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The Class President… A Boy And His Benefits

The Class President


January 24, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

WASHINGTON – Once when I was covering the first President Bush, I took one of his top political strategists out to dinner.

After a couple of martinis, he blurted out that the president was having a hard time with the idea that I was the White House reporter for The New York Times.

Dumbfounded, I asked why.

"We just picture you someplace else – at The Chicago Tribune maybe," he said.

Growing up in a Victorian mansion in Greenwich, the son of a Connecticut senator and Wall Street banker, the president had conjured up a certain image of what the Times White House reporter would be like. Someone less ethnic and working-class, with a byline like Chatsworth Farnsworth III.

Poppy Bush was always gracious to me, even though he hated getting tweaked about being a patrician and complained that journalists cared more about class than he did.

The Bushes see the world through the prism of class, while denying that class matters. They think as long as they don't act "snotty" or swan around with a lot of fancy possessions, that class is irrelevant.

They make themselves happily oblivious to the difference between thinking you are self-made and being self-made, between liking to clear brush and having to clear brush.

In a 1986 interview with George senior and George junior, then still a drifting 40-year-old, The Washington Post's Walt Harrington asked the vice president how his social class shaped his life, noting that families like the Bushes often send their kids to expensive private schools to ensure their leg up.

"This sounds, well, un-American to George Jr., and he rages that it is crap from the 60's. Nobody thinks that way anymore!" Mr. Harrington wrote. "But his father cuts him off. . . . He seems genuinely interested. . . . But the amazing thing is that Bush finds these ideas so novel. . . . People who work the hardest – even though some have a head start – will usually get ahead, he says. To see it otherwise is divisive."

When journalists on W.'s campaign wrote that he had been admitted to Yale as a legacy, the candidate's Texas advisers pointed out that he had also gotten into Harvard, and no Bush family members had gone there.

They seemed genuinely surprised when told that Harvard would certainly have recognized the surname and wagered on the future success of the person with it.

If you don't acknowledge that being a wealthy white man with the right ancestors blesses you with the desirable sort of inequality, how can you fix the undesirable sort of inequality?

The Bushes seem to believe that the divisive thing in American society is dwelling on social and economic inequities, rather than the inequities themselves.

When critics of W.'s tax cuts say they favor the wealthy, the president indignantly accuses them of class warfare. That's designed to intimidate critics by making them seem vaguely pinko. Besides, there's nothing more effective than deploring class warfare while ensuring that your class wins. It is the Bush tax cut that is fomenting class warfare.

When the University of Michigan tries to redress a historic racial injustice by giving some advantage based on race, Mr. Bush gets offended by arbitrarily conferred advantages, as if he himself were not an affirmative-action baby.

The president's preferred way of promoting diversity in higher education is throwing money at black colleges, which is not exactly a clarion call for integration.

For all the talk about how Republicans were morally re-educated by the Trent Lott fiasco, Mr. Bush is still pandering to an unspoken racial elitism.

He resubmitted the nomination of a federal judge with a soft spot for cross-burners. And, as Time notes this week, he quietly reinstituted the practice – which lapsed under his father in 1990 – of sending a floral wreath on Memorial Day from the White House to the Confederate Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery, where those nostalgic for the Old South celebrate Jefferson Davis. Why on earth would the president of the U.S. in the year 2003 take the trouble to do that?

Back in '86, when the Post reporter suggested that class mattered, W. found the contention un-American.

But isn't it un-American if the University of Michigan or Yale makes special room for the descendants of alumni but not the descendants of the disadvantaged?

A Boy And His Benefits


January 24, 2003
Copyright © 2003 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

In the coming battle over affirmative action, we might reflect on a case where the system worked just as it is supposed to – the case of a boy named George applying to Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.

It was a stretch for George to get into Andover, which then accepted only 20 percent of applicants over all, and fewer than half even of applicants whose fathers had attended. Inauspiciously, George had already been rejected by St. John's, a private school in Houston.

(While writing about Mr. Bush – for of course it is he – during the 2000 campaign, I heard from his family friends that he had been turned down by St. John's, so I asked him about it. He indignantly denied the story. A few days later an aide called and said that Mr. Bush had checked with his parents and that it was true. I found his willingness to confirm this unflattering detail an impressive example of his political integrity, and it was this kind of honesty that won Mr. Bush the respect of many journalists who were covering him.)

Andover ended up admitting young George for a couple of reasons. It wanted Texans to diversify its student body, which was heavily from the Northeast. In addition, using just the kind of point system that Mr. Bush now derides as quotas, Andover gave George three extra points on a 20-point scale for being the son of an alumnus. That's a higher percentage than a Michigan applicant gets for being black.

Instead of mocking Mr. Bush for hypocrisy, though, we should focus on something else: The affirmative action succeeded. If he was in part a diversity candidate, so what? He flourished at Andover, and classmates remember that he enlivened the academy by teaching them about drawls, scorpions and exuberance. Eventually he returned to his roots, cross-fertilizing both New England and west Texas.

A few years later, in gaining admission to Yale, Mr. Bush also enjoyed special preferences. He had never made honor roll at Andover (unlike 110 others in his class, according to his high school yearbook), and his SAT's of 566 verbal and 640 math were far below the median scores for students in his Yale class: 668 verbal and 718 math. But in the end, having a Yale pedigree, a grandfather on the Yale board and a Texas background bounced him into the entering class.

Affirmative action is a tough issue because it reflects the collision between two aspirations – diversity and meritocracy – all in the hyper-sensitive zone of race. But this spring as we debate the cases before the Supreme Court, it would be a mistake to consider preferences for blacks in isolation. How can we evaluate the justice of preferences that favor blacks without considering preferences that benefit whites (legacy), athletes (football players), the wealthy (children of donors), and farm kids from Oregon (me when I applied to colleges)?

I admit it: I benefited from affirmative action. Pretentious East Coast colleges wanted the occasional country bumpkin, and I milked this by larding my application essay with scenes of me vaccinating sheep, harvesting strawberries and competing in the Future Farmers of America. If I'd been just another applicant from the Bronx High School of Science, I wouldn't have had a chance.

It also made sense to accept me over a more qualified applicant from Bronx Science: It's good for colleges to have hicks from the sticks, to tease city slickers and coach them on the differences between a gilt, a barrow and sows that farrow. And it's even more important to have black students in those late-night dorm discussions; how can college graduates understand the world and have intelligent views on racial matters (such as affirmative action) if they've never mixed with people of other races?

The University of Michigan system promotes diversity of many kinds. It gives points to applicants from underrepresented counties (mostly white), to athletes, to poor applicants, even to men who seek to study nursing – as well as to children and grandchildren of Michigan graduates. Each reflects a retreat from pure performance criteria, and one can argue about the wisdom of each trade-off. But it seems deeply unfair for the White House to jump up and down about the injustice of preferences for blacks while acquiescing in preferential admissions for jocks, rich kids, Oregon farm boys – and yes, Texans with names like Bush.

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