"For God, Country and Yale"
By Kenneth T. Cascone
Originally, the word "country" in the essay's title in all likelihood referred to military service for Yale men in one or more of America's wars. Yet more recently, Yale's mission, within the meaning of this phrase appears to have shifted to the political arena and presidential politics.
This time round, the Democratic Party fielded three Yale alumni running for its Presidential nomination: John Kerry ('66C), Howard Dean ('71C), and Joe Lieberman ('64C & '67L). On the Republican side of the fence, we already have George W. Bush ('68C) and Richard Cheney, who, in reality, is a closet Yalie, having spent his first two college years in New Haven before matriculating at the University of Wyoming.
Prior to our graduation in 1962, Yale could only claim one President - William Howard Taft. Harvard, on the other hand, had five U.S. presidents: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy. Princeton boasted two graduates as President: James Madison and Woodrow Wilson.
It all started to change in 1974 when Richard Nixon resigned to climax the Watergate scandal and Gerald Ford ('41L), then Vice President, took over the premier office. In a grasp at straws, Yale quickly claimed him as one of its own, ignoring his college degree from the University of Michigan. To consecrate his "Yaleness" even more, he helped coach the Eli football team while studying law.
Did you know that starting with A. Whitney Griswold, Yale Presidents have been secretly committed to a strategy to train Elis to win the American presidency and beat Harvard at the presidential game? Party affiliation aside, the program called for force feeding undergraduate and graduate students on the merits of entering the political fray not only to serve their country but for the betterment of Yale's reputation.
Directly or indirectly, this strategy really began to pay off in 1980 with George W. Bush's ('48C) election as Vice President and as President in 1988. During this time, the Democrats, not to be outclassed, advanced other Yale alumni - Paul Tsongas ('67L), Gerry Brown ('64L) and Gary Hart ('64L) but none of them succeeded to the highest prize. Yet the Democratic Party persisted in its flirtation with Yale alumni as presidential candidates with the election of Bill Clinton ('73L) in 1992 and his reelection in 1996.
In the year 2000, the Yale campaign faced a vital test - a Yale Republican vs. a Harvard Democrat - George W. Bush and Al Gore. With all its twists and turns, finales and court battles, that election proved more exciting than any Harvard-Yale football game, at least in the overtime period.
The 2004 contest is the ultimate. Assuming Kerry and George W. square off in November 2004 and if Kerry wins, it would be four Yalies in a row. Waiting in the wings for the President's Cup are still other Yale potential Presidents Hillary Clinton ('73L), George Pataki ('67C) and John Ashcroft ('64C), God help us and them.
Now throughout the second floor lounge at the Yale Club (NYC), the temple for worship of Yale political presidents, their portraits are all on display - William Howard Taft, Gerry Ford, George Herbert Walker Bush, Bill Clinton and George W.
When the Club commissioned the portrait of Bill Clinton, then under investigation for various in sundry matters, one club member questioned the wisdom of spending $25,000 of members' money on such an individual's painting. Told that he was a Yale alumnus and President, and that was that, he extracted a promise from the top bulldog there - if Clinton were impeached, the portrait would come down and be concealed in an obscure closet or storeroom. Of course, Clinton was impeached, but when the member reminded the club's top bulldog of the promise, he changed his bark and declared he meant, "removed from office not just impeached".
Not to be outfoxed, the obstreperous member made the following proposal. Because the Club needed to generate more money, why not charge members to indulge their political passions. Let's install a clear plastic screen over Bill's picture, position a table ten feet away, put cartons of eggs on the table and allow members to take their frustrations out with tosses at the alumnus they hate most at say $1 per throw. A new profit center could have been established for the Club to eliminate financial stresses and strains. Yet again, though this time with a grin, the member's proposal was denied.
All of this real and imagined history cuts to the basic question of this essay - has Yale gone too far in pushing its flock into the presidential politics? Are we, in effect, monopolizing the political turf, and not even necessarily to the University's advantage? Now we all know that President Levin likes the idea of lodging in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House during his periodic trips to the nation's capital or simply picking up a telephone and getting through to the super bulldog in the Oval Office.
To paraphrase Secretary of the Treasury Wilson during the Eisenhower years, we've come to a point where "what is good for Yale, is considered by Yale's leaders to be good for the country." Let's examine that statement. Yes, yes I know the initial motivation was to play catch-up ball against Harvard. But Ivy rivalry does not seem valid enough reason to justify this massive headlong rush for the top political prize. Does a Yale education give a President a leg up on the non-Yale competition? All things considered, probably not.
I say that Yale should consider spreading the wealth and giving other college alumni a chance at the brass ring. In fact, Yale's recent dominance in the political arena must be some sort of violation of Ivy League rules involving admissions policy, athletic recruitment or scholarship aid or something.
I remember JFK's speech at our 1962 graduation while accepting an honorary degree. "Now," he said, "I've got the best of both worlds: a Harvard education and a Yale degree." At that time, I thought it should have been the other way: a Yale education and a Harvard degree were better.
Before promoting public service for its students and alumni, Yale should focus on its limitations or some adverse consequences. Public servants ordinarily don't earn enough money to make big donations to their alma mater. In fact, politicians are out there soliciting funds for their own campaigns usually from the same sources. Hence they're competing directly with Yale for hard-to-raise cash.
Politicians are regularly held up to ridicule. Yale alumni are not exempt from this fact of political life. Such circumstances can generate embarrassment for Yale and its educational achievements. Look how George W. has been mocked for his intellectual shortcomings.
Politicians live in a fishbowl scrutinized regularly by an overzealous media desperate to uncover scandals, because scandals sell. Sexual peccadilloes, in particular, which might be the subject of a smile or idle gossip, if committed by a non-political alumnus or alumna, in a leading politician can generate a barrage of unfavorable publicity, lies, divorces, resignations or trials. Obviously such scandals do not enhance Yale's reputation. Ask Bill Clinton or Gary Hart about this negative.
One might also argue that expected benefits to alumni involvement in public affairs may not accrue. Has Yale's dominance of presidential politics in the past sixteen years led to an increase in the enrollment of top students vis-á-vis other prestigious universities? Keep in mind that the last three presidents are Yale alumni. From what I have read, Yale College's recent strength in applications and admissions has had more to do with its early admission policy than its sitting Presidents.
I am reminded of a quote in the Yale Daily News from the Dean of the Law School during our time at Yale. Dean Rostow remarked that his A students, and there were many of them, became great law professors; his equally large number of B students excelled in corporate law and making money and his C students became politicians. At that point in the early 60s, he said there had only been two. Well, that has certainly changed.