WASHINGTON — George W. Bush ’68 was an uncompromising student in a radically changing world. During the former president’s undergraduate years, Yale changed: It accepted its first female students in 1969 and loosened admissions standards to promote a more economically and socially diverse student body during the mid-1960s and ’70s.
Uncomfortable in his environment and a known academic underachiever, Bush devoted much of his time at Yale to athletics and fraternity life. The grandson of a former senator, Bush came from a family where achievement was championed, said classmate Donald Etra ’68. Indeed, he ultimately served as captain of the baseball team and president of his fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon. But, suggests Garry Trudeau ’70, Bush still lived in the shadow of his successful father.
It was because of this pressure, Trudeau says, that Bush sought to distinguish himself from his peers.
In the 1960s, Yale was fairly insulated from the national furor over the Vietnam War — there were no violent protests on campus throughout the decade. But the campus was no less political, according to Steven R. Weisman ’68, editorial director and public policy fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and former reporter for The New York Times.
“The campus was as divided as the country was,” he said.
Trudeau, the author of the Doonesbury comic strip, added that Bush felt uncomfortable at Yale.
“Bush couldn’t relate to the dominant culture — it forced him out of his comfort zone,” Trudeau said. “The only thing that really appealed to him was frat life, and that’s where he put his energy.”
Indeed, Bush devoted a substantial portion of his time at Yale to fraternity life, serving as president of Delta Kappa Epsilon, known even then for its raucous parties.
Unlike many future politicians of the era, Bush did not join any of the political organizations on campus. At the time, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry ’66 and former New York Gov. George Pataki ’67 were both heavily involved in the Yale Political Union, with Kerry serving as president and Pataki leading the Conservative Party.
Bush contended that he was not apathetic as a student, but rather just chose not to be involved in political activities.
“It’s true, I didn’t go out and join the Conservative Party, but I cared about politics,” Weisman quoted him as saying in the Times before the 2000 election. “Look, I’m not saying that being president of DKE qualifies me to be president. But it shows that I do like to accomplish things and get people to do things. I always did.”
Era of Bad Feelings
Indeed, this desire for recognition is a constant theme in the life of Bush, notes Trudeau. Following his graduation in 1968, Bush experienced a three-decade estrangement from Yale. According to six classmates who were interviewed for this article, Bush felt patronized by those he dubbed “elites” during his college years.
“College tends to be a time when you are acutely aware of who you think is looking down at you,” Weisman said. “And he certainly felt people were looking down on him.”
According to friends, William Sloane Coffin Jr. ’49 DIV ’56 approached Bush in his freshman year, commenting that he knew the elder Bush and that he had lost his 1964 Texas Senate bid to a better man. Years later, Coffin disputed the comment, saying that if he had said it, he did not mean to be malicious; indeed, he and George H.W. Bush ’48 had been close friends at Andover and at Yale.
Bush’s distaste for Yale institutions lasted far beyond his four years in Davenport College. Weisman recounted contacting Bush to write an essay for the class of 1968’s reunion book in 1993. Bush declined.
“He said, ‘I just don’t have a great feeling about Yale; I don’t feel like doing it,’ ” Weisman said. “He was in a very bad place in his relationship with Yale at the time.”
One of Yale’s most illustrious political dynasties, the Bush family has always been involved in public service. Bush’s grandfather, Prescott Bush ’17, served as a United States senator representing Connecticut from 1952 to ’63. George H.W. Bush, Bush’s father, was a congressman, an ambassador and the director of Central Intelligence before serving as President Ronald Reagan’s vice president. He ended his political career having attained the highest office of the land, the presidency.
Trudeau speculated that Bush feels as if he has lived constantly in the shadow of his father, going to the same schools, participating in the same activities.
“Bush did all the same things as his father — Andover, Yale, baseball, Skull and Bones — but only half as well, a trend that would continue,” he said. “And knowing he was a legacy in all things probably ate away at his self-esteem.”
Indeed, Bush faltered in his handling of the war in Iraq, where the elder statesman decided against invasion because of the instability it would cause. He alienated allies, while his father brought them closer after the fall of the Soviet Union.
But classmate and friend Donald Etra ’68 counters that Bush has not run from the shadow of his elders, but rather embraced it.
“He deeply admired the work of his grandfather and father,” he said. “His close relationship with his father gave him the impetus to run for governor, and it was that success [that] led him run for president.”
Roland W. Betts ’68, a classmate and close friend of Bush who is now senior fellow of the Yale Corporation, paved the road back to New Haven for Bush. According to Weisman and Michel, Betts began prodding Bush to come back to campus after his election victory in 2000, with Bush finally agreeing to speak at Commencement.
By design, Weisman noted the address was not a standard stump speech. Rather, Bush gave a deeply personal speech, reflecting on his time at Yale.
“In my time, they spoke of the ‘Yale man,’ ” he said. “I was really never sure what that was, but I do think that I’m a better man because of Yale.”
Yet despite his somewhat turbulent relationship with Yale, Bush’s closing words hinted at some type of reconciliation.
“I hope that there will be a time for you to return to Yale … and to feel as I do, and I hope you won’t wait as long,” Bush said.
As Christopher Michel ’03, a former editor in chief of the News who served as deputy speechwriter and special assistant to Bush, analyzed, “It was an admission — or a confession — of some of the coldness in his relationship with Yale over the years.”
In 2003, Bush turned the relationship full circle, hosting his classmates at the White House for a gala 35th reunion dinner. Over 1,000 members of the class of 1968 attended.
Bush and First Lady Laura Bush welcomed guests for hours on a receiving line before spending several more mingling with the crowd, according to Weisman, who attended the event.
At the reunion, the Whiffenpoofs performed “Bright College Years” and “The Whiffenpoof Song,” with Bush and the audience joining in. Bush seemed to enjoy himself, Weisman recalled, and even received a nickname from the group, “Fermez La [Bush],” a play on the French expression for “shut up,” ostensibly because he could not carry a tune.
Despite his cold relationship with his alma mater, Bush did take some lessons from Yale with him, Michel said.
“He is always reminding the speechwriters of the lessons he learned in his ‘History of American Oratory’ class with professor Rollin G. Osterweis,” he said. “He would read our speeches and correct them if they did not conform to the proper format taught by Osterweis.”
Indeed, Bush referenced the class in his 2001 commencement address at Yale.
“I did take English here, and I took a class called ‘The History and Practice of American Oratory,’ taught by Rollin G. Osterweis,” he said. “I want to give credit where credit is due. I want the entire world to know this: Everything I know about the spoken word, I learned right here at Yale.”
The line, which was met with laughter due to Bush’s notorious bastardizations of the English language, shows an important side of the 43rd president — the self-deprecating comedian, the man who always wants to be at the center of the show.
As Trudeau noted, Bush has lived his life seeking recognition for his accomplishments because of the expectations set by his successful family. That conflict — between wanting to be loved and wanting to be successful — has defined Bush both as a president and, ultimately, as a man, he said.
Part 1: Who is George W. Bush?