How nosy political reporters measure up

After they revealed the presidential candidates' SAT scores, we hit them up for their own.


Future presidential wannabes have a brand new worry, thanks to snooping reporters this season determined to find out exactly which bubbles the candidates penciled in while young and miserable and not thinking much about how it would reflect their intelligence and self-worth in the future.

It started in November, after Yale University students acquired and threatened to publish alumnus George W. Bush’s SAT scores. Employing what now seems like quaint discretion, they chickened out. So the New Yorker printed them in Talk of the Town (Bush’s verbal: 566; Bush’s math: 640 ). A few months later, Slate revealed Bill Bradley’s verbal SAT score (485). Then, just last month, two Washington Post reporters released loads of academic information about Al Gore, concluding that the vice president “was often an underachiever” (verbal: 625; math: 730).

When asked what he thought of all this, the New Yorker’s political correspondent, Joe Klein, said he adamantly opposes publishing the scores. “I’m against these types of things coming out,” he raged. “I think it’s an invasion of privacy, I think it’s none of our business, and I think these scores are a leading indicator of zip. Zero. I would much rather have a president who screwed around, did serious drugs and learned a lot from it than someone who had 800 boards.”

He sighed.

“First it was drugs, then sex, now it’s grades,” he continued. “What’s next? Cholesterol levels? The Puritanism of the press in the ’90s just amazes me.[Publishing these scores] is a new low for American journalism.”

Well, then, we’ve gone even lower. But if turnabout is fair play, why not call the reporters who originally wrote these stories and ask what their scores were? After all, we reasoned, shouldn’t we know who’s disseminating news in this, the Information Age? Who’s to say Maureen Dowd or Robert D. McFadden are academically qualified to feed us the ideas we ingest every day? We commenced.

Geoff Kabaservice, Slate

When I finally connected with Kabaservice, a lecturer in the history department at Yale University, we talked about this business of publishing academic records, and we touched on issues of class, race and opportunity. A nice conversation, sure, but eventually, it came time to drop the bomb. He took it well.

“I did well on the SAT, as I suspect most people did who write about these things,” he responded cryptically. “But the thing that is funny about this is that there is no benefit in communicating my SAT scores.”

Right, right. So … what did he get? He laughed. “If you have to know, I got a perfect score on the GRE and did almost as well on the SAT.”

Jane Mayer, the New Yorker
It was Mayer who wrote the story accompanying George W. Bush’s academic transcript. She was pleasant, and defended her decision to publish Bush’s record. “My own personal feeling is that to become president of the United States, there’s no reason to keep anything secret. A person’s health, academic, business and political records … I find all of that to be part of the larger picture about who someone is. I think the more information the better.”

Speaking of that, what were her scores?

“I don’t remember the exact numbers,” said the Yale graduate (1977 Phi Beta Kappa). “My English score was in the 700s and my math in the 600s. I did well on them. But I went to school in England so the SATs weren’t such a big deal for me. I wasn’t surrounded by SAT mania. I was the only person going to an American college. I just went up to London for the day to take the test.”

Alexandra Robbins, the New Yorker

Mayer then put me on the phone with her co-writer on the piece, who is also a Yale Phi Beta Kappa (’98). Robbins refused to tell me her scores. “I’ve always hated that emphasis on SAT scores and I’ve never told anybody what mine were. That’s why I’m not telling you. It puts people in a hierarchy.”

But isn’t that what she did when she published Bush’s academic transcript? “Well, yes, I think we started that whole monster,” she laughed.

“But I think that George W.’s educational experience is relevant for two reasons. First: He himself has pushed education as one of his most important campaign issues but if he didn’t care about his own education, as his transcript suggests, then what does that say about the sincerity of his platform?”

“Two,” she continued, “the fact that George W. went to Yale has been used endlessly to defend him when people charge that he’s a witless, empty suit. But if he didn’t get into Yale on merit and was indifferent once he got there, then using the defense that he was an Ivy Leaguer is essentially baseless.”

Well, I cooed to Robbins, trying again, you’re obviously an intelligent woman. Certainly you scored well on your SATs, so you have nothing to be ashamed of. Wouldn’t you please give me your scores? Please? Pretty please? She laughed but wouldn’t budge.

Ellen Nakashima, the Washington Post
Things got worse when I called Nakashima, the Post reporter who — with David Maraniss — dug up and published Al Gore’s grades from his days at high school and Harvard University. Nakashima had been away from her office on vacation and hadn’t returned my initial call. This time, she answered on the first ring, and I reintroduced myself. She muttered something in recognition and I explained my mission.

“I’m not sure I can talk to you,” she said. “We’re actually quite busy right now. We’re desperately trying to finish a manuscript for a publisher.”

I paused. “Well, maybe you can answer just one of my questions. It’ll only take a minute.” She was silent.

“I’d like to know what your SAT scores were,” I continued. “I’ve asked the other reporters and plan to include their responses in my story.” I was hoping Nakashima would get the joke and play along.

She didn’t seem amused. “I really must confess,” she sighed. “I really can’t remember.”

“Hmm,” I said, surprised. “But you must have some idea.”

“I’m serious,” she insisted. “I just can’t remember. But … what are the other reporters giving you? Are their scores high?”

“Pretty high,” I said, slowly. I suddenly got the strange feeling I was back in high school on the day scores were released, and everyone tried to conceal their own results until they knew they wouldn’t be embarrassed.

“I can’t remember,” she insisted. “It was, it was — I don’t remember for sure, but it was somewhere between 1280 and 1350, I think. I have some vague recollection of that.”

“Great,” I said, impressed. “Where’d you go to school?”

“I’m not able to help you right now,” she said suddenly. “I have to go.”

Later, I received a voice mail message. It was Nakashima, and she didn’t sound pleased. She requested I call her back. I did.

She lit into me. “I don’t give you permission to use my SAT scores,” she said angrily. “I don’t want those published.”

I explained that she’d never said she was speaking off the record. Those are the rules. No “off the record,” no dice. Didn’t she know this? She demanded to be given my editor’s name and hung up on me. An hour and a half later, she called me again.

“Anna, this is Ellen,” she said. She sounded much nicer this time. “I called back because I wanted to tell you that I felt like I was caught off guard before.” The tables, officially, had been turned

She continued: “I don’t know what you’re doing with this, but go ahead and use [the scores].” She sounded contrite. She even tried to joke with me about her scores: “It’s not like I’m running for president or vice president.”

David Maraniss, the Washington Post
After I spent more than a week trying to track down Maraniss, who co-wrote the story with Nakashima, he followed up with an e-mail that dodged the specifics, but was otherwise admirably candid:

“Anna. I was out of town for a while. Understand you talked to Ellen and she thought the gist of your questions was about our SATs and grades. I can tell you that I was a horrible student, dropped out of college and had SATs that made me seem destined for life as a bum on the streets.”

Anna Holmes is a writer and editor in New York; her first book, "Hell Hath No Fury: Women's Letters from the End of the Affair", was published last fall in hardcover and will be published in paperback by Ballantine Books in February 2003.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>