Saturday, September 11, 2004

Is There a Yale Presidential Conspiracy?

H.D.S. GREENWAY
Is there a Yale presidential conspiracy?
By H.D.S. Greenway | September 10, 2004

CONSPIRACY theorists have noted that for the last 15 years every occupant of the White House has held a degree from Yale University. Indeed, there has been a Yalie on the ticket in every presidential race for the last 32 years, running either for president or vice president.
During the primary season, three of the Democratic contenders hoping to wrest the presidency from Yale man George Bush were also Yale men: John Kerry, Howard Dean, and Joe Lieberman. And Yale's run will continue no matter who wins in November. With Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush waiting in the wings, who knows how long this will continue? How about Barbara Bush, Yale '04, versus Anne Dean, '06, in a decade or two?
Furthermore, both John Kerry and George Bush were members of America's most famous college club, the secret society of Skull and Bones. Even though it takes in only 15 seniors a year, "Bones" can claim all of Yale's White House occupants: William Howard Taft, George H.W. Bush, and his son, fueling the conspiratorial fires of the secret manipulation of American society by sinister elites.
Yale and Harvard are neck and neck in the number of past presidents, albeit Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton had Yale law degrees and were not Yale undergraduates. If Kerry wins, Yale will surge ahead, although some might argue that Harvard's two Adamses, two Roosevelts, and John F. Kennedy might have a qualitative edge.
But, clearly, this is Yale's moment, and it is fair to ask why. When F. Scott Fitzgerald was looking at colleges he found Harvard sort of indoors. He found Yale brisk and energetic like a day in October. But Princeton, he wrote, was lazy and aristocratic like a day in June, and so he chose Princeton.
Fitzgerald's description of Yale was apt. Yale has often seemed more driven than its rivals. Alexandra Robbins, author of a book about Skull and Bones, quotes Italian scholar and Yale professor Thomas Bergin, who wrote in 1982 that while no one "seemed in a hurry" at Cornell, Yale was always in high gear. Yet "as much work seemed to get done in the one place as the other . . . The difference it seemed to me was that the old, puritanical imperatives of service, competition, and awards still linger in New Haven."
Yale was founded in 1701, 65 years after Harvard, by dissident Harvard men who thought that Harvard was losing its religious fervor. Old Yale encapsulated a tradition of manliness and honor. It is hard to imagine those ancient heroes of boy's literature, Dink Stover and Frank Merriwell, going anywhere but Yale. Whereas individualism might flourish at Harvard, Yale stressed team play, conformity, and the Roman virtues.
Although Yale owes much to Oxford and Cambridge, many of its traditions grew out of America's fascination with German education in the early 19th century. Yale's anthem, "Bright College Years," is the same tune, but not the words, that the German officers sing in "Casablanca" when they are drowned out by the rest of the customers singing the "Marseillaise" at Rick's Cafe.
Yale's secret societies, of which Skull and Bones is the oldest (1842), were born in the tradition of early 19th-century German romanticism that inspired Wagner. Although dueling with sabers never made it to New Haven, the Yale societies still share a lot with their German counterparts.
The secrecy part certainly has lent an aura to Yale's senior societies and to Yale's mystique. It is no coincidence that the statue of America's first spy, Yale man Nathan Hale, that graces the old campus in New Haven is replicated at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va.
Yale was changing fast when Bush and Kerry were experiencing their college years. The university was becoming more egalitarian, more diverse, leading up to the admission of women in 1969, the year after George W. Bush graduated. Skull and Bones didn't follow suit until 1991.
Yale is more of a meritocracy and more intellectual now, but a faint penumbra of the old "puritanical imperatives of service" remains. On a bright autumn day in New Haven that last line of the college song, "For God for Country and for Yale," may not seem quite the classic definition of anticlimax that it is.

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.