The Tribes of Yale

Bush, the Clintons, and Dean at the Birth of a Culture War

Tip O'Neill, the former Speaker of the House, used to say that all politics is local. He learned his lessons in taverns and church basements and political clubs in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His local was a working-class neighborhood where relationships mattered, where promises were remembered, and where memories were long. It was a physical place that changed only slowly over time.

The current crop of political figures—the Howard Deans and Hillary Rodham Clintons, the George Bushes and Karl Roves, already squaring off for the presidential prizes in 2004 and 2008—has a very different sense of "local." These contenders all left their hometowns and are, in some sense, stateless, even placeless. They weren't formed by decades of patient party-building, door-to-door voter work, and carefully crafted alliances in a neighborhood or town.

To the extent that they are the product of a place, a time, and a people, the place would be college campuses and high-powered law schools. The time would be the late 1960s and very early 1970s. And the people would be other intense college kids, law school students, and political operatives—part of the same borderless troupe that surfaced suddenly and took center stage, then seemed to fade for a time but came back to play major roles. As it happened, I attended Yale from 1967 to 1971—while George W. Bush and Howard Dean were finishing, and Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham were in the law school. There was a clash of cultures that left deep impressions, but different deep impressions, on many of those there during those years. Here are some scenes from that period—and my thoughts about how the events of that time continue to warp politics as a whole and presidential politics in particular.

Animal houses: In the late '60s, a raucous Yale saw the rise of competing political elites.
illustration: W. David Fish
Animal houses: In the late '60s, a raucous Yale saw the rise of competing political elites.

It was a damp, late-autumn evening in 1967. The cavernous freshman dining hall at Yale—the Commons—was crowded. I worked there as something called a bursary boy. It was the job that came with the scholarship provided to me and other working-class and working-poor kids at the time.

Many nights, groups of guys would stack their plates and glasses and trays on the tables, higher and higher, in precarious ways, so that the bursary boy or regular dining-hall worker would be faced with the prospect of a complete collapse as soon as he tried to disassemble the pile.

That was the point, of course: the sight of some poor soul trying to untangle the mess, then grabbing glasses and plates as they began to fall to the floor. That's what led to howls and belly laughs from those who set the trap. They stood near the doorway or crowded other tables, waiting for the crash to occur.

These guys were pretty good at breaking things—just plates and glasses then, bigger things later. They felt they were entitled to break things. For them and their fans, it was fun, a form of entertainment. And they were confident that someone else would clean up the mess. Some scholarship kid. Some black with no last name. Some immigrant who couldn't speak the language. Some daddy or mommy. Some lawyer or public relations consultant or underling, years later.

That night, I'd had enough. So when they began to stack plates and glasses and trays, I charged over, confronted them, created a scene. My supervisor intervened. I was considered a very poor sport for losing my temper and was transferred to the dishwashing machine in the back, where I joined a crew of Puerto Ricans who pulled hot plates off the drying rack. I considered it a promotion.

It was a complete coincidence that the Clintons, Bush, and Dean were on one college campus within such a short span of time. In many ways, Yale was "typical" of any college then and many colleges now. Naked frat boys chased one another up and down the stairs and out into the courtyards, spraying shaving cream at each other, rattling freshmen who happened to get in the way. Some wealthy classmates bought booze (at first) and drugs (a year or two later) by the van load. Forget a chicken in every pot. There was pot in every pipe—often free of charge and always free from any form of law enforcement.

When women arrived, in 1969, social norms didn't change much. Yale had a small, strange subculture of men who liked to strip. If you were taking a date or a friend to a party one of the strippers might attend, you would have to brief her and make sure she could make an informed decision about whether or not to go. It was part Whiffenpoofs and part real learning, part formal dinners and part the beach scene at Wildwood, New Jersey.

Easy, breezy, beyond casual—the rites and habits of the rich still permeated a place that was growing a little more diverse. Yale back then was a parental nightmare, to be sure, and could have ended up being not much more, or worse, than that. But the times, they were a-changing. And those changes shaped the people who passed through.

Alongside the old elite of prep-school cronies, frat types, and secret-society selectees, a new elite was developing. I experienced this new group during meetings and gatherings of students opposed to the war in Vietnam. One night, in another college dining hall, a large gathering pontificated about how stupid, slow, corrupt, and ineffective the American military was. One student, a tall freshman, a coed at that, didn't say a word for a while. Then she told the tableful of smug upperclass critics that we didn't know a thing about the military, hadn't grown up, as she had, in a military family, didn't have loved ones, as she did, who had served overseas, and were in no position to judge. She left. And left me impressed.

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