Bush mends fences on return to Yale for honorary degree

Distancing from roots personal, political

May 22, 2001|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW HAVEN, Conn. - In a leafy courtyard at Yale University, the time came yesterday for President Bush to stop being funny. There had been talk enough of his mediocre grades, enough about how he snoozed instead of studied in the college library, enough of the comic self-deprecation.

The president now had a serious message to deliver.

"Today, I visit not only my alma mater, but the city of my birth," said Bush, who was born in this city while his father was a Yale undergraduate and became a student here himself. But for reasons both political and personal, Bush distanced himself for decades from his New England roots and his privileged Ivy League education.

Until yesterday, when even the student protesters - who would have preferred that Bush not visit at all - grew quiet, sensing he was about to have a personal breakthrough.

"My life began just a few blocks from here, but I was raised in West Texas," the president, Yale class of 1968, continued. "From there, Yale always seemed a world away, maybe a part of my future.

"Now it's part of my past, and Yale for me is a source of great pride. I hope that there will come a time for you to return to Yale to say that and feel as I do today. And I hope you won't wait as long."

For Bush, the words marked a transformation. As recently as January, when he addressed a crowd in what he considers his real hometown - Midland, Texas - he avoided even naming his alma mater, saying only that he had graduated from college "up East."

Since running for Congress from Texas in 1978 - when his primary opponent labeled him an implant from the East Coast educated in elite private schools - Bush has cultivated his image as a product of the dusty oil fields of West Texas and, more recently, as a Western rancher. He has seldom mentioned that he was born to one of the most prominent families in New England and is a third-generation Yalie.

But Bush's distaste for Yale was always more than political calculation. As the son of a Republican congressman at the time, Bush during college became uncomfortable as the Yale student body became politically active, in the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War effort. He saw much of the activism as an outburst of "intellectual snobbery."

Yesterday, the president spoke delicately, and somewhat ambiguously, about his college years and their meaning for him. "In my time, they spoke of the `Yale man,'" Bush said. "I was really never sure what that was. But I do think that I'm a better man because of Yale."

Bush has also confided that he thought Yale waited far too long to honor his father. The university bestowed an honorary degree on the elder Bush in 1991, the third year of his presidency, after eight years as vice president. But in a sign that the younger Bush is beginning to make amends with the school, he is said to be delighted that his daughter Barbara is a student here, representing the fourth generation of Bushes at Yale.

Bush laced his speech with humor, partly as a way to defuse the tension on a campus where scores of students and faculty protested his visit and let it be known that they did not believe that he merited an honorary degree because, they felt, nothing he had done as president thus far justified it.

And he nailed plenty of laughs.

Speaking about his now-public college transcript - mostly full of average grades - Bush said:

"To the C students, I say, you, too, can be president of the United States. A Yale degree is worth a lot, as I often remind Dick Cheney, who studied here but left a little early. So now we know - if you graduate from Yale, you become president. If you drop out, you get to be vice president."

There is little doubt that this was no ordinary commencement for Yale. The Hartford Courant called the ceremonies Yale's "politically schizophrenic 300th commencement weekend," mostly because Bush took the podium a day after students heard from Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who gave a speech on "Class Day."

Yesterday, traditional "Congrats Grad!" balloons shared airspace with "Bush-Cheney" campaign signs, and the president was given a hefty dose of boos and shouts of "Go away" from students as his degree was announced.

Amanda Taffy, a 26-year-old New York native, leapt to her feet at one point not to celebrate earning her master's degree in public health, but to heave a banner over her head that read, "Yale Women Against Bush."

More than 170 professors, too, signed a petition protesting the decision to grant Bush an honorary degree. They suggested that Yale has no tradition of giving degrees to presidents, especially not this early in their first term and especially not to one who has achieved little so far in their estimation.

"President Bush has yet to demonstrate that he embodies the ideals of intellectual excellence and service to humanity for which Yale stands," said Peter Brooks, the Sterling Professor of Comparative Literature and French.

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