My Classmate George W.

My Classmate George W.

My Classmate George W.

The conventional wisdom debunked.
Aug. 17 2000 3:00 AM

My Classmate George W.

He can't be president. He's not old enough.

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I have a hard time accepting that anyone from the Class of '68 is ready yet to run for high office. I was in that class, at Yale, along with George W. Bush. And Joseph Lieberman, who had graduated four years before, was in the law school. Lieberman, by all accounts, was even then a full-fledged grownup—which could not be said of most of us in New Haven back then. I have nothing against Bush, but is he really ready to be president? I'm certainly not, and I had better grades than Bush did.

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Yale '68 was the last of the old Yale. In The Big Test (click here to buy it), his recently published history of the American meritocracy, Nicholas Lemann describes how the president of Yale, Kingman Brewster, and his brand-new admissions director, R. Inslee Clark, re-engineered the admissions process for the class of '69 to create a new and improved Yalie: smarter, more accomplished, less preppy. George W. Bush, it is confidently said, would never have got into the class of '69. I'd like to think I would have made the cut, but who knows? At any rate, the class immediately below ours was different, and we could tell. Their hair was longer, they wore bell-bottoms instead of khakis, and they smoked much more dope.

Not that the class of '68 was a unified front. There were really two Yales back then--one a more or less serious university, the other a cheerful, undemanding party school--and they didn't intersect very much. So, I didn't know George W. Bush, exactly, but I knew who he was. Everyone did. He was just as his biographers have said: jokey, affable, a genuinely nice guy. I used to see him on the rare occasions when I visited his fraternity, Deke—where the main attraction was the weekend fistfights that used to erupt with almost clockwork regularity between two testosterone-addled, football-playing brothers. (Actual siblings, that is, not just fraternal Dekies who proudly wore on their buttocks the brand applied there by the Deke president, George W. himself.) And I used to hear about Bush from my roommate, who sometimes played poker with him over in Bush's college, Davenport.

Bush was not the most popular member of the class of '68. That would have been either Brian Dowling or Calvin Hill, the football stars. And he was far from seeming the most likely to succeed. The list of promising candidates here was lengthy (it was a talented class, even if it was a relic of the old admissions process) but was easily topped by Strobe Talbot, now the assistant secretary of state. Strobe was then the chairman of the Yale Daily News, which was the most important post an undergraduate could have, and he wore probity and maturity like an invisible mantle. He was more like a member of the faculty than like another student.

If we had had to pick a president from among us, it would have been Strobe, hands down—which just goes to show how untutored our political instincts were. The year after we graduated, I went to visit Strobe at Oxford, where he was studying on a Rhodes scholarship. He introduced me to one of his roommates, a bearded Southern guy I immediately figured for a doofus. He was Bill Clinton, of course.

Other talented people included Dan Yergin, Talbot's rival for the chairmanship of the Daily News, who founded a competing publication, the New Journal, which was so good that some of the faculty wanted to write for it. He went on to teach at Harvard, write best-selling books, and found a successful energy-consulting company. Dick Brodhead, modest and soft-spoken, was famous for his scholarship, and fittingly he is now dean of Yale College. And among the politicos there was big, rawboned George Pataki, famous for his hawkish speeches at the Yale Political Union.

Actually, Pataki was not in the class of of '68. He was either a year ahead of us or a year behind, I can't remember. But I bring him up because the Vietnam War was so much a part of our lives then and Pataki was one of the few supporters of the war. I find astonishing all the reports that while he was in college, George W. didn't pay a lot of attention to the war, didn't think much about it one way or the other. What were they putting in the drinks over there at Deke?

In my experience, especially during my senior year, the war was almost a full-time preoccupation. We argued about it day and night. There was, first of all, the enormous question of whether the war was justified. (Most people on campus thought not, which is why Pataki was such an odd, almost heroic figure.) And then there was the almost equally pressing issue of what you were going to do about it—because, good or bad, this war happened to be extremely inconvenient. We had fellowships to enjoy, law school or med school or business school to attend—we had lives to live! And so we endlessly debated our options. Should we burn our draft cards, as we were openly urged to do by Yale's chaplain? Should we flee to Canada? What about the faked illness or insanity ploys? A friend of mine staged a nervous breakdown during the aptitude part of the physical and successfully convinced the Army he was nuts. But in a way he convinced himself too, and afterward he was never really the same. He used to wander the streets of New Haven barefoot and with dandelions behind his ears.

We were such a mixture of earnestness and callowness back then, of idealism and selfishness, that I'm tempted to say that a lot of us never fully recovered. The war deformed us, and so, I suppose, did the '60s, which in fact lasted well into the '70s—a decade during which George W. Bush, like so many of us, didn't manage to get a whole lot accomplished. For some reason, one of my lingering memories of the troubled year of 1968 is of a friend of mine who thought it droll after dinner to lean back and put his feet up—right in his plate of leftover food. That friend is now a very successful brain surgeon, but I would never let him operate on me. And I feel the same way about the class of '68 and high office. It's just too weird—and too depressing—to think that any of us is really old enough to be in charge. 

Charles McGrath is the editor of the New York Times Book Review.