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He arrived at Yale a legacy, the grandson of a Senator, the son of a member of Congress. But throughout his four years in New Haven, George W. Bush managed to hang onto his Lone Star State roots.
It wasn't just the cowboy boots, either.
Yale was the kind of school where ambition wasn't rare. These were the days when Bill Clinton was already plotting his political career. But the future Texas governor stayed out of the fray, concentrating on athletics and a social life--Texas-style pleasures--instead of grand plans for the future.
"I vividly remember sitting with him for a few hours on a fence in a courtyard his senior year and he really didn't know what he wanted to do with himself," says former Dean of Yale College Henry Chauncey.
He nonetheless impressed his colleagues in the Class of 1968 with his gregarious personality and smooth Southern charm--the same elements that are helping him to the top of the Republican presidential field.
Deke House and Beyond
Campus life centered around a few staples: the football game, the prom, fraternities. New Haven was not then dangerous, just boring.
This was Yale in the days before co-education, when the school still enforced a coat-and-tie rule in its dining halls, and a structured extracurricular schedule.
More than anything else, George W. Bush was involved in athletics. Though his father had played varsity baseball for the Bulldogs, the younger Bush stuck to intramurals--football, baseball and others.
On weekend nights, Bush headed to his fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon, known as the Deke house.
Reputed to contain the "longest bar in New Haven," the Deke house eventually elected Bush its president. A home to campus jocks including the eventual professional football player Calvin Hill, Deke would provide music from the likes of Wilson Pickett and beer of a slightly lesser quality.
"We'd all go over there and get plastered, or go to our rooms and get plastered, or go to some college function and get plastered," says long-time Yale friend Russell Walker, now an attorney in Oklahoma City. "We all hoped some woman would find it attractive."
Bush, his friends say, was not the heaviest drinker on campus. He "wasn't a teetotaler and he wasn't a lush," says his roommate of four years, Robert Deeter.
Still, Bush was bent on having a good time at Yale. Walker remembers walking home with Bush one night when his friend suddenly shouted, "Let's rock and roll--you rock and I'll roll!" Blocks away from campus, the someday Texas governor began to log roll down the street.
Then one Christmas, in the process of trying to round up a Christmas tree for the Deke house, Bush and some fraternity brothers cast their eyes on a wreath hanging in front of a local store. The Deke house could use just such a wreath, they decided.
They didn't get their decoration: instead, Bush was arrested, though the charges against his inebriated joke were later dropped.
"We didn't hang out with the guys who studied real hard," Walker confesses.
Bush and his friends once again found themselves the object of the local police force's ire after a Yale football victory over Princeton. After pulling down the goalpost on the field, Bush and his friends were told they had 15 minutes to get out of town.
Still, fraternity antics at Yale were tame compared to fraternity antics at larger schools.
"Deke was the jock house all right, but this was no Mississippi State," says Deke member J.P. Goldsmith, who was a year behind Bush at Yale. "Every body could read and write, everybody could wear a neck-tie and everybody went to class."
Though Bush was clearly at home in the social scene of Yale men, he nonetheless encountered difficulty dealing with members of the opposite sex.
In his junior year, George W. Bush told his friends he had become engaged to a woman studying at Rice. They say, they could not have been more surprised.
"The big joke with George was that he couldn't get a date," Deeter says. "George was more of a project than a date--he just didn't seem to be interested in having a relationship with someone."
Another friend adds that he was shocked to learn of the engagement; not long after, it was broken.
Bush's lack of significant interaction with females and his juvenile fraternity pranks suggest a certain sense of flippancy.
In many ways, Bush was just another young man from a successful family looking for something to inspire him in a career.
"Was he going to be president of the United States? You wouldn't have thought about it," Chauncey says.
Hail Fellow Well Met
"George was pretty much an original," roommate Rob Deeter says.
In the days of the Yale dress code,
Bush would walk into the dining hall in jeans and a T-shirt, tossing a necktie on top.
And not just any T-shirts. Bush was particularly fond of the garish orange T-shirts (with matching orange socks) issued by the intramural sports program.
He spent nights with friends in Davenport, his residential college, perfecting a game he invented called "squash hockey." Using fireplace grates as goals, Bush and his friends would play hockey in Davenport's downstairs squash courts, "whacking" a tennis ball around the courts in the hours after midnight.
Bush was known to nearly every member of his graduating class of 1,000, his friends say. He was affable, funny and just the slightest bit odd.
For example, his classmates had never seen a certain Yale undergraduate naked, so George W. Bush took it upon himself to change that. In a show of dedication, Bush camped out in front of the young man's shower and waited for him to emerge.
One hour passed. Two hours passed. Bush continued to wait. And after three hours, the joke was on him: his prey stepped out of the shower fully clothed.
Bush was also "a notorious slob," Walker says, although he bought his clothes at prep school clothiers J. Press and Brooks Brothers.
"He'd arrive with a duffel bag and he'd just sort of live out of it as he wore his clothes, and they'd just sort of end up in the corner," Deeter says. "There were a lot of arrogant prepsters there and George didn't really follow along."
In his senior year, Bush was tapped to join the Skull and Bones, one of Yale's most prestigious secret societies, to which his father had belonged.
In the windowless brownstone club house, Bush and a collection of Bonesmen including a Rhodes scholar and a gold-medal swimmer, mused over their life stories and their sexual histories as part of the club's bonding ritual.
Bush, though notoriously unpretentious, became deeply involved in the club, and following the club's rules of secrecy, never mentioned his membership to his roommate.
The Yale of the father gradually seemed to be becoming the Yale of the son.
Come the Revolution
From 1963 to 1968, the Vietnam War catalyzed activists on campus and across the Ivy League.
The Yale administration proved more conciliatory to the student protesters than their colleagues elsewhere. In Bush's senior year, the dress code was abolished and Yale moved to a pass-fail grading system. For the first time, public high school graduates outnumbered prep school graduates at Yale. And University Chaplain William Sloane Coffin publicly denounced the Vietnam War in debates with William F. Buckley Jr.
For Bush, whose father was then a member of Congress who supported the war, the culture of protest was not one he could consider joining.
"You still had a group of students who were here under the old terms, and they didn't see their membership at Yale as a platform to change society," Chauncey says.
Indeed, after Bush's father lost a Senate bid to an anti-war Democrat, Coffin allegedly told the young undergraduate that his father had been "beaten by a better man."
"A lot of people on the left had a certain arrogance about them at that time and George took the heat," says Deeter, who is a registered Democrat.
Coffin, who has since apologized for the remark but says he does not remember making it, admits the campus was largely inhospitable to young men like Bush by the time he was a senior.
"You had to be pretty courageous to speak out in favor of the Vietnam War on campus because the prevailing mood on the faculty and among the students was very anti-war," Coffin says.
According to a study Chauncey later conducted, the "screaming radicals" at Yale came disproportionately from the ranks of alumni legacy students and prep school graduates.
But as those students demonstrated against the establishment that bred them, Bush increasing felt that "protesting and growing your hair long wasn't a way to do something," Deeter says.
As a result, Bush, who has never attended a single Yale reunion, came to view with contempt much of what he saw as a hypocritical and pretentious left-wing academic establishment.
A Yale Education
In his time at Yale, Bush, who majored in U.S. history, averaged a C+.
"I wouldn't characterize him as a scholar," Chauncey says, "but that's not a time when scholarship was highest on people's agendas."
Grade inflation makes Bush's marks appear worse than they would have seemed in 1968. An 80 average was good enough to get on the Dean's List then, and an 85 was considered a real feat.
Nonetheless, one professor of his says he was "dumbfounded" to learn that Bush had been in his U.S. history senior seminar in 1968.
After his senior year, according to the Washington Post, Bush was denied admittance to the University of Texas law school, despite his in-state status.
His SAT scores--566 verbal and 640 math--were certainly good enough to merit admission to Yale even without his father's weight behind him, Chauncey says.
But Bush seemed alienated by the intellectual atmosphere of Yale.
"The thing that was most troubling to George was the culture shock from Texas to New Haven," Chauncey says.
Whereas his father had grown up in Connecticut, George W. Bush spent his years before prep school in Midland, Texas. He spoke with a Texas drawl and sported cowboy boots at a school where the shoe of choice was penny loafers.
"If you saw him walking down the street, you wouldn't have had a clue that his father was a congressman or that he went to prep school," Deeter says. "He had a real strong identification with growing up in Texas."
Bush's Yale education was as much a question of learning how to navigate a new culture as it was of hitting the books, and he found his refuge in athletics and his fraternity.
Ironically, Texans found his Yale background as alien as the Yalies found the Lone Star State resident. In 1978, Bush ran for Congress from Texas against Democrat Kent R. Hance. Hance, a graduate of the University of Texas and of Texas Tech University, looked at Bush's Yale degree and immediately saw his opening.
Hance painted a picture of Bush as an Ivy League carpetbagger, trying to wreak havoc on a state he did not understand.
"We tried to make it Texas Tech Raiders versus the Yale Bulldogs," says Hance, who is now one of Bush's biggest supporters. "He was well-educated and we used that against him; a lot of people around here feel that a lot of the problems around here in the last 100 years have been created by Ivy Leaguers."
With that strategy in hand, Hance defeated Bush with more than 53 percent of the vote.
In the 2000 presidential contest, no one is likely to accuse Bush of being insufficiently Texan, nor does an Ivy League bias hold much water considering the two Democratic front-runners are graduates of Harvard and Princeton.
For Bush, the challenge will be proving that he is more than simply gregarious and good-natured. He will need to show that he has moved beyond the flippancy and lack of direction of his college years and has acquired the sobriety needed to lead the nation.
He will need to show that at Yale, he received an education.
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