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bush at yale

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When George W. Bush arrived at Yale in 1964, it was an institution in transition, becoming much more liberal politically. Bush, raised in West Texas, rebelled against the campus's growing culture of the sixties. Commenting on this period of the president's life are New Yorker writer Nicholas Lemann, reporter Wayne Slater, and former speechwriter David Frum. These excerpts are from their FRONTLINE interviews.

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nicholas lemann
Political correspondent to The New Yorker.

….when Bush went to Yale, Yale was itself, like many establishment institutions, in heavy transition, and the center at a place like Yale was moving way to the left during that time. This is why you have somebody like Hillary Clinton starting as a Goldwater Republican from Illinois, getting to Massachusetts and Connecticut, where she was educated in the1960s, and coming out as liberal Democrat. That's the typical thing that happens.

For some reason, Bush got to this institution that was going through this process and thought, "I don't like this. I don't like the direction this is moving." It seems to have deepened a resolve that was already there to become more conservative, not more liberal.

So he rejected the place that he saw Yale going and the whole Northeast going, went back to Texas at a time when Texas was becoming more conservative. He embraced the conservatism of West Texas, where he grew up, and also the newer conservative rebellion against the anti-war movement, which he saw at Yale.

We think of that period of time as kind of moving to the left and being anti-war. But in fact, it's not quite that way. George W. Bush would have found sympathy.

Right. At the same time, the student right in the1960s got absolutely no national publicity. It was all sort of invisible from that standpoint. But it was in fact a growing movement. You know, William F. Buckley founded Young Americans for Freedom in the early1960s in Sharon, Connecticut. It created a whole world that was growing all through that period. So they were a lot of young people, and they were more in places like the South and the West than in places like the Northeast who really became entranced with conservative ideas.

By the way, I don't mean conservatism just in reaction to liberals, but they were entranced with anti-Communism, aggressive anti-Communism, as a cause. The wonders of capitalism, tax-cutting, smaller government -- All of these were sort of positive goods for these folks. It wasn't a mass movement, but it was a really significant and real movement of activists who came into the Republican Party at that time and are now senior people in the Party. ...

It's useful, in a way, to think of many of the leading people in the Bush administration, including the president himself, as children of the 1960s --just as much as the Clintons and Kerry and so on are children of the 1960s --but they're children of the other 1960s.

I wrote a story about Vice President Cheney, where he described being a young government official and going in a suit to a SDS rally in Wisconsin just to kind of inspect. His politics were very much formed in opposition to what we think of as the 1960s. Donald Rumsfeld, who worked very closely with Cheney way back then, same. President Bush, one senses, same.

A lot of these people got into politics right around the same time, and [with the] same kind of young, change-the-world spirit, but they were on the opposite side of the people we identify with the 1960s. But they're still carrying the old crusade forward now that they're running the country. …

related links
see a chronology of bush's life

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wayne slater
Austin bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News.

… His college years at Yale were the most tumultuous years of the 1960s, and he was right there in the heart of it. He was anything but a part of the radical left. He felt very much ill at ease with the community of hippies and yippies and the protestors of that war. ...

George Bush is a member of a fraternity and is a button-down student at the moment of the most tumultuous point of the anti-Vietnam War movement in America. He's a member of a fraternity at a time when fraternities are going in the opposite direction. He's a conservative at a time when this whole liberal activist movement was emerging in America and was so powerful. ...

There was a moment on campus at Yale in which Bush remembered that he talked to William Sloane Coffin, this famed anti-Vietnam activist and pillar of the anti-Vietnam activist movement in America. He says Coffin made a disparaging remark about his father. Bush took this very much at heart. I think it was an important moment for Bush, because he's remembered it all these years. It was important because it made it clear to him that he was very much on the other side of the emerging movement. He was on, in a sense, the wrong side, the receiving side of a movement that was growing, and was going to win really in this debate about Vietnam.

He saw it as a movement of pretentious elitists. … He believed he was a conservative at a moment when the entire world seemed to be tending toward the liberal, even activist, even radical. He felt very uncomfortable.

You saw this years later, when Bush ran for president, and what did he talk about? He talked about the 1960s. He said that was the moment when everything went wrong. It was the "feel good, do it" moment. He railed against that, scored great political points among Republicans and some grown-up parents of the 1960s who were now more moderate in the 2000 race. But it was exactly the kind of thing that he took out of that. Not simply that he was on the wrong side, but that he was on the different side of a moment that actually did damage to this country. …

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david frum
Former speechwriter for President Bush.

…We've talked to a lot of people about how he was kind of out of sync with the time when he was at Yale--

… One of the most personal speeches he gave in his first year was his speech at the 2001 Yale commencement. The speech ended up being a very sweet and touching and affecting speech, and very much dictated by the president's own views of what he wanted to say.

But there are some moments along the way, where sort of a more acerbic George Bush showed himself. At one point, he's talking to one of the writers who had done a lot of research and learned a lot about Yale, and was impressing the president with all his Yale lore. And the president said to him, "Did you go to Yale?" The speechwriter conceded that he had not.

The president smiled and shrugged his head, and said, "Well, you didn't miss much." He had ambivalent feelings about the place. …

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posted oct. 12, 2004

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