LIKE HIM OR NOT, it is increasingly difficult to remember the presidential candidate George W. Bush, whose splintered syntax and befuddled body language made him such an inviting target to Will Ferrell and the gang at Saturday Night Live. Quite simply, the months since Sept. 11 were a montage of one presidential moment after another. And although there have been stumbles since, over the Middle East file and questions about who knew what and when concerning possible
terrorist attacks, his transformation is still remarkable, especially when I conjure up the image of the first time I laid eyes on the man who would become the 43rd president of the United States. It was 3 V2 decades ago, and at that very moment, he was straddling the crossbar of the goalpost at one end of Palmer Stadium in New Jersey, celebrating the Yale Bulldogs’ 29-7 triumph over the Princeton Tigers to win the Ivy League football championship.
George Bush—he didn’t seem to use the
“W” in those days—was leading a crowd of exultant Yalies in the singing of “Bulldog, Bulldog, Bow Wow Wow,” the school fight song penned by an alumnus named Cole Porter, Class of 1913. Bush was also exhorting all of us to help him tear the goalpost down so we could each take home a piece of Yale football history.
When the Princeton police arrived on the scene, they clearly had no intention of allowing such blatant destruction of university property. They reached up, hauled the future leader of the free world down from his perch and dragged him off the field. School legend has it that he was told charges would be dropped if he got out of Princeton by sundown.
That was November of 1967. Across America, the winds of change were howling everywhere, even at Ivy League universities. And in a way, George Bush and I were examples of the old and the new. He was a 21-year-old senior, a prep school graduate, the latest generation of an established Yale family—grandson of a former U.S. senator, son of a then-congressman destined to one day occupy the White House himself. I, on the other hand, was an obscure freshman football player from Canada, a scholarship kid who’d arrived in New Haven that fall essentially oblivious to the fact that someone’s blood could be blue.
But George Bush and I found a common ground. It was the fraternity named Delta Kappa Epsilon, though most Yalies just called it Deke. I was not by nature a joiner, but I knew almost immediately that this was a place to which I wanted to belong. Perhaps it was because of the fraternity house itself, a handsome brick building in the geographical heart of Yale. Maybe it was because I was an athlete and Deke’s membership included many of the university’s sporting elite, among them swimmer Don Schollander, winner of four gold medals at the 1964 Olympics, and Calvin Hill, who in 1969 would become the first-round draft pick of the Dallas Cowboys. Or, I suppose, I might have wanted to join simply because Deke maintained the best bar in New Haven. As I was only 16,1 did the math and realized that unless I flunked a year or two, I wasn’t
likely to get a legal drink anywhere else before graduation.
And when I first found myself in that heady place, who was Deke’s president? None other than George Bush. Back then, Yale fraternities were non-residential, which meant Deke was primarily a social club. And Bush was its heart and soul. As president, he was the one responsible for upholding Deke’s century-old objectives (always capitalized for emphasis in fraternity literature): “Intellectual Excellence, Honest Friendship, Gentlemanly SelfRespect and Morality in All Circumstances.” Another long-standing tradition, of course, was Beer—capitalized for emphasis here by me. Detractors have pointed to a Bush quote, years later, that he couldn’t “remember any kind of heaviness” ruining his time at Yale, though the war in Vietnam was then spiralling out of control and there were race riots just a few blocks from the Deke house in New Haven.
As notoriously rambunctious as Deke might have been, it was understood that if a member got belligerently drunk or made a racially insensitive remark or threatened to get physical with a girlfriend, it would likely be George Bush who would pull him aside and let him know he was out of line. It is true, of course, that Bush himself was arrested one December night trying to make off with an oversized holiday wreath from outside Macy’s department store in downtown New Haven. But hey, it was Christmas.
I also remember that in the time we were at Yale together, George Bush seemed to be a natural leader. Though he was neither an outstanding scholar nor a star athlete, he was one of the best-known and best-liked students on the campus. Lanny Davis, a fellow Deke member who went on to serve in the Clinton White House and support Al Gore for president, nonetheless remembers Bush as “quickwitted, savvy, especially smart about judging and understanding people.”
Though Yale students weren’t able to formally join a fraternity until their second year, a number of us were invited to Deke on a semi-regular basis as freshmen, getting to know members while—more to the point—they got to know us. All the while, there were frequent allusions to initiation night and the secret rituals that
would be revealed to us only then. When we dared to ask if those rites somehow involved the large, menacing branding iron with the letters “DKE” that hung over the fireplace, we got only silence and smiles.
But then came the morning when the Yale Daily News confirmed our darkest fears. The bad news, the school paper’s investigation revealed, was that there was indeed branding at Deke. The good news was that though the branding iron, glowing red-hot, was menacingly displayed during the initiation ceremony, it was actually the tip of a heated coat hanger kept out of sight that made contact with bare flesh. Simultaneously, the large brand was plunged into a bucket of cold water to produce a blood-curdling sizzle. When the New York Times picked up the story, George Bush faced his first presidential crisis. He went into damage-control mode, describing the resultant burns as “insignificant,” little more than a cigarette burn. “I can’t understand,” he was quoted as saying, “how the authors of the article can be so haughty not to allow this type of pledging to go on at Yale.”
Last May, George W. Bush returned to Yale to deliver the commencement address and to reflect upon his own college career. The President acknowledged that his path of intellectual discovery was not always a rigorous one, that there were professors who likely didn’t remember him as a student and that there were, in fact, some times at Yale he couldn’t remember either. Bush told the graduates: “To those of you who received honours, awards and distinctions, I say, well done. And to the C students, I say you too can be president of the United States.”
But then he gave the Class of 2001 another, more philosophical message— that an academic degree is not the most important thing to be gained in life. “What matters most,” he said, “are the standards you live by, the consideration you show others and the way you use the gifts you’re given.” At the time, that seemed like almost trite advice delivered by a former C student. Now, it all sounds quite different. I?!!
Bob McKeown, originally from Ottawa, is a New York City-based correspondent on NBC’s Dateline.
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