Monday, November 13, 2006




In spite of its reputation for academic excellence, Yale has produced a trio of politicians whose incompetence and poll numbers have reached bathyspheric depths. I am referring to George W. Bush (B.A. 1968), John Kerry (B.A.1966), and Bob Taft (B.A. 1963). Bush has made it to 31% in a Newsweek post-election poll, but he’s not done yet. And Kerry would probably be even lower after his recent gaffe, in which he couldn’t get straight the punch line of a joke about how stupid Bush is. Kerry ended up instead appearing – at least to people of limited intelligence – to insult the intelligence of troops in Iraq. Kerry, who was a D student in his freshman year at Yale, is no one to be making jokes about anyone else’s intelligence. What these three Yale graduates – Bush, Kerry, and Taft – have in common, in addition to their by now legendary incompetence, is that they are what the Yale Office of Admissions calls “legacies.”

There are in any given class at Yale, and other prestigious universities, a percentage of not-too-bright and not-too-talented students who probably would not have been admitted if they had not come from wealthy and influential families with close ties to that institution. Yale could not afford to exclude George W. Bush from the class of 1968, however embarrassing a Yale grad he might promise to be, because as a private university, Yale is heavily dependent on wealthy alumni for financial support. There can’t be boola-boola without moola-moola, and the Bushes, partly because of their business ties to anti-democratic governments, such as those in Nazi Germany and Saudi Arabia, have never been short of moola.

In a perfect academic world, all applicants would be judged on merit; but in the real world money is usually more important than merit, and who you know more important than what you know. Bush’s father George H. W. “Poppy” Bush (B.A. 1948) and his grandfather Prescott Sheldon Bush (B.A. 1917) were Yale graduates of wealth and influence. They were also, to a degree, well-rounded. If they weren’t brilliant, they were smart enough, and they had a degree of social grace. Father and grandfather also had some athletic ability, usually a redeeming feature in even the worst putz in a class. Poppy was possibly a legacy, but maybe he was good enough at first base to have gotten into Yale even if Prescott Bush had not been his father. Maybe.

Prescott Bush and George H. W. Bush had also served in the military in theaters of war, the grandfather in Europe in the First and the father in the Pacific in the Second World War, but anyone familiar with their military service knows there are questions on that score. But the legacy of legacies of the Bush line, George W. “Dubya” Bush, would not serve in any theater of war. He would serve instead in the Texas Air National Guard, in a sweetheart deal designed to keep the draft-aged cut-up from having to fight for his country. He got no closer to Vietnam than Alabama, where he lived it up as an AWOL pilot in a unit that had no airplanes. He was not so much Audie Murphy in To Hell and Back as he was John Belushi in Animal House. Except for his family connections, George W. had nothing going for him. He was smart-alecky, not smart; he was a cheerleader, not an athlete, he was Hung-Over, not Dink Stover.

Skull and Boneheads

There was a grade at Yale known as the “gentleman C.” Dubya’s grades at Yale were frat brat C’s, which are worth even less than Gentleman C’s. Grade inflation began in the 1960s, when not only A’s but also C’s became easier to get. Instead of letting a smile be his umbrella, the heller developed a smirk as a sign of his defiance to everyone whose grades were higher than his, which was just about everybody. That both Bush and Kerry were members of Skull and Bones suggests that a more appropriate name for that secret Yale group might be the Skull and Bonehead Society. And if that death cult has degrees of membership based on the number of skulls and bones a member has created, then Dubya has to be some kind of Grand Dragon.

As Peter Dreier wrote in American Prospect, “Bush, a mediocre student, got into Andover, Yale, Harvard Business School and the Texas National Guard’s pilot-training program because he was rich and well-connected. His subsequent business career – including his early efforts to start an oil company, the financial favoritism that allowed him to buy part of the Texas Rangers baseball team with hardly any of his own money, the political favoritism that allowed him to persuade the city of Arlington, Texas, to subsidize a new stadium – was due in large part to his family and social connections. These connections laid the groundwork for Bush to enter politics and helped catapult him to the presidency.”

To Bush’s credit, he was not completely oblivious to his egregious inadequacies. He was aware, when he wasn’t abusing substances, that the dice had been loaded against him in the genetic crap shoot, especially in the I.Q. department. When Dubya was about to be admitted as a legacy at Yale, “Things Go Better with Coke” was the slogan of the day, and he found that to be the case. He needed something to deal with the shame of being a legacy, with knowing he never would have gotten into Yale, would never have gotten to first base in life, without Poppy.

Yale aided and abetted Bush’s undergraduate career as a legacy, but Harvard was his finishing school. Of Dubya’s performance at the Harvard School of Business, we have the recollection of a Japanese visiting professor who said of him, “He showed pathological lying habits and was in denial when challenged on his prejudices and biases. He would even deny saying something he just said 30 seconds ago. He was famous for that.” Yes, over 30 years ago, Bush was already famous for saying one thing and then denying he had said any such thing, just as he has recently stayed the course right up until the time he denied he had been staying the course. We aren’t talking about character flaws here. How can there be character flaws when there is no character?

Bush’s Brain

According to Bush’s Brain, in Bush’s first try for public office, for a congressional seat in Texas, Bush’s opponent accused him of having been born in New Haven and of having been “educated in the pointy-headed environs of Harvard and Yale.” After a radio debate, Bush was furious at the moderator for having raised the same issue, and when the microphones were off called him an “asshole.” That was the first and last election Bush would lose. Dubya or more accurately Karl Rove was smart enough to realize that any sign of Bush’s elite East Coast education was the kiss of death politically, especially in Texas, so he transformed himself from a Yalie into a tough talking if stuttering and self-consciously strutting cowboy. And it worked like an electoral charm until Tikrit hit the fan. It worked like a charm until the recent midterm Republican debacle, after which a reporter reminded him that Nancy Pelosi had said he was naked (an emperor without clothes), incompetent, and dangerous. Bush responded by saying people say things in campaigns they don’t mean. Hadn’t he vowed just a few days before the election that Rumsfeld was going to remain the Secretary of Defense come hell or high water? And wasn’t Rumsfeld history a day after the election? Wasn’t this the kind of behavior that Bush got away with as a legacy at Yale and Harvard? Wasn’t he the same pathological liar he had been in that Business School class when he would deny saying something he had said 30 seconds earlier? He wasn’t just dumbing down during an election: he was simply living up to Yale’s low expectations of a legacy: he was not making the grade, in spades.

Yale must bear some of the responsibility for the long-range consequences of admitting students who do not meet even the minimum standards of intellect and character that their classmates were required to meet. Granted the cost of running a large university is enormous and that bills must be paid, the admissions people at Yale must recognize that even the most well-heeled legacy might not be worth it, and that someday, drawing on the prestige of the university and its privileged political networks, including its Skull and Bones skullduggery, he might stumble forward to become Commander in Chief and president of the United States. In that case, not just the country but the whole world could end up having to pay the piper. The full price in lives and treasure the world will eventually have to pay for George W. Bush being president, not to mention the years lost in combating terrorism and global warming is, at this time and perhaps for many years to come, beyond calculation. But we can already attribute hundreds of thousands of lives and billions of dollars to his incompetence, close-mindedness, and psychopathic lying. And now we have to wait and see if Poppy’s pals can bail Dubya – and us – out yet again from what is clearly the mother of all his messes. Heaven help us!

If Bush and Kerry appeared to be neck-in-neck the last ten years to see who can screw up more, they are tortoises to Bob Taft’s hare. In one survey, Gov. Taft’s poll numbers sank to 6.5, the lowest ever recorded for any politician. Time Magazine rated him as one of the three worst governors in the country, but the rumor was he was considered the worst of the worst. And how much can we read into the fact that Bob Taft was not tapped for Skull and Bones, in spite of the fact that his father, Senator Robert A. Taft, and his grandfather, President William Howard Taft (B.A. 1878), were members, along with seven other Tafts, including Alphonso Taft (B.A. 1833), who was one of the founders of Skull and Bones? Was Bob Taft that bad, or that good, that he did not qualify?

Duck Run

Whatever the limitations of the current Governor-elect of Ohio may prove to be, being a “legacy” is not one of them. One of nine children, son of a steelworker, a graduate of Bible-oriented Asbury College (B.A. 1963), in Kentucky, Ted Strickland is not a child of privilege. There is no boola-boola in his background and not much moola. He has made a career of helping the underprivileged and the troubled. An ordained minister and a trained psychologist, he has worked at the prison in Lucasville, Ohio, the town where he grew up, in a rural area named Duck Run. He also taught evenings as an adjunct at Shawnee State University, in Portsmouth, Ohio, where many of the students were the first in their Appalachian families to attend college, which was also the case with him. His grandfather and father were in no position to see that doors were opened for him. In fact, there were those who tried to shut doors on him. When he ran for and was elected to Congress, a member of the Republican dominated Board of Trustees reportedly vowed that Strickland would never teach at Shawnee State again. Shawnee State’s loss has been the state of Ohio’s gain. Let’s hope that Strickland as governor leaves a lasting legacy to the Buckeye state.