While we all know by now that this fall’s presidential election is a Yale-dominated contest in which three of the four candidates spent time on campus, you wouldn’t realize it from listening to either of the campaigns. So it came as a surprise last week when Barbara Bush ’04 made her prime time debut as an active member of the campaign of her father, George W. Bush ’68, she wasted no time in talking about their shared alma mater.
More accurately, she didn’t so much talk about Yale as gloss over it dismissively, in one of the many terrible quips their speechwriters included in the Bush twins’ speech. Conservatives at Yale, Barbara Bush said, have to learn to stick up for themselves. Substance aside, the remark was notable for being one of very few mentions either campaign has made of Yale since it became clear that this fall’s race would be an Eli showdown.
Much has been made of the fact that both Bush and Democratic presidential nominee Senator John Kerry ’66 attended Yale. Much has been made, that is, by everyone but the candidates themselves, who, in attempts to avoid elitist labels, rarely mention Yale. But the candidates’ offhanded treatment of Yale is justifiable and appropriate. But the media’s refusal to give up a seductive but superficial angle on this election — the candidates’ Yale degrees and secret society membership — not only is bad for Yale, but detracts from legitimate discourse about the election.
That Bush and Kerry shared time on campus together is a superficial coincidence, a fun piece of trivia that may one day be added to board games. But it has little real significance. At most, their shared Yale backgrounds reveal that both Bush and Kerry were sons of privilege. But voters know that already. And to use Yale as a symbol of privilege misses the point entirely. The Yale people like to think is playing a role in this election is the homogenous, elitist Yale of the 1960s. Today’s Yale is so different that it would be virtually unrecognizable. There are women, for one. And students from over 50 countries around the world and need-blind admissions for all students.
While Kerry and Bush rightly recognize that their shared Yale backgrounds are irrelevant, the media refuses to let the story die. It’s an easy story, one that every paper and network has done and that virtually none have done well. The media latches on to the icon of Yale or stereotypes about the Yale Political Union (Kerry) or DKE (Bush) in an attempt to oversimplify this race and the contenders. Worst of all is the media’s treatment of Skull and Bones, of which both Bush and Kerry were members.
Media outlets seem to froth at the mouth about the nation’s first ever Bones vs. Bones election, and continually remind voters about it. But the candidates’ membership in Skull and Bones couldn’t be more irrelevant. Like their Yale degrees, their secret society memberships only reveal their privileged backgrounds. Bones has little bearing on how the candidates have lived their lives or directed their careers after Yale. Turning this election into a story of the battle between two sons of Eli is the worst sort of reductionism. It misrepresents Yale, misrepresents the candidates, and reveals nothing useful about how either of these men will lead our nation during the next four years.