Big Man on Campus

As nervous students took their seats for the first day of class, one stood out. His classmates were filing into

As nervous students took their seats for the first day of class, one stood out.

His classmates were filing into section at Harvard Business School, but President George W. Bush sat calmly in the back of the room, spitting chewing tobacco into the bottom of a cup.

It was the fall of 1973, and the school’s newest crop of would-be financial elites had arrived. In a room full of visibly uncomfortable overachievers, Mike Kurz immediately noticed the future president’s unorthodox behavior.

“I thought, ‘Here’s a guy volunteering to get kicked out,’” Kurz says.

Unlike the 27-year-old Bush, Kurz was fresh out of college. He was all too aware of the Business School’s reputation for weeding out the unprepared. The school was only starting to embrace the diversity movement of the ’70s, and Kurz remembers thinking that the few women and minorities would not get asked to leave. But the guy chewing tobacco in the back would.

Kurz was relieved to see someone who looked as unprepared as he felt. “There’s one,” he told a friend. The friend responded, “No, that’s George Bush.”

While many students struggled through two years at HBS, George W. Bush exuded confidence—his sectionmates in the Class of 1975 remember his tobacco-chewing habit, his “sloppy” style of dressing and his smooth charm. “Not too many people are that confident,” Kurz says of his one-time classmate.

This air of assurance inspired great admiration among many of his classmates, if derision among a few. Though his father was head of the Republican National Committee, Bush was not regarded as a budding politico.

But even then the man who many remember as a “class clown” or a “nice guy” displayed the characteristics that have become his trademarks: the charisma that helped him skyrocket into the government’s highest office and a sureness of vision that some decry as dangerously stubborn.

I had dabbled in many things, but I had no real idea what I wanted to do with the rest of my life when I arrived at Harvard Business School. ‘Here you are at the West Point of capitalism,’ the taxi driver said when he dropped me off, and he was right.” Thus begins President George W. Bush’s brief treatment of his two years in business school in his 1999 campaign autobiography, A Charge to Keep. The narrative account of his time at Harvard promptly ends one paragraph later and is never again addressed.

If President Bush hopes to minimize his time in Cambridge, however, his mother admits the experience was important. “Harvard was a great turning point for him. I don’t think he’d say that as much as I would,” Barbara Bush recently told the Washington Post. “I think he learned, what is that word? Structure.”

This account of Bush’s time at this bourgeois boot camp comes from the people who knew him: his section mates and teachers from the class of ’75. At the Business School, each class of roughly 800 students is divided into ten sections of approximately 80 people. The first year, the section mates takes all of their classes together—and they get to know each other very well.

The Crimson contacted over 70 members of Bush’s section, reached 34, and interviewed 27, as well as 3 professors. Everyone quoted in this story wass a member of Bush’s section, Section C, unless otherwise identified. While it’s clear that Bush as president has colored almost all recollection of Bush as student, most of the differences are interpretive ones.

As he does today, Bush exuded a smiling—some say smirking—confidence, and the kind of charisma most politicians envy; he left the academic brilliance and attention to detail to his other classmates. He hung around mainly with group of fellow Southerners who liked to have a good time, but he had the ability to charm everyone around him.

Those who were most turned off by Bush appear to have been on the margins of Business School culture: the few women, the young professors who wanted to change the way their subjects were taught and the people whose politics simply clashed with the conservatives around them. For these students, as for the vocal mass of Bush opposers today, the man’s confidence represented a disturbing inability to see beyond his comfort zone and question his own beliefs.

If the Flight Jacket Fits…

In the mid-1970s, evolution, free love and antiwar sentiments were at the forefront of young people’s consciousness. “Going to business school wasn’t the most sensitive thing to do,” explains Cheryl E. Owens-Howard.

When Bush and his fellow students crossed the River to Harvard College, then a bastion of liberalism, they felt the cultural chasm: “When we went over to eat in Eliot hall we got sneers,” says Kurz, who now works for an advertising company in Connecticut.

But the cultural shifts of the ’60s and early ’70s could not be suppressed forever. “Admission standards were more geared toward people whose relatives had attended the college and that was already being questioned...we internalized the change. I think we were already recognizing that something was up,” says Charles Braxton.

Women were still a rarity at HBS—they made up only a tenth of Bush’s section. The four women in his section interviewed for this story all remember sprinting up two or three flights of stairs between classes to use the only female bathroom in the building—which several said still featured urinals.

Students say the Business School as whole resisted major change.

Verne L. Ashby, a member of the African American Students Association, observed that there was “still some activity at [the College] in terms of the fight for equal opportunity. But very little [was going on] at HBS.”

The students were a “pretty conservative group,” agrees David M. Coit. “A high percentage were out of the military.”

It was an atmosphere that suited George W. Bush fine. He sought an early discharge from his now controversial tenure in the Texas Air National Guard to be permitted to enroll at HBS.

And he treated that service as a badge of honor. Classmates almost universally remember him wearing his Air National Guard jacket constantly. “He was proud of his service in the National Guard and if asked the question, he’d talk about it,” says Peter Gebhard III.

Bush “looked great in his flight jacket,” says one female classmate, and though across the River it would be a somewhat perplexing choice to wear an Air National Guard jacket in the midst of Vietnam War controversy, the outfit went unquestioned at the B-school.

The wide acceptance of Bush’s military jacket and conservative views, as well as the school’s somewhat slow reaction to the cultural changes, are linked to the subject being taught—and the intensity of the academic environment. In the midst of learning about streamlined options for the route to the most profit, “compassion doesn’t come up… too much,” Michael T. Eckhart says.

This method focused on helping students develop their business skills, leaving morality to their individual consciences.

“They taught the art of manipulation as much as they studied delegation: people who know how to get what they want no matter what the cost,” says Elyse Kuhn.

The high-pressure atmosphere was cultivated as a way to teach students how to react to real-life business scenarios.

“It was a scary atmosphere that you are thrown into from the start. Near the beginning [Professor] Harry Hansen gave a speech where he said we’re going to give you more work than you can possibly do, because that’s what the world is like, and he was right,” says Tom Harlow.

It’s not in the details

Harvard Business School classrooms are no different from those of any public high school: the earnest, detail-oriented grade grubbers and academics sit in front, the cool kids sit in the back and the silent majority sit somewhere in the middle.

“People who like the big picture like sitting in the back benches, and Bush was known as a back bencher,” remembers Charles Braxton.

Bush’s preferred seat so imprinted itself into the class memories of him that, when about half the section came to Washington to celebrate their classmate’s inauguration, their gift, a bench made out of mesquite, was engraved “To The Leading Backbencher.”

Some students had a very different view of what Bush’s seat indicated. Bush was “more of a class clown than a serious student,” remembers Kuhn, one of several classmates who used the term “class clown” to describe Bush.

Even then, Bush’s demeanor and his family connections caused some controversy—there was a split in the ranks over his presence and his academic performance.

“Some people thought he was really sub-standard and really didn’t belong there at all. Most thought he was an average student,” says Martin Kahn.

These divergent opinions were influenced by his style: Bush spoke simply, “not an intellectual, but a good speaker, just like today,” says Eckhart. Some believed that his straightforward style of talking masked a lot of intelligence.

“I worked in the oil fields...what I found is never let people know how smart you are. I think he got that from that environment and carried it through,” says Braxton.

But whether genuine or put on, his unique persona made itself known in every class. Classmate James Schroer says he jogged the memory of one of Bush’s former professors, Michael Porter, with a story about the president’s time in the class. Porter, now Harvard’s Lawrence University Professor, was doing an interview for the New York Times and immediately recalled Bush when Schroer recounted a tale about his strategy to revive a sagging motor home company. Schroer joked that the company should use blimps.

Bush interjected with some wisdom of his own, Schroer recalls. “Well, I could only see one problem with that approach,” Bush said, according to Schroer. “The people I know back in Texas, I can imagine them out in their backyards seeing one of those mobile homes on a blimp, and they would take out their twelve gauge shotgun and blow that sucker clear out of the sky.”

This anecdote appears telling: Bush was ready with humor, unafraid to inject his two cents into the discussion. This kind of participation attracted both admiration and scorn.

When reflecting on Bush’s academic tenure, many respond to the question of participation by describing a listless child of privilege who had not yet found his moment of direction (Bush claims that moment came when he was born again as a Christian in 1985). With several exceptions, a large number of students said he attended class only sporadically.

“[I had] the sense that [Bush] was there but that he didn’t really have any interest in being there,” says Ashby, now the president of a California consulting firm. “I think that he felt he needed to legitimize himself.”

Jeffrey M. Pawlik agrees, remembering the consensus that Bush was sent to B-School by his family as a “sort of a finishing school.”

It was a family that had already become somewhat well-known: Bush’s grandfather had been a famous senator and in 1973, his father, the future President George H. W. Bush, was the chairman of the Republican National Committee and a candidate to replace Spiro Agnew as Nixon’s vice-president. By the end of Bush’s tenure at the B-School, the elder Bush had become America’s emissary to China at a key point in Sino-American relations.

Although this history guaranteed many classmates would have some knowledge of Bush’s background, many of the business intensive students simply didn’t care. “There were plenty of people at the B-school who had big deal fathers,” notes Paul Gormsen.

But Bush’s family connections gave him a breadth of knowledge about world politics that distinguished him among the more narrowly-focused business students—even creating a way of bridging cultural gaps. Osamu Koyama remembers that “At the time his father was appointed the first ambassador to China, he was well known among the students. I’d ask him about his father, and he’d ask about Japan.”

Although today some pundits like to joke about Bush’s lack of foreign policy depth, his family did give him specific knowledge of current events overseas, enabling him to chat freely with his classmates. “This was when OPEC was first being formed,” Kahn says, “and he was unusually, in my memory, well informed about the particulars of the different countries that were players at the time, compared to most of us.”

Working the Crowd

When asked to sketch President Bush’s character for the New Yorker recently, Laura Bush responded, “Well, my husband has a great sense of humor...he loves to be with people. He remembers people. He’s very aware of the story of people. When he meets people, he asks them about themselves.”

His wife describes him just as his HBS classmates do: affability and friendliness always come first—before leadership, intelligence or vision.

Bush’s confidence enabled to him to reach out to classmates in a way not usual for the cutthroat Business School world. Steven B. Kass recalls reading a case on airplanes early on. “He made a comment to me that he had some experience on airplanes, and if I wanted to call him [I could],” says Kass.

He cultivated that popularity by being friendly to all; as Don E. Miller put it, “no matter what your politics, if you met him then, you would’ve liked him.” But he was especially friendly to an inner circle, and he christened each member with a nickname. Patrick Shea recalls going to the inauguration with classmate Bill Strong, whom Bush dubbed “Strongman.” “When [Bush] passed, Bill yelled out ‘Congratulations,’” Shea says. “He instantaneously recognized him and yelled back, “How’re you doing, Strongman?’”

Kurz says Bush eased social discomfort by “calling people by their last name and then adding ‘y.’”

Shea found that Bush had an innate ability to connect with people—“he was president of the normal club.”

But in the 1970s, normal meant different things to different people. At the Business School, this coterie was exclusive, mostly Southern, white, male and as Ashby recalls, “casually dressed.”

Bush and his friends were known as “the real go-getters, the more well-connected people,” says Andrew Keesing.

Although Bush is popularly depicted as a party boy, his and his friends’ partying habits were only rambunctious by Business School standards. Many of his male classmates recall him being a drinker, but deny rumors of heavy alcohol and harder drug use; Hamilton James ’73 characterizes him as “a beer and bourbon sort of guy.”

Kahn remembers a group of them heading to The Pub, the campus bar, for a few beers after classes, but nothing that he considers serious.

Bush’s romantic life didn’t seem to be a priority. Kahn says, “he had girlfriends, but I don’t know anyone at the Business School that he was involved with. He was hanging around with the guys a lot. I think it was probably a lonely time.”

Leader of the Pack?

According to The Times of London, Bush “has instituted a strict code of dress and behaviour” in the White House. “Bad language and ‘dress down’ Fridays are no more,” the newspaper says.

But during his Business School days, Bush “dressed like a slob,” Kuhn says.

Kuhn describes a section field trip to the General Electric plant in Lynn, Mass. “When we got there the executive who greeted us and gave us the tour said, ‘You guys really don’t look like HBS students.’” Then, indicating Bush, Kuhn recalls the manager saying, “That guy looks like someone who just came off the third shift.” However, the clothes belied a man who took many opportunities to lead his peers.

Although he wasn’t prized for academic talents, Bush’s confidence occasionally brought him leadership positions. “When the section was divided into smaller groups of six for marketing projects, he was chosen to be his group’s leader,” remembers Don E. Miller.

According to Eckhart, Bush had future leadership roles on his mind even then. He remembers one instance in Rudy Winston’s Human Behavior in Organizations class. “Rudy asked about leadership: Did anyone in the class think they would seriously consider running for President of the United States at some point? George was the first person to raise his hand.” Winston confirmed that, although he didn’t remember that specific dialogue, Eckhart’s recollection sounded like the conversations that were often held in his class.

Bush’s leadership was more often seen on the intramural fields, which were clearly a stronger interest. “I always remember him having a basketball around, would bring it to class, a little more unusual in Business School than in college,” says Kurz.

As point guard, Bush became the captain of the section’s basketball team. “He was a natural point guard, and leadership comes from being able to play that position. He was unselfish and enthusiastic,” remembers Patrick Shea.

Schroer agrees that “he was kind of our floor leader. He was very fiery, very competitive. There wasn’t a second when he was on the floor that he relaxed.”

With Bush in charge, there was no question of who gave the instructions and who was supposed to follow them.

“When he was quarterback of the intramural football team there were stories of him sending guys far out. He then sent the ball sailing over their heads and said ‘It’s my job to throw it and your job to catch it. Start doing your job,’” remembers Harlow.

Although his classmates debate whether Bush arrived at HBS the unique figure that he is today, these anecdotes seem to indicate that much of his ambition and particular management style was there already.

Yet Bush seems to have felt little responsibility to his roots in the academic business community. “I didn’t see that he was calling on MBA people for his cabinet, and I was very disappointed that he didn’t reach the academic community at all,” admits Kuhn, who is now a partner in a wholesale company in Connecticut.

Bush’s seeming antagonism toward his Business School education has continued through his presidency. “What’s curious [about the debates] is how it’s almost like he’s willfully denying his education,” says Kahn, the managing director of Cadence Information Associates in New York. “He’s sort of a guy who got an MBA but it didn’t take.”

Or, to put it in the words of a female classmate who asked not to be identified, “When I first heard he was running for the presidency I laughed until I couldn’t see through the tears in my eyes. I just thought ‘The nation is going to hell in a hand-basket. If he can be president maybe I can be the Queen of England.’”

Teachers and Turmoil

Two professors in particular have spoken up publicly about Bush, and they both inspire heated comments and contradictory recollections in their students. The fraught memories make sense: both of these young professors brought a personalizing attitude to heretofore standardized classes, challenging the institution they served.

Professor Yoshi Tsurimi has been visiting a range of journalism outlets—from recent unauthorized Bush biographer Kitty Kelley to The Harvard Crimson to—revealing the contents of conversations he had with Bush in the ’70s, along with his view of Bush’s academic record.

The picture he paints is not pretty.

Tsurimi says that Bush was in a group of students who had “warped bigotry and prejudices.”

Most galling to Tsurimi is what he calls Bush’s “total disconnect with reality” and “his lack of compassion for the unemployed and weaker.” Tsurimi claims that Bush called many of the programs from Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal “socialism”—compelling fodder for Democrats’ claims that Bush is dipping too far into Social Security to fund his other initiatives.

Tsurimi’s negative comments, especially during an election year, have caused controversy. Bush has denied making those remarks. Although the White House did not respond to requests for comment for this story, few of the students who spoke on the record agree with Tsurumi’s assessment of Bush’s character—they can’t see how the friendly, smiling guy they knew could’ve uttered such extreme comments.

For some, Tsurimi’s characterization of Bush is difficult to believe in the classroom setting. “He seemed very Texan, so people sort of expected him to be very conservative,” admits Shea. “But he was not an ideologue; he was tolerant. [He] needed to have enough of an open mind to engage people that had an entirely opposite idea.” Although Koyama says that “I enjoyed [Tsurimi’s] class,” he says Tsurimi’s comments seemed extreme, particularly the comments that made insinuations against Bush’s character.

“When [Bush and I] did have discussions—not on the politics or the business—he was a very nice guy to be with,” he says.

Tsurumi’s other main complaint, that Bush was a poor student, is partially explained by a chunk of his classmates—Tsurumi was known as a tough grader.

Winston, then a doctoral student who taught an organizational behavior class for the section, calls Bush “an average student with a comic side.” Winston, one of the few black teachers at the time, had developed and taught a course called Organizational Development in the Inner City at the school previously. Although that class was overflowing, and was ranked second of 66 electives by students, when a new head of Winston’s department arrived he canceled the class, and sent Winston to teach the core organizational behavior class for section C—a class he had no experience teaching.

Winston describes occurrences that lend credence to the childish character that Tsurimi sketches. “The first day I came in the class, [Bush] and several other student were sailing paper airplanes around the class and they looked at me kind of funny, but they ended up stopping,” remembers Winston.

Winston’s class was in some ways a microcosm of the business school at the time. “He said that ‘There are no rules. You have to make your own way. No matter what people tell you, promises are not kept,’” says Kuhn. In Gormsen’s memory, “We all kind of went a little wild when Rudy was around.”

Several students remember a day when the entire class switched around their name plates, humiliating the professor until he left.

Though by Winston’s and Bush’s classmates accounts, the president was an active participant in the daily chaos that defined many memories of the class, he also demonstrated a more serious side. “Rudy’s teaching style was to encourage discussion,” Gebhard says. “George wanted facts. He wouldn’t listen to statements not backed up by a decent argument. George would challenge the comments.”

Already, he says, Bush was unwilling to listen to what he saw as empty statements of opinion. Keesing recalls that Bush wasn’t “quite as set in his ways as he has turned out in his presidency.”

For Keesing as well as for most of Bush’s fellow students in Section C, the Bush presidency has thrown a film over memories of Bush as a younger man.

As one classmate notes, “Had he not become president of the United States, I don’t think anyone would’ve remembered anything about him.”

Jonathan M. Siegel, Leon Neyfakh and Simon W. Vozick-Levinson contributed to the reporting for this article.