Davenport + Yale in Nicholas Lemann’s New Yorker Life Story of George W. Bush

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In 2000, David Remnack edited a collection of “Life Stories” from the New Yorker. Nicholas Lemann wrote two profiles in the collection, one on Al Gore and one on George W. Bush.
In “The Redemption,” Lemann wrote quite a bit on “W.”‘s time at Yale, where he was an exuberant member of the Davenport class of 1968.  Lemann’s profile is fascinating, capturing a man who attended this university, and this residential college, at a time when it was in the middle of remarkable change:

“…After Bush’s class was admitted, Yale’s new president, Kingman Brewster, Jr., a liberal-reformist New England patrician, brought in an insurrectionary new director of admissions, only twenty-nine years old, named R. Inslee Clark, Jr. Clark set about making Yale more of a national institution dominated by public-school graduates who were picked for their academic abilities. He made so many people mad that he lasted only five years in the job, but by that time the revolution was substantially complete. A good was of encapsulating the abrupt change from Old Yale to New Yale is this: George H. W. Bush is the eldest of four brothers. All four went to Yale. George W. Bush is the eldest of four brothers, too. He is the only one who went to Yale.

In the Old Yale, George W. Bush would have been a familiar and lovable figure, someone who felt entirely comfortable there. Living with a set of roommates from Andover, planning vaguely to into business, being obviously talented at personal relations, being an unserious student, a Republican, the son, grandson, and cousin of dozens of Yalies-all of which applied to Bush-would have put him right at the center of the Yale experience. By the time Bush graduated, it put him at the periphery…

What was interesting about the change at Yale-which was part of a change along the same lines in the whole American élite-was that, while everybody agreed that something big had happened, they disagreed over what the something was. To most of the New Yale people, it was the advent of meritocracy, a system in which brains would be put in their rightful place atop the list of human attributes, and the deserving, not the inheritors, would get the rewards. To Old Yale people like Bush and his friends, the change looked more political-good old Republican Yale moving to the left…

Yale was still Old enough, though, that it was assumed, without being stated, that most of the students didn’t need to think about getting a job, because before they got there they already belonged to a network that could take care of that for them. Even in this context, Bush stood out as unusually undirected. Sam Chauncey, in those days a young Yale administrator who knew Bush, says, “I vividly remember sitting with him on the fence at Davenport College, and he said, ‘I just don’t have the foggiest idea what I want to do.'”



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