- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 24, 2001

George W. Bushs homecoming to Yale this week was like Huck Finn returning to Aunt Polly. The president picked up an honorary degree as a doctor of laws, completing a family hat trick his grandfather, U.S. Sen. Prescott Bush and his presidential father, also were honored by Yale during their time in office.
The reaction of some Yale faculty may show why George W. preferred as a young man to set out for other parts, with little use for civilization (as Huck might say).
Though the names of honorary degree nominees are supposed to be a Yale state secret, known only to the Yale Corp. charged with their selection, a group of Yale faculty broke the seal and went public to protest the award. Sounding like a grumpy group of college censors, they opined that Mr. Bush, like some student on probation, had "yet to demonstrate that he embodies the ideals of intellectual excellence and service to humanity for which Yale stands."
The protest authors were careful to note, in their press release, that they were among Yales "most distinguished scholars" and announced they would "absent" themselves from their own students commencement exercises as a part of the protest.
The president handled the occasion with wry wit and alarming grace. Accepting an honorary doctor of laws degree in the Old Yard on a spanking beautiful day with other honorees including actor Sam Waterston, opera singer Dawn Upshaw, modern dancer Arthur Mitchell, and museum president Ellen Futter, following Sen. Hilary Clintons class day address the day before Mr. Bush did not try to lecture the crowd on the virtues of national missile defense, including why it is more consistent with the humanitarian rules of warfare than was the old strategic doctrine of mutually assured destructive capability.
He did not argue, as his father did in 1991, that enhanced trade relations with China were key to stability in Asia. Mr. Bush also did not bring up the obvious point, known to all Lake Woebegone parents, that times were tougher in 1968, and that an old gentlemans C average would now probably register as a B or B plus.
Instead, he told the recession-shy, post-dot.com seniors that they could find some solace in his own life story as a wildcat president, because it proved that even a "C student" could succeed. Youngsters caught in a 24-7 economy could acknowledge his cautions that life "makes its own demands," that degrees and honors are far from the full measure of moral merit, and that any persons progress encounters ups and downs.
The president also noted that some of his Yale education stuck to his ribs, or to his tongue. His favorite course in college was Japanese poetry and haiku, a spare form of 13-syllable verse.
His alleged verbal gaffes during the campaign were simply misunderstood, Mr. Bush argued. The tongue-tied stumbles were part of his attempt to emulate "the perfect forms and rhythms" of Japanese haiku. "Subliminible" does scan well, after all.
Academic folks who opposed the Yale award may chafe at the role that family tradition still plays in American politics, and indeed, in American civic institutions. They may dispute the realists observation that one can grow into greatness, especially with high expectations.
Perhaps, unconsciously, some Yale observers also do not like the strong and distinctive ideas of the new administration, such as changing the architecture of the armed forces to permit rapid deployment to meet geographically dispersed threats. Or crediting the central role of religion in American life, including in charitable works (a claim embraced by Yales Congregationalist roots). Or looking again at the importance of domestic energy sources in a period when hydroelectric power has shown its drought vulnerability and the Persian Gulf is still fraught with instability.
But the Yale faculty would surely be the first to agree that honorary degrees should not be denied on partisan grounds. Nor should degrees be mid-term referenda on the progress of an administrations policies as measured against the taste sets of individual professors. One may even suggest that honors have nothing to do with disputed elections.
Every son of Eli elected to the White House has been offered an honorary degree, though one declined to come to New Haven until it was too late. Yales presidential member of the class of 1968 has enrolled his youngest daughter as a freshman in the college, and has returned to his scenes of youthful abandon.
Academic authors may have a thing or two to learn from his out-of-doors lecture for intelligence and judgment come in many forms beyond theory-spinning.

Ruth Wedgwood is a professor of law at Yale University.


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