The dunce

His former Harvard Business School professor recalls George W. Bush not just as a terrible student but as spoiled, loutish and a pathological liar.

Topics: George W. Bush,

For 25 years, Yoshi Tsurumi, one of George W. Bush’s professors at Harvard Business School, was content with his green-card status as a permanent legal resident of the United States. But Bush’s ascension to the presidency in 2001 prompted the Japanese native to secure his American citizenship. The reason: to be able to speak out with the full authority of citizenship about why he believes Bush lacks the character and intellect to lead the world’s oldest and most powerful democracy.

“I don’t remember all the students in detail unless I’m prompted by something,” Tsurumi said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “But I always remember two types of students. One is the very excellent student, the type as a professor you feel honored to be working with. Someone with strong social values, compassion and intellect — the very rare person you never forget. And then you remember students like George Bush, those who are totally the opposite.”

The future president was one of 85 first-year MBA students in Tsurumi’s macroeconomic policies and international business class in the fall of 1973 and spring of 1974. Tsurumi was a visiting associate professor at Harvard Business School from January 1972 to August 1976; today, he is a professor of international business at Baruch College in New York.

Trading as usual on his father’s connections, Bush entered Harvard in 1973 for a two-year program. He’d just come off what George H.W. Bush had once called his eldest son’s “nomadic years” — partying, drifting from job to job, working on political campaigns in Florida and Alabama and, most famously, apparently not showing up for duty in the Alabama National Guard.

Harvard Business School’s rigorous teaching methods, in which the professor interacts aggressively with students, and students are encouraged to challenge each other sharply, offered important insights into Bush, Tsurumi said. In observing students’ in-class performances, “you develop pretty good ideas about what are their weaknesses and strengths in terms of thinking, analysis, their prejudices, their backgrounds and other things that students reveal,” he said.



One of Tsurumi’s standout students was Rep. Chris Cox, R-Calif., now the seventh-ranking member of the House Republican leadership. “I typed him as a conservative Republican with a conscience,” Tsurumi said. “He never confused his own ideology with economics, and he didn’t try to hide his ignorance of a subject in mumbo jumbo. He was what I call a principled conservative.” (Though clearly a partisan one. On Wednesday, Cox called for a congressional investigation of the validity of documents that CBS News obtained for a story questioning Bush’s attendance at Guard duty in Alabama.)

Bush, by contrast, “was totally the opposite of Chris Cox,” Tsurumi said. “He showed pathological lying habits and was in denial when challenged on his prejudices and biases. He would even deny saying something he just said 30 seconds ago. He was famous for that. Students jumped on him; I challenged him.” When asked to explain a particular comment, said Tsurumi, Bush would respond, “Oh, I never said that.” A White House spokeswoman did not return a phone call seeking comment.

In 1973, as the oil and energy crisis raged, Tsurumi led a discussion on whether government should assist retirees and other people on fixed incomes with heating costs. Bush, he recalled, “made this ridiculous statement and when I asked him to explain, he said, ‘The government doesn’t have to help poor people — because they are lazy.’ I said, ‘Well, could you explain that assumption?’ Not only could he not explain it, he started backtracking on it, saying, ‘No, I didn’t say that.’”

If Cox had been in the same class, Tsurumi said, “I could have asked him to challenge that and he would have demolished it. Not personally or emotionally, but intellectually.”

Bush once sneered at Tsurumi for showing the film “The Grapes of Wrath,” based on John Steinbeck’s novel of the Depression. “We were in a discussion of the New Deal, and he called Franklin Roosevelt’s policies ‘socialism.’ He denounced labor unions, the Securities and Exchange Commission, Medicare, Social Security, you name it. He denounced the civil rights movement as socialism. To him, socialism and communism were the same thing. And when challenged to explain his prejudice, he could not defend his argument, either ideologically, polemically or academically.”

Students who challenged and embarrassed Bush in class would then become the subject of a whispering campaign by him, Tsurumi said. “In class, he couldn’t challenge them. But after class, he sometimes came up to me in the hallway and started bad-mouthing those students who had challenged him. He would complain that someone was drinking too much. It was innuendo and lies. So that’s how I knew, behind his smile and his smirk, that he was a very insecure, cunning and vengeful guy.”

Many of Tsurumi’s students came from well-connected or wealthy families, but good manners prevented them from boasting about it, the professor said. But Bush seemed unabashed about the connections that had brought him to Harvard. “The other children of the rich and famous were at least well bred to the point of realizing universal values and standards of behavior,” Tsurumi said. But Bush sometimes came late to class and often sat in the back row of the theater-like classroom, wearing a bomber jacket from the Texas Air National Guard and spitting chewing tobacco into a cup.

“At first, I wondered, ‘Who is this George Bush?’ It’s a very common name and I didn’t know his background. And he was such a bad student that I asked him once how he got in. He said, ‘My dad has good friends.’” Bush scored in the lowest 10 percent of the class.

The Vietnam War was still roiling campuses and Harvard was no exception. Bush expressed strong support for the war but admitted to Tsurumi that he’d gotten a coveted spot in the Texas Air National Guard through his father’s connections.

“I used to chat up a number of students when we were walking back to class,” Tsurumi said. “Here was Bush, wearing a Texas Guard bomber jacket, and the draft was the No. 1 topic in those days. And I said, ‘George, what did you do with the draft?’ He said, ‘Well, I got into the Texas Air National Guard.’ And I said, ‘Lucky you. I understand there is a long waiting list for it. How’d you get in?’ When he told me, he didn’t seem ashamed or embarrassed. He thought he was entitled to all kinds of privileges and special deals. He was not the only one trying to twist all their connections to avoid Vietnam. But then, he was fanatically for the war.”

Tsurumi told Bush that someone who avoided a draft while supporting a war in which others were dying was a hypocrite. “He realized he was caught, showed his famous smirk and huffed off.”

Tsurumi’s conclusion: Bush is not as dumb as his detractors allege. “He was just badly brought up, with no discipline, and no compassion,” he said.

In recent days, Tsurumi has told his story to various print and television outlets and appears in Kitty Kelley‘s exposé “The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty.” He said other professors and students at the business school from that time share his recollections but are afraid to come forward, fearing ostracism or retribution. And why is Tsurumi speaking up now? Because with the ongoing bloodshed in Iraq and Osama bin Laden still on the loose — not to mention a federal deficit ballooning out of control — the stakes are too high to remain silent. “Obviously, I don’t think he is the best person” to be running the country, he said. “I wanted to explain why.”

Mary Jacoby is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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