Of all those truths self-evident to America’s Founding Fathers, Harvard’s preeminence in presidential politics must have topped the list.
Harvard College fielded at least one graduate on a major party ticket in each of the first eight presidential elections. And alumni of Harvard College didn’t just run—they also won, starting with John Adams, Class of 1755, and running all the way up to John F. Kennedy ’40, also a Crimson editor.
But the dynasty may have died out.
No graduate of Harvard College has won the presidential election since Kennedy narrowly beat out Richard M. Nixon in 1960. And after Yale man George W. Bush narrowly defeated Al Gore ’69 in 2000, this year, the best and the brightest are staying out of the race entirely.
Last week, Bob Graham—a 1962 graduate of Harvard Law School—dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination, leaving Bush, a third-generation, dyed-in-the-wool Eli as the only candidate with a Harvard tie. Bush graduated from the Business School, that corporate training academy on the other side of the river, in 1975.
The abundance of candidates from a lesser school in New Haven is even more surprising than the dearth of contenders from this nation’s finest university.
And this marks a worrisome trend. Just as Harvard dominated the first eight elections, Yale has dominated the last eight. Yale candidates have run on a major party ticket in every race for the past three decades, starting with a lone vice-presidential candidate in 1972, R. Sargent Shriver, and grew into a juggernaut with Joseph I. Lieberman, Bush, and Dick Cheney in 2000.
To greater or lesser degrees, Bush, Howard Dean, Lieberman and Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., all studied at Yale in the 1960s. Now, backed by legions of Harvard staffers, these four Elis hope to rise above the inadequacies of their alma mater to vie for America’s most prestigious job.
Experts are at a loss to explain this power shift.
“I don’t know why this happened,” Yale professor David Mayhew, an expert in national politics, writes in an e-mail. “A bit of it is family: A Bush like an Adams or a Taft can procreate. Perhaps there was some nontrivial environmental thing going on in New Haven in the 1960s and 1970s. Who knows? Perhaps it is a fluke.”
Fluke or not, Harvard’s leadership is aware of this year’s shortfall.
“President Summers and I will ensure that this is not part of the decline of the Harvard Empire,” says Dan Glickman, Director of the Institute of Politics (IOP) and a former Secretary of Agriculture—a Yale alum.
The Blue Crush
Yale spokesperson, Gila Rheinstein denies that producing presidents—or presidential candidates—ranked among Yale’s pedagogical priorities. “Yale, like Harvard, admits highly capable students and provides lots of opportunity for civic engagement and volunteer work,” she says. And Rheinstein pointedly refuses to engage in such speculation.
But Garrison Nelson, an expert on the educational background of American presidents, balks at the merest suggestion that Yale’s curriculum was responsible for the glut of candidates this year.
“Yalies like to contend that they’re committed to public service and all the rest of you are money grubbing fools,” he says.
He attributes the real success of Bush and other recent Yale grads-cum candidates to a monkey-see, monkey-do phenomenon.
“If you see someone else from your school makes it, it all becomes within your grasp,” Nelson says. Still, he says he is surprised at the strength of Yale’s showing this election cycle, calling it “a vast overrepresentation of one school.”
The Crimson Perspective
While Yale seems poised to win the great game of presidential politics this time, Harvard’s campus political gurus have urged the faithful to remain confident in Harvard’s political prowess.
Glickman cites the strong presence of Harvard alums on campaign staffs as a way for Harvard to exert power on the White House, if only indirectly.
“Harvard people are driving the trains of the campaign. Yale people are merely puppets,” he jokes.Adam Kovacevich ’99, deputy press secretary for Lieberman, is one such puppeteer.
“Even though he’s a Yalie, we feel really strongly about his campaign. My support for Joe Lieberman transcends Ivy League rivalries,” he says.
“Just as a stopped clock is correct twice a day, every so often Yale puts out a decent graduate like Howard Dean,” says Garrett M. Graff ’03, a press secretary for Dean and a former Crimson news executive.
Kerry’s press secretary, Keeley Benander, took a more conciliatory approach to the Harvard-Yale rivalry, citing other university rivalries quelled by the student bodies’ belief in Kerry.
“Students from Iowa State University and University of Iowa put aside their rivalry to support Kerry,” she says.
Benander is apparently oblivious to the rancorous rivalry which has divided Harvard and Yale for more than three centuries.
Iowa did not became a state until 1846.
Nonetheless, the Rev. Al Sharpton’s campaign was non-plussed by the Harvard-Yale rivalry or the absence of Harvard candidates from the Democratic nomination.
“That’s not important compared to unemployment and the lack of health care across this country,” says Marjorie Harris, senior adviser to Sharpton’s campaign. “The average person doesn’t care one way or another about the candidates’ academic credentials. They’re more concerned about the next bill that’s coming and can I keep a job.”
But according to Professor Nelson, academic credentials do matter to the American voter.
“There is a bizarre social class—an elitist bias among American voters who really distrust the poor boys who make good. The only presidents to have been impeached are the poorest Presidents. People who have gone to the best schools have been trusted,” he says.
His research into the educational background of every Presidential candidate since 1788 suggests that degrees from brand name universities are becoming more, not less, important as college graduates grow more numerous. He links the dominance of Yale this year as part of a trend for political aspirants to attend more and better universities than ever before.
“The irony is that a lot of these guys are legacies and that if we went on SATs then they’d be somewhere else,” Nelson says.
But whether or not they matter to voters, presidents’ academic credentials do matter in the history books, where their legacies are written permanently.
Assistant Professor of Government William G. Howell, who teaches Gov. 1540: “The American Presidency,” used rankings of Presidents compiled by C-SPAN surveys of historians and citizens in order to find the correlation between a President’s ranking and whether or not he attended Harvard.
“The data show that one can be 99 percent confident that Harvard presidents are better than Yale presidents,” he says, referring to a printout of statistics from his regression equation. Other characteristics correlated with a good ranking include holding office during war, being tall, coming from outside of New England, not dying in office from natural causes and having fewer children.
Carlos Diaz, a teaching fellow in the American Presidency course, also notes that despite the absence of Harvard candidates in the United States, many who have attended the University have gone on to win positions of power overseas, including the former Presidents of Mexico and Ecuador.
In fact, in the competition to produce big-time politicians, the all-time record favors Harvard over Yale, and Harvard over any other school, for that matter.
Seven past U.S. Presidents have studied at Harvard and five at Yale—the next closest contender is the College of William and Mary with Thomas Jefferson, John Tyler and James Monroe.
In addition to those candidates who were elected President, 10 Harvard and six Yale alums have won the nominations of major political parties, including vice-presidential nominees. And in the 108th Congress there are currently 16 senators from Harvard compared to a mere seven from Yale.
But lest either institution take too much credit for producing great leaders, Prof. Nelson points out that family connections—more than schooling—were responsible for the success of many elite alums.
“Junior Bush is related to no fewer than 16 former Presidents, but the all time record holder is Franklin Delano Roosevelt who has ancestral connections to 17 presidents,” he says.
But as much as people outside of Harvard dismiss the rivalry as irrelevant or even myopically elitist—the passions still burn strong among Harvard undergraduates.
“All I’ll say for now is that we are presented with two facts.... First, people are disappointed with the present field of candidates, and secondly, it’s a bunch of Yalies,” says Peter P. Buttigieg ’04, president of the IOP’s Student Advisory Committee. “I’ll leave it to others to put two and two together.”
Glickman identifies Harvard’s forgiving nature as the reason these Yalies were allowed to come to speak at Harvard at the IOP Forum this year.
“We offer redemption and rehabilitation for every sinner,” he says.
But he also suggests a practical reason for Yale’s abundance in the presidential race this year.
“Yalies can’t find jobs anywhere else, so they run for office,” Glickman says.
—Staff writer Jonathan P. Abel can be reached at email@example.com.
—Staff writer Faryl W. Ury can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org