The Presidential Game

Harvard alums notably absent from 2004 ballot

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.