for the Washington Times. “He did so on such issues as comprehensive immigration reform, providing more than 40 million seniors with Medicare-covered prescription-drug benefits, and ‘No Child Left Behind.’ ”
Said Donald Etra ’68, a classmate and friend of Bush: “He has never shied away from what needed to be done.”