On Monday, President George W. Bush brought his charm offensive to New Haven, Connecticut. He employed his self-deprecating wit to make it through a brief acceptance speech for an honorary doctorate from Yale, the school he attended in the 1960s as an undergraduate.
"To those of you who received honors, awards, and distinctions, I say, well done," said Bush, early in remarks that turned scattered boos into laughs. "To all the C students, I say: You too can be president of the United States."
Leading up to the event, Yale had been abuzz with news that Bush would not only be present at the graduation, but given an honorary degree and allowed to speak (as if he knew how! critics wagged). Faculty members had been joking about his "doctorate in environmental studies" and talking about boycotting the ceremony. An email made the faculty rounds chastising Bush for his lack of accomplishment-it's not like he got a job at Yale or anything, or even gained admission under his own steam-and providing the most popular justification to oppose his honorary degree.
The email, authored by three professors, slams Bush for backing out of the Kyoto Protocols, pushing forward missile defense, and working doggedly for a tax cut "largely benefiting the wealthy." (If the professors would only check their pay stubs, they'd know that they are considered rich not just by the standards of the Democratic Party, but by most of America, especially if they have partners who work.) "More broadly," the three professors wrote, Bush's "larger career in public life has not yet expressed a distinctive commitment to the intellectual values at the heart of Yale's enterprise." The professors asked others to sign the letter and "absent" themselves from the ceremony.
So there was much anticipation, and a bit of protesting, as Bush's appearance neared. However, since courage is perhaps the scarcest virtue among American academics, few if any professors, sucked it up and "absented" themselves or put up a public fuss.
Pro-union activists demonstrated on one side of Yale's Old Campus quad, the site of the ceremony. On the other side of the quad, four activists from the environmentalist group ConnPirg set up in front of the fabled Skull & Bones crypt and chanted, "We need an energy plan, not an energy scam!" Everyone in attendance, it seemed, had a sticker or flyer championing a pet cause. "Got Arsenic?" stickers, along with "Protect Gay Rights" and "Protect Reproductive Rights" flyers, were particularly popular. Environmental studies graduates decorated their mortarboards with foliage and power plants, some of which actually spewed smoke.
Yet a funny thing happened when President Bush rose to speak and the greenies stood up, turned their backs to him, and raised their oversized banner, which read "Don't Turn Your Back on the Environment": The people whose view they were blocking told them to sit down.
Soon enough, Bush had everybody laughing. Indeed, it was a classic Bush performance. He spoke a bit of Spanish to his friend, Ernesto Zedillo, the former president of Mexico who, along with actor Sam Waterston, financier Robert Rubin, and a host of others, also received honorary degrees. He played to Yale's plus-sized sense of self-importance and tradition, acknowledging that it took him some time to come back, but that Yale had made him a better man than he'd otherwise be. He jabbed Dick Cheney, who dropped out of Yale as an undergrad, pointing out that the school's alumni can become presidents while washouts are limited to the vice presidency.
Most of all, though, he ragged on himself, reminiscing about his time at Yale: "If you're like me, you won't remember everything you did here," said Bush. "That can be a good thing."
"I took the academic road less traveled," he said to laughs. That road apparently included a class in haiku. "My academic advisor told me I should stick to English," Bush said. "I don't make gaffes, I speak in haiku." And he did it all in a context to which current Yalies could relate. It seems he had a deal with current Dean Richard Brodhead, who was a student back in Bush's day. When the two would go to the library–which Bush described as having "large leather couches"–they had a system in place: "Dick wouldn't read out loud and I wouldn't snore," recalled Bush.
He even offered up a bit of the forward-looking, life-lesson, public-service Pablum that is the very stuff of graduation speeches. "We all meet up and downs in life," he said in a moment of profundity, "most of them unexpected."
While I doubt Bush swayed many of the Nader voters in attendance, it was obvious that he'd pleased much of the crowd, which offered up more applause on his way out than they had on his way in. His performance at Yale surely helps to explain his political success.
"By taking the self-deprecating line, it worked really well, at least for me," said one graduate after his speech, "because he said everything bad you could say about him."