Humorist Calvin Trillin recounts a story of returning to Yale in 1970,
13 years after his graduation, and asking a group of seniors if anyone
in their class would become president.
The students looked befuddled. One asked, “President of what?”
Trillin’s visit missed George W. Bush by
a couple of years — the GOP hopeful graduated from Yale in 1968 — but the point is a good one: What makes this man presidential material? By all accounts, Bush’s Yale career
included as little public service as one could imagine, though he did
volunteer his time as president of the notorious Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity. Garry Trudeau, Yale class of 1970 and “Doonesbury” author, recently
reported that DKE’s notable accomplishment under Bush’s leadership
was branding its pledges with the fraternity symbol.
I wanted to be president once. I stuffed my bookshelf with tomes like “A
Young American’s Guide to Politics” and “Young Abe Lincoln,” went to work
in the Senate when I was 14 and, yes, bought “Doonesbury” collections to brush up on recent political history.
Then Bill Clinton happened — and I don’t mean the Monica affair. I
remember saving the 1992 election special of Time magazine, the one
featuring Bill biting his lower lip beside the headline “A Man From Hope.” I
also remember throwing it out, after the campaign finance scandals and the
innumerable political betrayals, after everyone but Bill himself realized
that eight years in office would leave him no legacy worth remembering. I
remember thinking to myself: Is this what it takes to be president? Why would anyone bother?
If Trillin visited Yale with his question today, I don’t know where I’d look for an answer.
But maybe I’d start in the DKE house. Like George W. Bush, the fraternity has
matured. They no longer brand their pledges. Rumpus, the campus tabloid,
reported last year that the “Buttholes” — as the frat brothers are delicately known — now only have to endure minor tortures, like pouring honey and salsa into each other’s rectums.
I think of these activities as a sort of White House warm-up. Following George W. Bush’s example, future presidential candidates needn’t come from the prize-winners, the Phi Beta Kappas or the Political Union secretaries. No, the future president will more likely emerge from the ranks of the sodden, the wild, the on-academic-probation masses yearning to do coke.
At Yale, those already vying for political office are called “hacks” and “tools” — labels that reflect a general American disdain for politicians. Given this disdain, why would
the best and brightest ever want to run the country? And as Bush’s popularity shows, who really wants them to?
I’ve been surprised by the level of support for Bush among my generally
critical-minded fellow Yalies. In the dining hall, I ask my friends why
they’d vote for him, and after the fuzzy glances wear off — you mean
we’re supposed to have reasons? — I do get a few answers. He’s the
$36 million man! He sort of cares about education! He doesn’t say
mean things about Hispanics or waste his time learning what to call the
people who live in Kosovo! He uses words like “compassionate” and
“conservatism” in the same sentence!
But maybe the real reason is that he renews our confidence. A few D’s on
our transcripts, a few run-ins with the campus police — we can still make
our hometowns proud. This is the real civics
lesson, no matter what professors preach: that the game of politics is one even the politicians
don’t have to take seriously.
After all, as Bush told a New Hampshire fifth-grader, “Some people say
that I proved if you get a C average, you can end up being successful in life.”
And how, following Clinton, could people not turn to Bush? I was 13 years
old when Clinton was elected, and regardless of ideology, it was hard not
to feel that a bright new era was upon us. The Kennedy parallels didn’t
seem too far off: Here was a man who spoke in millennial language, a
charismatic young leader who believed that politics could uplift a nation.
My pre-adolescent idealism found an object, until my adolescence became
the era of national farce.
The 1990s have been a peaceful and wealthy time for much of America. But can you
imagine a worse time for idealism about politics? I still believe in the possibility of a better world, but it’s tough to believe that running for office will do anything but bolster our citizens’ cynicism.
So Bush refreshes us. Unlike Clinton, he doesn’t pretend to
care about all points of view, so we don’t feel betrayed when he doesn’t
care about any. He isn’t in it for the power, because it’s pretty clear he
wouldn’t actually do anything. His only reason to be president, or
governor, for that matter, parallels the explanation of his involvement
with the Texas Rangers: Wouldn’t that be fun? And wouldn’t it be funny if
he pulled it off?
I would draw some conclusions here, but following Bush’s example, I think I’d rather go have a few beers and dance naked on a bar.