WASHINGTON. — Washington -- In 1911, a man named Owen Johnson published a book which became a minor classic of its genre: ''Stover at Yale.''
Stover joined Frank Merriwell and Tom Swift as one of the literary heroes of the day for teen-age boys. When I ran across a copy recently, I realized this was a snapshot of the now vanished world into which George Bush was born.
It is the world of prep-school graduates, athletics and secret societies at that archetype of the American college in its golden age, Yale. So I read it hoping to find some clues to a better understanding of the president.
''Stover at Yale,'' which is now out of print, is the story of John Humperdink ''Dink'' Stover, who came to New Haven from prep school, where he ''had been a big man in a big school. . . . He had been of the chosen, and not all at once could he divest himself of the idea that his slightest action had a certain public importance.''
Stover's progress through Yale turned him from a borderline snob into a democrat with a small ''d'' -- largely through the
influence and inspiration of a classmate named Regan. His friendship with Regan proved to be the making of Dink.
Regan, the most interesting figure in the novel, was a Midwesterner who had come to Yale via Des Moines, Iowa. No intellectual heavyweight, he was several years older than Dink and the others in the class because he had repeatedly failed the entrance exams to Yale: ''Can hardly believe it. I've been up against those infernal examinations six times.''
As Dink described him, he was a man ''with the head and shoulders of a bison, sandy hair, with a clear, blue, steady glance, heavy hands, and a face already set in the mold of stern purpose.''
Dink and Regan both became football stars in an era when the life of the college every fall revolved around the struggles of the Yale ''eleven.'' They were friendly rivals for the captaincy of the Yale team, until Stover manfully stood aside and nominated Regan as the more deserving candidate.
Regan stood resolutely alone on campus, despite his athletic eminence. He was working his way through school. He declined to join any of the snobbish sophomore societies or exclusive eating clubs, and he held himself aloof from the barbaric ritual of Tap Day, when the whole school gathered to see who was ''tapped'' for membership in the senior secret societies, the most eminent of which was Skull and Bones.
Regan already aspired to a political career, albeit on a somewhat fuzzy program. He told Dink:
''I want to go back out West and get in the fight. It's a glorious fight out there. A real fight. You don't know the West, Stover. . . . We believe in something out there, and we get up and fight for it -- independence, new ideas, clean government, hard fighters.''
Regan had a profound impact on Dink. ''The man's perfect simplicity and unconsciousness impressed Stover more than all the fetish of enthroned upperclassmen.''
Dink's emotions were not unmixed, however. ''Regan always had an ascendancy over him he could not explain. It irritated him that he could not shake it off, and yet he was genuinely chained to the man.'' Dink, despite himself, felt the force of Regan's ''masterful qualities,'' his sense of ''confidence, of rugged, immovable determination. . . . He was drawn more and more to Regan as he was drawn to no other man.''
Regan spent his vacations from school doing construction work, ''seeing real people. . . . Wish you'd been along. You'd have got some education.'' It was Regan who persuaded Dink to join him on a construction gang one summer, where Dink ''had a glimpse of what the struggle for existence meant in the stirring masses.''
It was Regan whose example led Dink to desert his prep-school comrades, throw away his sophomore-society pin, support abolition of the sophomore societies as undemocratic, and create a new debating society open to all students -- considered virtually a revolutionary act at Yale.
In the end, Dink's self-effacing virtue was rewarded, as virtue always was in these books from a simpler, if not kinder and gentler, time.
By his junior year, he was the undisputed leader of the class. He wooed and won Jean Story, the belle of New Haven, whose way of speaking was ''measured and thoughtful'' and whose eyes, ''while devoid of coquetry, held him with their directness and simplicity.''
In the book's emotional climax, Dink was ''tapped'' for the Holy of Holies, Skull and Bones. As his classmates cheered, ''his eyes were blurred with tears, and he knew how much he cared, after the long months of rebellion, to be no longer an outsider, but back among his own with the stamp of approval on his record.''
The book ends on this joyous note. Sad to say, Owen Johnson never wrote a sequel. Who knows? Dink might have gone on to be president. Or Regan. Or perhaps both.
Daniel A. Rezneck, a Harvard graduate, is a Washington lawyer.