BEVERLY HILLS — If you are privileged, as I have often been, to walk into the magnificent sitting room of the Yale Club of New York on Vanderbilt Place across from Grand Central Station in New York City, you will see right away several enormous portraits of Yale graduates who became President of the United States. From the Postwar era, there is Gerald R. Ford, 38th President, who attended and graduated from Yale Law School and was President from 1974 to 1977. There is George H.W. Bush, 41st President of the United States, Yale undergraduate degree 1948. Then there is the 42nd President, Bill Clinton, Yale Law ’73, and soon there will be a portrait of George W. Bush, Yale undergrad 1968.
This would be amazing enough, that four of the last six Presidents, three of the last four, went to Yale, but it gets more interesting right about now. The most likely Democrat candidate, Howard Dean, former Governor of the beautiful state of Vermont, is Yale ’71.
That means that unless Mr. Gephardt gets an amazing shot of adrenaline in Iowa, the next President is almost sure to be a Yalie as well.
Why? What accounts for the astounding dominance of New Haven in national politics. (Oh, by the way, Senator Joe Lieberman, Vice Presidential timber in the 2000 election, and running hard in 2004 against Governor Dean, was Yale BA ’64 and Yale J.D. ’67. And the almost sure Democratic thing in 2008, Senator Hillary Clinton, also attended Yale Law School, class of ’72.)
What is it that has made Yale, politically speaking, what Eton was to military prowess in Britain the 19th century when Wellington famously supposedly said that “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.”?
To be sure, Yale is a great educational institution that attracts brilliant students and faculty and has a long tradition of scholarship. (I went there myself to law school and overlapped Mr. Lieberman and Hillary and knew Mr. Bush when he was an undergraduate and my wife was an undergraduate student there as well, but neither of us can really claim to be scholars except of the humility brought by raising a teenager.) But there are other fine schools with long traditions of scholarship. There are Harvard and Princeton and Columbia and Williams and Dartmouth, just for starters. They have superb traditions of scholarship and are breathtakingly difficult to get into. Where are the recent Presidents of late from those schools?
Yale has a lovely campus, but it is not in any way at the level of the Williams College campus (where Garfield came from) or that most magnificent of all campuses, the University of California at Santa Cruz, from which no Presidents or even Senators have come so far.
There is amazingly good pizza in New Haven, and fine clothing at J. Press, and hot dogs stuffed with cheese and wrapped in bacon at The Yankee Doodle, but this, too is not sufficient explanation. There is better pizza in Providence, near Brown, and far better food in Boston than in New Haven, and far more clothing and hot dogs near Columbia.
Perhaps it has to do with the mighty old boy network at Yale. I can testify that when you have gone to Yale, even to the servants’ quarters at the law school, you find that the world is your oyster and you meet other Yale grads at high levels of government, journalism, and finance at every turn, almost always ready to help a fellow Eli. But this network can certainly be matched by the similar webs at Harvard or Princeton or Dartmouth or Williams, where there is a mighty tradition of helping one’s own. Just for example it did not hurt Al Gore or FDR to have attended Harvard, and Washington and Lee in Virginia has an old boy network that works better than any other I have ever seen.
THEN WHAT IS IT ABOUT YALE and the White House? Possibly, it is largely coincidence. After all, there were no postwar Yale grads in the White House for almost thirty years after World War II and only one other in this century. (See if you can guess who. Hint, he was not thin.) Yet, the run in the past thirty years is so mighty that it does not seem as if statistically it could possibly be mere coincidence.
Based on my years there and my familiarity with some of the players involved I suspect that the difference lies in the students themselves as much as anything else.. Yale attracts smart boys and girls, well-educated boys and girls and young men and women, but above all, amazingly ambitious young people. There is a self-selection going on in New Haven that brings to it smart young sprouts who have an ambition burning within them that cannot be quenched except at extremely high levels of achievement.
My own experience at Yale was that this ambition yearned for fulfillment far more in public policy than in the canyons of Wall Street or certainly the insane asylum corridors of Hollywood. You get future Presidents coming out of Yale because you have future Presidents unpacking at the Freshman Quad or on Wall Street near the Law School. Often, they are well to do (the Bushes, Dean) but often, they are just plain hungry for the corridors of power. And once they get to Yale, nobody ever tells them that it is impossible to get to the highest reaches of society.
In fact, it is assumed that if you are at Yale, you will get to places where you will influence history, and this is more fuel for the fires already burning in young hearts. The Yale degree somehow is assumed to confer a sort of passport into the highest realms of success. Perhaps John F. Kennedy said it best and most facetiously at a speech in New Haven after he had been awarded an honorary degree, “Now,” he said, “I have the best of both worlds: a Harvard education and a Yale degree.”
For whatever reasons, I think someone is going to have to make those portraits at The Yale Club a little smaller or we’re going to run out of wall.