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Go East, Young Man

Child of privilege? Sure, but he left Andover and Yale as a regular guy.

By June 1999Comments

WHEN TENTH GRADER GEORGE W. BUSH ARRIVED at the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, in the fall of 1961, he discovered that winter was cold, the trees looked funny, the days were short, and there were no girls at all. There were, however, top students from all over the country. “We were in way over our heads in a foreign land,” recalls Clay Johnson, a friend from Fort Worth who is now the governor’s appointments secretary. “We found we had to struggle just to catch up with everybody else.” Students were allowed seven minutes between classes, and every aspect of the day was coordinated with military precision. “We worked hard,” says Johnson. “There was an article about private schools in Time magazine our first or second year. The headmaster of Andover was on the cover, and the point was that Andover was the hardest school in the country. I remember reading that and thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m at the hardest school in the country!’ I mean, I thought it was hard, but I didn’t realize it was that hard.’” For his first English assignment, Bush was told to recount an emotional experience. Writing about something that made him cry, he looked up the word “tears” in a thesaurus, hoping to find an impressive synonym. He wrote, “Lacerates ran down my cheeks.” The professor gave him a zero, calling his paper “disgraceful.”

Within a matter of months, however, the gregarious teenager knew most of his classmates. To them, Bush was a blur of activity—always playing table tennis or pool or Frisbee or catch or touch football, always involved in physical activity, always involved in competition. The kid was enthusiasm incarnate. He played varsity baseball and basketball and junior varsity football. On the basketball team he was not among the star players, which became fodder for the self-deprecating jokes that endeared him to others. “The basketball team was hard to get onto,” says John Kidde, one of his closest friends. “They picked only twelve guys. But he made fun of himself for sitting on the bench.” After he decided not to try out for varsity football, he became the head cheerleader instead. He also organized a stickball league. “He made a big deal about it,” Kidde says. “He would give long talks, citing all these rules about what spectators could do and what players could wear.” Apparently Bush found the school’s atmosphere a bit heavy. “I was able to instill a sense of frivolity,” he said. “Andover was kind of a strange experience.” Grateful for his organizational skills, classmates nicknamed him Tweeds Bush, after the classic backroom pol Boss Tweed.

In their senior year Kidde and Bush were appointed proctors of a tenth-grade dorm, a responsibility that was considered a high honor, and consequently they roomed together. Midway through the year, Bush returned from a trip home to Texas with Barry Goldwater’s book, The Conscience of a Conservative. Kidde did a double take when he saw it lying on Bush’s desk. “I said, ‘What the hell is this?’” Kidde remembers. “We didn’t have any time to read anything extracurricular. If we did, you would read a novel. But George seemed honestly interested in the book. He said his parents had asked him to read it. I remember him telling me what Goldwater stood for.”

Around the same time, Bush told the dean of Andover that he intended to apply to Yale University. The dean encouraged him to look into other options. Bush maintains he got in on his own merit; others have assumed that family connections helped—his father and grandfather attended Yale before him. In any case he had the comfort of familiar faces when he arrived. He roomed with two Andover pals, Rob Dieter and Clay Johnson, for all four years. At the time, Yale was on the brink of profound changes. Women didn’t arrive on campus until the year after Bush graduated, but public-school students were turning up in droves. Most felt shunned by classmates who’d gone to elite prep schools. In the eyes of the public-schoolers George W. represented the very definition of an East Coast preppy. “He was a private-school kid, and I was a public-school kid, so we didn’t run in the same circles,” says David Cluchey, who teaches law at the University of Maine. In time, however, Bush’s nature led him to get past those barriers to a greater degree than others with his background.

All Yale freshmen were lumped together in a gray quadrangle known as Old Campus. Bush’s class included Oliver Stone, Ron Rosenbaum, and Strobe Talbott, who would go on to find fame as a filmmaker, a writer, and a diplomat, respectively. It also included Don Schollander, who was already a star swimmer: He won four gold medals in the 1964 Summer Olympics. While others were lost in the fog of adjusting to college, Bush seemed perfectly at ease. “Everybody else was like, ‘Where am I? What’s going on?’” says Roland W. Betts, a close friend. “George was the person who in three months knew the name of everybody and actually knew fifty percent of the class.” He was also a notoriously bad dresser who never did his laundry. “He would grab a T-shirt off the floor and put it on,” Johnson says. “He’d wrap a tie around his neck, and technically he would wear a coat, but there might not be any arms on the shirt under it.”

Bush’s father ran for office for the first time that fall. George W. flew to Houston to be there when the results came in on election night—and got his first taste of political heartbreak. Incumbent Ralph Yarborough won the hotly contested U.S. Senate race with 56 percent of the vote. George W. had cherished the notion that his father would become a senator, as his grandfather had, and toward the end of the evening campaign workers spotted the college freshman in tears. After that, he temporarily abandoned his interest in politics. When his father successfully ran for Congress in 1966, he barely seemed to notice. “They had the Young Republicans, Young Democrats, Young Communists, but he was not involved in any of that,” says Johnson. “They would have political people come and debate and give speeches, and to my knowledge he just was not interested.”

What Bush was interested in, at that stage, was football, girls, and beer. He got plenty of all three during his sophomore year, when he pledged at a fraternity called Delta Kappa Epsilon, better known as Deke, with Dieter, Johnson, and two other students they roomed with in one of Yale’s residential colleges. The fraternities served as a means to make friends with people from the other colleges. “They had separate parties—better parties,” Johnson remembers. “You had one meal a week over there. You had a bar. I think they probably violated all the liquor laws that Connecticut ever thought about having.” Some fraternities were havens for preppies; Deke was for athletes, wannabe athletes, and sports fans of all stripes. “There was lots of beer drinking and lots of television watching and lots of sports talk,” says Johnson. “It was a very manly existence.”

Bush was elected president of the Dekes the following year. Published reports have suggested that he oversaw controversial hazing rituals such as branding pledges with the Greek letter Delta, but members laugh at the idea. “The night you are inducted—Oh, Lord, it’s so stupid—they put a hood over you and take you around and try to scare you,” says Johnson. “They try to make you think they’re going to brand you, but it never happens.”

Branding?” asks Alaska governor Tony Knowles, the man Bush named pledge master. “Are you serious?”

The full story is revealed by another Deke, Lanny J. Davis, who recently served as special counsel to Bill Clinton. Davis recalls that after being shown a glowing brand, blindfolded pledges were lightly burned with a blown-out match to spook them, but that no actual branding ever took place.

Bush’s experience as a Deke suggests he was more interested in playing than studying. “People didn’t think of George as an intellectual policy wonk or anything,” says Robert McCallum, a friend from another fraternity. “George spent a lot of time learning from other people. Those who were book-oriented would think he wasn’t a serious student, but he was a serious student of people.” Bush’s partying led him to get carried away at times—that December, for instance. “I’m not saying whether I and a couple of others had a few glasses of Christmas cheer, but we thought we needed a wreath for the Deke house,” he said recently. “And as we were liberating it, some of the local officials questioned us, and we were admonished.” The police booked him on a misdemeanor charge, which was later dropped. What about rumors of a photo that captured him dancing nude on top of a bar? “I don’t think there is one,” he said. “I’m too modest to have danced on a bar naked.” Deke also had a salutary effect on Bush, however, as it broadened his circle. Among those he became close to was Calvin Hill, who would later star as a running back for the Dallas Cowboys. “He was third-generation Yale,” Hill says. “I was first-generation Yale—first-generation college, for that matter. Yet nothing about him suggested he thought he was better than other people. I guess you’d say his mother and his father raised him right.”

During this period, Bush became romantically involved with a Rice University student named Cathryn Wolfman. “It was the pre-coed days, so if you were lucky, you’d see your girlfriend every other weekend,” says Betts. “She was around. I used to see her at Deke.” Over Christmas break Bush popped the question. “He came back from vacation and said, ‘I’m engaged,’” Johnson remembers. “It was only junior year, and for one of us to be engaged was just unbelievable.” Within a few months, though, they ended the relationship. Although the Houston Press speculated that he broke up with Wolfman because she was Jewish, she’s actually Episcopalian. “Once they postponed it, I wasn’t surprised when they didn’t get married,” Betts says. “It didn’t have anything to do with him or with her, it just had to do with being young.”

In the fall of his senior year Bush had his second brush with the authorities. He traveled to Princeton University for the latest installment in the schools’ football rivalry. Yale had not won a game against Princeton for many years, but that day, the Bulldogs managed to trounce the Tigers on their home turf. “I was leaving the field, and when I looked back, George was standing in the middle of the crossbars, helping to bring down the goalposts,” says classmate H. Rey Stroube III. The Princeton campus police quizzed the Yalies involved but brought no charges. “I was escorted to the campus police place, and the guy said, ‘Leave town,’” the governor said. “So I was once in Princeton, New Jersey, and haven’t been back since.”

That was also the year he joined Skull and Bones. Because members of the exclusive secret society are forbidden to discuss what goes on, a certain legend has grown up around the club. The truth is rather mundane: It’s a club of fifteen students who meet regularly to learn more about each other. Surprisingly, the main effect of Bush’s time in it appears to have been to further diversify his circle. “George, because of what we thought to be his patrician background, was a valuable asset,” says Ken Cohen, another member. “He gave us insights into a way of life to which we’d never been exposed. At the same time, he integrated seamlessly with people from all walks of life. There was none of this noblesse oblige baloney.” Other members included Donald Etra, an Orthodox Jew, and Muhammad Saleh, a Jordanian Arab. “It is not about exclusivity,” says McCallum, who was also a member, “although the concept is that you can only get to know a limited number of people extremely well. It’s a much less rewarding experience if the society has guys from the same background.”

Andover and Yale had plugged George the elder into the old-boy network, and they provided George W. with invaluable connections too. But they don’t appear to have rendered him out of touch—at least not in the way his political opponents have routinely suggested. Paradoxically, his free pass into the insular world of the East Coast establishment seems only to have rendered him more of a regular guy. Back in Texas, he frequently railed against “intellectual snobs” (“There’s a West Texas populist streak in me, and it irritates me when these people come out to Midland and look at my friends with just the utmost disdain,” he said in 1994). His own sense that he is “of the people” shaped his conservative philosophy. Perhaps it also blinded him to the extent to which the privileges he has enjoyed have made his life a bit easier. “I always felt that people on the East Coast tended to feel guilty about what they were given,” he said. “Like, ‘I’m rich; they’re poor.’ Or, ‘I went to Andover and got a great education, and they didn’t.’ I was never one to feel guilty. I feel lucky. People who feel guilty react like guilty people: ‘I will solve the problem for you.’ It’s being motivated toward largesse for the wrong reasons. Everybody has been given free will, and everybody has a chance to succeed. If someone has failed economically, that does not mean that the rest of us should be judged differently.”

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