George Walker Bush (Class of ’68) and Yale University buried the hatchet on Monday, as the proud West Texan embraced his alma mater after decades of rejecting the school for what he saw as its intellectual arrogance, then for his own political convenience and finally for perceived slights against his father (Class of ’48).
In his first public appearance at Yale since he graduated with a history degree, the former president of Delta Kappa Epsilon--a fraternity known for its raucous parties--donned a blue academic gown, received an honorary doctor of law degree and delivered a brief and mostly lighthearted, self-deprecating speech at the university’s 300th commencement.
In making peace with Yale, Bush completed something of an emotional odyssey that began for him in this city 54 years ago.
Although he was born only a few blocks from campus, Bush grew up in Midland, Texas, where his father, former President Bush, was in the oil business.
“Yale always seemed a world away,” the current president said Monday, though it also loomed as “maybe a part of my future.”
“Now it’s a part of my past,” Bush said. “And Yale for me is a source of great pride.”
Some Yale students boycotted Bush’s speech; others attended but refrained from applauding; many more held up signs to protest his policies. Some faculty members also joined the protest.
But such expressions of disapproval did not bother Bush, said Karen Hughes, counselor to the president. “He’s aware there’s a long Yale tradition of protesting the speakers--no matter what their views,” she said.
After congratulating this year’s graduates, Bush--who was hardly a stellar student--launched a series of quips, mostly at his own expense.
“And to the ‘C’ students, I say to you: You too can be president of the United States.”
Referring to Vice President Dick Cheney, who briefly attended Yale and left amid poor grades, Bush said: “So now we know: If you graduate from Yale, you become president. If you drop out, you get to be vice president.”
In an elliptical reference to his rowdy days here, Bush joked: “If you are like me, you won’t remember everything you did here. . . . That can be a good thing.”
One of Bush’s twin daughters, Barbara, just completed her first year at Yale--representing the fourth generation of the Bush dynasty to attend the Ivy League college. Prescott Bush, the current president’s paternal grandfather and a former U.S. senator from Connecticut, was a Yale graduate.
George W. Bush distanced himself from the university for an array of reasons. As an undergraduate who witnessed campus unrest over the Vietnam War, he disdained what he viewed as a liberal bias at the school.
Later, as he contemplated a career in politics, Bush found that his establishment credentials could be a liability in Texas and thus downplayed them. (Bush also attended Andover Academy, an exclusive prep school in Massachusetts, and later earned an MBA from the Harvard Graduate School of Business.)
And Bush privately seethed when Yale did not confer an honorary degree upon his father until 1991--well into his presidency. The current president did not attend either his 25th class reunion in 1993 or Yale’s 300th anniversary celebration in April.
In presenting the honorary degree to Bush, university President Richard Levin said: “Few families have so devotedly exemplified the university’s commitment to public service as yours.” He added that Bush’s “interpersonal skills . . . commitment to inclusiveness, combined with your pragmatism and common sense, inspires us to hope that your presidency will expand opportunity for all Americans and bring peace and prosperity to the wider world.”
Only in the latter part of his own 10-minute speech did Bush turn serious, encouraging those who hear the call of public service.
“I hope you answer. Each of you has unique gifts and you were given them for a reason. Use them and share them. Public service is one way--an honorable way--to mark your life with meaning.”