St. Albans School

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Aug. 11 2000 8:30 PM

St. Albans School

Why does the D.C. prep school spawn so many politicians? 

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Delegates to next week's Democratic convention will be harangued with endless hay-strewn yarns about Al Gore's rustic Tennessee childhood, but they will not hear one word about the place where Gore spent most of his formative years: St. Albans School. Gore captained the Bulldogs football team, led the Government Club, and graduated 25th out of 51 students in the class of 1965.

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The veep's in good company. The D.C. prep school has become the spawning ground for the Democratic Party. Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, who was short-listed for Gore's running mate, is a St. Albans alumnus. Fellow short-listee Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts attended St. Albans for several years. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., the convention's keynote speaker and the youngest member of Congress, was in my class at St. Albans. We were several years behind Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., another rising young black congressman. And Gore daughter and adviser Karenna Gore Schiff prepped at the National Cathedral School, St. Albans' sister institution.

St. Albans embarrasses Gore and his party. Gore never mentions that he went there. All the St. Albans pols skip the school in their official biographies. When he was being considered for running mate, Kerry went so far as calling a reporter (still another Albanian, Brit Hume) to emphasize that he had left St. Albans and graduated from a different high school.

The bashfulness is understandable. St. Albans is a snooty, elitist, inside-the-Beltway institution. The people's party fears association with an all-boys private school that costs nearly $20,000 per year, has a "refectory" instead of a "cafeteria," and prides itself on its noblesse oblige. (Gore is, however, inoculated from St. Albans attacks by the Bush campaign: George W. Bush's younger brothers Neil and Marvin are graduates.)

How did St. Albans, which is not even one of the nation's most celebrated private schools, assume such a central role in American politics? Prep schools, of course, occupy a hallowed, if horrible, place in the story of the American establishment. As Nicholas Lemann chronicles in The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, the boarding schools of New England molded the American Protestant aristocracy from the late-19th century to the mid-20th century. The schools enforced muscular Christianity: The football field was more important than the classroom, and character was—to quote a favorite St. Albans phrase—"choosing the hard right over the easy wrong." The schools were intended to "prevent very rich boys from turning into playboys or pantywaists," Lemann writes.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura and host of the Slate Political Gabfest.

Founded in 1909, St. Albans served as the D.C. outpost of the New England prep schools. Under a series of imposing headmasters, the Episcopal cathedral school earned a reputation for academic and athletic rigor. The D.C. elite gravitated to it. It was respectable and Protestant, it won students admission to top colleges, and its politics were liberal enough not to chagrin Democratic parents: St. Albans integrated in 1954, early for D.C. private schools. Even after standardized tests broke the prep schools' chokehold on the establishment in the '60s, St. Albans remained a bastion of the D.C. aristocracy. Vice Presidents Dan Quayle, Walter Mondale, and Al Gore deposited their sons at the Lane-Johnston building. So did dozens of senators, including Ted Kennedy and John D. Rockefeller IV, as well as the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. and Jordan's King Hussein.

The most important reason St. Albans mints politicians is genetic. The best indicator of a boy's career is his father's. St. Albans enrolls lots of political sons because of its location and reputation, and they frequently follow Dad into politics. Most of the St. Albans grads turned pols—Gore, Bayh, Ford, and Jackson—are the oldest sons of politicians. They probably would have run for office if they had attended PS 152.

But biology is not destiny. St. Albans also steers its boys into politics. The school acclimates students to Washington. It offers courses on political theory, American government, American citizenship, and macroeconomics. Pols are regularly carted in to speak at assemblies and graduations. The most prestigious extracurricular activity is the Government Club, a Thursday night political debate between the "Liberal" and "Conservative" parties. (Both Gore and Ford served as Liberal presidents.)

St. Albans still clings to the (now-unfashionable) idea of noblesse oblige. When boarding schools began losing their influence, most of them shucked their haute-WASP traditions and modernized with a vengeance. They adopted coeducation, multiculturalized their curricula, abandoned dress codes, and generally distanced themselves from the civic-minded condescension that had defined them. But St. Albans hardly wavered from its traditionalism. It is much more like old boarding schools such as Groton than Groton itself is. Chapel is still a twice-weekly requirement. The dress code is rigid. Coeducation is unimaginable. Other schools de-emphasized sports, but St. Albans recently upped its athletic requirement and added high-suffering, high-teamwork sports crew and hockey. And the school unashamedly exhorts service as an obligation of privilege. At every chapel and ceremony, the headmaster drummed into our swelled heads our duty to help those poor benighted souls not fortunate enough to be Albanians. (Students are sardonic about this, but they don't resist. A recent anti-Gore editorial in the St. Albans student newspaper commented dryly: "St. Albans for good reasons encourages self-confidence [we are going to run the country in a few years, right?]")

St. Albans imparts its high Episcopal arrogance to a different kind of boy from the WASPs of yore. Of the St. Albans pols, only Sen. John Warner and Bayh are actually Episcopalians. Kerry is Roman Catholic. Gore, Ford, and Jackson are Baptists; and Ford and Jackson are black.

The St. Albans indoctrination creates a very distinctive kind of politician. St. Albans helps explains why Gore, Bayh, Ford, and Jackson are so unlike their fathers. Their fathers shook up politics. Gore Sr. was a civil rights maverick. Ford Sr. was one of the first black politicians of the Deep South. Jackson Sr. is a champion rabble-rouser. The Albanians, by contrast, are superb at fitting in. St. Albans is a tiny school—only 70-odd boys per class. It is too small for cliques. Its size and traditionalism compel conformity. Students adopt the St. Albans style—athletic, sarcastic, hardworking—or they drown. Nonconformists detest the school and usually leave or suffer. (Gore's mother once called him "a born conformist.")

The Albanians lack the overt, grasping ambition that defines many politicians, including most of their dads. Thanks to the school's Service First ethos, they consider themselves "selfless public servants," says Lemann. The St. Albans pols are allergic to their fathers' populism: After all, they have not spent much time with the people. Except for Ford, they are not natural glad-handers.

Their fathers were vigorously liberal. The sons are not ideological. (Ford and Jackson are probably the least ideological black politicians in the United States.) St. Albans trained them to trust cool analysis and the reasonable solution. It is no surprise to anyone who went to St. Albans that Gore, Ford, Bayh, and Jackson are relentlessly moderate. The school's old money, old manners, and old traditions breed excellent New Democrats.  

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