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The Ruling Class

Three men in this year's presidential election were students at Yale--business as usual for a school whose sense of entitlement matches its traditions of producing leaders.

October 04, 2000|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — The football jock from Wyoming. The prom king--an observant Jew. The silver-spoon legacy kid. Could one Ivy League institution have hosted three more different men?

As students, about all Richard Cheney, Joseph I. Lieberman and George W. Bush had in common was Yale University, where all three studied in the 1960s. Now the trio and their boola-boola background dominate the Republican and Democratic presidential tickets--thought to be the first time three candidates have come from any single institution of higher learning.

Presidents Taft and Bush went to Yale, and the school also likes to lay claim to Presidents Ford and Clinton, both graduates of Yale Law School. Six U.S. presidents, meanwhile, may have gone to Harvard College, but in this election, Harvard alum Al Gore is the academic oddball.

Whether weird, unprecedented coincidence or, as Yale president Richard Levin quipped, "the natural and expected course of events," the phenomenon reflects a sense present for almost 300 years at this Gothic-towered campus that a Yale diploma is a passport to stewardship. The rhetoric of leadership flows through the air and water here. Its flip side is a powerful streak of entitlement, and no small measure of elitism, despite an increasingly heterogeneous student population. If Yalies past and present have been leaders, they'll tell you it's because they were meant to be.

Levin himself calls the institution "a laboratory for future leaders." Before the school went coed in 1969, one of Levin's recent predecessors, the late Kingman Brewster, made a habit of reminding his flock that his job was to create "1,000 male leaders."

Over the centuries, Yale students have learned to think big. Senior Eliza Park, 21, said she knows six people on campus who plan to be president of the United States, and one who expects a seat on the Supreme Court. Park herself intends to become surgeon general.

"People here have a feeling that they can run the world with their Yale degree," agreed sophomore Molly Lindsay, 19. "I feel like you get told that when you come to school here, like you're going to be a kingpin of power."

Much the same mandate was at work in 1959, when Natrona County High School football star Richard Cheney packed up his scholarship and headed to Yale. New Haven and Yale were worlds away from Casper, Wyo., and by all accounts he was miserably homesick and pined for his girlfriend.

The school won't release Cheney's academic records, and Levin purports to know nothing more about the Republican vice presidential candidate's tenure at Yale than "what I've read in the papers." Levin presumably is referring to media accounts that Cheney was out of his academic league, that he left Yale once, then returned, then withdrew a second, final time in 1960.

Cheney ultimately finished at the University of Wyoming. But cheering briefly for the Bulldogs is apparently almost as good as graduating, and even without a diploma, Cheney has been known to show up at Yale alumni functions.

Lieberman, by contrast, arrived from a large public high school in nearby Stamford, Conn., in 1960, when Yale still enforced a quota on Jewish students. A big man at his own big-city high school, Lieberman unpacked his bags at a university where about half the student body came from prep schools, already a badge of elitism. Students wore coats and ties to class, and the school was so blindingly WASP, said Boston public radio host Christopher Lydon (Yale '62) that although there were no quotas for his creed, as a Catholic, he felt like a token, too.

Yale had a definite ladder of class distinctions, Lydon said. "The top of the Yale class system was all tied up in the word 'Shoe,' " he said. "It was code for white shoe. We'd say, That's a really Shoe guy, a really Shoe way to dress, a Shoe way to carry yourself. More than we wanted to admit, there was the ideal of being Shoe."

Shoe or not, Lieberman swept into prominence, earning what was then Yale's most coveted elected position, chair--or editor--of the daily newspaper. He wrote editorials railing against boxing as barbaric on the one hand, and favoring the admission of women to the all-male university, on another. His political aspirations were so unconcealed that one friend, Al Sharp, took to calling him "Senator."

One day, Lieberman approached him, said Sharp, who now lives in Chicago. "You're not wrong," Lieberman told Sharp. "But not so loud."

After distinguishing himself as head cheerleader at the exclusive Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., George W. Bush entered the college of his forefathers in 1964, where he was well-known as a prankster and was arrested for disorderly conduct. Reborn now as a man of the people, Bush seldom dwells publicly on his days at this elite institution. Yet Yale classmates number among his closest friends.

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