How nosy political reporters measure up

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

By Anna Holmes
Published April 17, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

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

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.

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