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number 4

Where Did Yale Fail?

by Paul Icyfields

On the St. Patrick’s Day broadcast of the Today show, the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin asked Katie Couric to look at something that didn’t exist: George W. Bush’s anxiety. March 17, you will recall, was the “Moment of Truth.” These were the last twenty-four hours in which the U.N. could decide to follow America’s lead or remain the lapdog of evil. Given French intransigence, even at 7:00 in the morning every thinking person knew war was in the offing.

Putting the moment into perspective, Goodwin recalled for the viewers the agonies felt by other presidents as they teetered on the edge of great battles. Admirably refraining from plugging her upcoming book, she dropped that Abraham Lincoln had apprehensively held hands with Secretary of War Seward as they waited out the painful moments when telegraph dots and dashes limned the horrors of battle. She told of how the normally steady hand of an anguished Franklin Roosevelt could barely hold the telephone to hear reports of the first Operation Torch landings. Even Lyndon Johnson, that lumbering giant with body so definite and soul so dubious, paced incessantly through the living quarters, hoping to hear that the latest round of bombing would finally bring Ho to the table. Then, with her Eeyore eyes looking deep into America’s soul, Goodwin called out in sympathy for the President, knowing what qualms must run through any decent creature on the eve of visiting death and destruction on the guilty and the innocent alike.

And this is where the good and winning historian let history lead her astray. Undoubtedly her stories about those other presidents were true and accurate. After all, the history tells us it is so. It is completely implausible, however, that George W. Bush experienced anything close to what his predecessors felt. Can one really imagine him pacing nervously, wondering whether France would make a last-minute turn toward the right? This man does not wear out the carpet in the Oval Office or wring creases in his hands. Dollars to doughnuts he is calmly going about the business of reading one-page reports, jogging, lifting weights, and watching movies crammed with fart jokes.

Friends and foes alike have noted that Bush is a man with a moral anchor. The President is firm in his faith, and his faith makes him firm in his choices. Our President is a man who is certain and sure. He is certain that France is wrong, and sure that it will persist in its folly. He is just as certain that, now that he has found God, he will always do the right thing; and he will be sure to act on that belief. Tough love might not have worked on him as a lad, but he is positive that it will do wonders for the rest of the world.

A charitable spin might have it that his moral strength is a mountain that stands firm while buffeted by the winds of fate. A better comparison, however, would evoke a cave. Strong, secure, and unaffected by climate change—yet also damp, musty, and void.

All this begs the question: What happened at Yale?

Young George graduated with the Class of ‘68. From the time of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution to the Tet Offensive, instead of slogging through jungles, he wandered New Haven’s ivied halls, skull-and-boning up on his balling (the base- and foot- kind) and frolicking with all kinds of clubs and secret societies. The way most stories tell it, this Yale Son spent his days working hard to ensure that the scholars would not overwhelm the gentlemen. (Admittedly, the infamous transcript reveals its priorities by putting the “Yale Activities Record” atop the humdrum banalities of grades.) Yet, somewhere in between the beer-consuming intubations and bi-curious initiations, he spent some time sitting in class.

And this is the real kicker. Although Bush’s fans laud him as the first President with an MBA, looking at his college transcript one would think he purposely set out on a less lucrative life path. The scion of the Bush clan took only one economics class, but he sat through more than his share of history, philosophy, sociology, political science, and anthropology classes (eleven, three, one, three, and one, respectively). He even dipped into the university’s renowned American Studies program—then arguably at its zenith as the exemplar of a relatively new discipline made up expressly to figure out what is cool, and unusual, about our nation.

True, he may have added some of these classes simply to boost his faltering GPA. Even so, most of these are presumably the kind that will shake up your previously held notions. They ought to make one think differently about the world. They should help make the world more complex, not more simplistic. A freshman philosophy class should introduce students to the moral ambiguities that confront thoughtful people. Political science courses should give students a sense of how humans have wrestled with power. And of all the muses, Clio should have let Bush see that nothing is as simple as it seems.

Again, remember Bush graduated in that explosive year 1968. If he never managed a tear for Martin Luther King Jr., and scorned the radicals who took over Columbia, he should have at least had cause to wonder what all the fuss was about. So even if he was trying to wuss his way through college, Bush ought to have had ample opportunity to challenge his assumptions about the world.

So what happened in those classes? We all know that young George was not a stellar student, but just because he chose not to write solid papers and well-argued essay answers does not mean that class had to be completely wasted on him. After all, he did get grades averaging in the mid-70s, which suggests that he at least showed up. And he wasn’t brain dead, was he? One cannot rise to the top of all those clubs on good looks, good jokes, and beer bongs, can one? Really?

Given that Master Bush attended the classes, remained conscious and sober through most of them, and is (by virtue of now leading the free world) not a complete moron and yet exhibits no sign of ever having developed the ability to think deeply—one can come to but a singular conclusion: Yale failed.

How else can one explain how a young man can attend classes on philosophy, history and politics and come out so stunted? Did no professor ever ask him to articulate his thoughts? Did no one ever press him on his points? Did no one ever make it clear that not all of life’s problems can be boiled down to three-paragraph summaries and three-word phrases?

College is supposed to stretch the mind. That is its job. It is a duty often performed in the breach. One might understand how Ronald Reagan could come out of a small midwestern college of the 1930s without having honed his sense of doubt. But a gentleman-scholar from Yale? For what all that ill-gotten tuition?

O thou! O thou professors! Thou graduate assistants! Thou fellow students! All of thee, you Yale-people-of-the-mid-1960s—I blame you!

You should have known! When you should have been teaching the future President about Plato’s cave, you let him get away with thinking that the shadows are the substance. When you were supposed to be pushing him to learn the contingencies of history, you let him think that the past etches out rules for living in the future. How could he be born again as a man when the likes of you never ushered him out of childhood? Hang your heads in shame! You share the culpability for George’s tunnel vision! You have made our nation follow his blindered path!

You have forfeited your right to protest!

At the moment, we are marching off to war under the outstretched rod of a Moses who not only fails to question the burning bush, but walks on over to it and asks for a light. One wonders if he doesn’t sometimes confuse the deity and the self and accidentally perform devotions into a mirror. And his devotion to whatever God he currently fancies, like all true piety, attracts and compels the millions.

It is right for Doris Kearns Goodwin to remind us of our Presidents’ humanity. However much you may disagree with their choices, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Johnson’s moments of indecision prove the moral character of their actions. George W. Bush is different from his predecessors—men who had experienced pain, turmoil, and the knowledge of having made adult mistakes. He is, instead, a man who has heard about pain, reads memos about turmoil, and credits his mistakes to youthful indiscretions.

Goodwin missed that point; and it is the one that worries me.

Paul Icyfields works at a large human resources concern. In his spare time he raconts at coffee shops for pastries.

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