The Tribes of Yale


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.

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.

At another meeting, some student anti-war leaders went on and on about those who either didn’t have the wit to avoid the draft or, dumber yet, actually wanted to serve their country overseas. These student leaders hated the war. They hated the hayseed Southern president who was drowning in it. They hated the Harvard elite that was prosecuting it. But they also either airily dismissed or downright disliked those white ethnics who, with thousands of blacks and Hispanics, were bearing the war’s brunt.

What I heard and sensed in some of these anti-war “leaders” was what many hear and sense in the Democratic Party “leaders” to this day—a contempt for the common woman and man, a distaste for all the flawed institutions that conserve traditions or beliefs or cultural patterns (family, congregation, party, military), and a profound faith in their own intelligence and savvy and expertise. Even at Yale, they were smarter and sexier than everyone else. They could talk without notes—about Southeast Asia, or global economies, or a new health care system—for hours on end. They didn’t have the time or patience for churches or political parties or marriages that might not work so well. They would replace the protracted play of essential social institutions with brilliant legal arguments and complex governmental programs and overwhelming personal charisma. And if their intricate theories and elegant decision trees didn’t quite work out, there would always be someone else to blame and someone else to mop up the mess.

The old elite—the Bush types, for example—despised this nouveau crowd, but knew that the majority of them would wise up and put away their bell-bottoms and bongs and find their way to professional school. They would all meet someday under the tents, on a balmy June evening at alumni weekend, and have a good chummy chuckle over the excesses of the past.

But another cadre—the geeky, awkward, young Republican crowd—was truly horrified by the emergence of this upstart elite. Today, they still rage for hours at dinner parties, impassioned and enflamed, about the cultural decadence generated by the ’60s. They see themselves as no less smart, and far tougher, than the upstarts. They view Dean and Rodham Clinton as callow and cavalier, as the latest incarnations of Abbie Hoffman and Jane Fonda. They personally resent the attention, acclaim, wealth, and status attained by what has essentially become a second, progressive establishment in this country. They have felt demoted, rejected, spurned. Their hurt and hostility are as fresh and real as if it were still 1968.

The folks in this crowd have learned how to channel their passion into action in a much more effective way these days. They carefully target liberals and moderates and run them out of lobbying firms and county boards. They insert their own people in judgeships and commissioners’ jobs and school committees. They wrap themselves in the banners of fidelity, loyalty, and piety. They treat everything—even the deaths of 3,000 innocents at the World Trade Center—as potential chits in their competition with partisan political enemies. They are already constructing their next presidential convention around the tragedy of September 11, in a way that will make most Americans slightly queasy.

They are ably led by the outsider Karl Rove, who attended the University of Utah and moved to Washington, D.C., in 1971 to pursue a career as a young College Republican activist. The driven chancellor of his powerful diocese, Rove has taught his team how to mix more easily and work more smoothly with the Bushes of Yale and the Frists of Princeton. They have disciplined themselves to defend their faith from their own internal extremists. When Trent Lott endangered the party with his outrageous comments, they purged him. Then they let him slowly bleed to death. And they left him hanging in the public square as a message to every loose-lipped bigot and fanatic in their camp: Keep your mouth shut or get cut.

They also play very aggressive and effective offense these days. Anyone who wants to understand their current strategy should refer back to Nicholas Lemann’s May 12 piece on Karl Rove in The New Yorker. Lemann describes how Rove is systematically going after the last bastions of Democratic institutional strength—courting the Jewish community, the trial lawyers, and parts of organized labor.

Keep following the money—the literally unlimited amounts of corporate and conservative funding for the enterprises of a more disciplined right. But also follow the people. These new Republicans respect the need for a political machine and are assembling it—in evangelical churches, among married women, among middle-income Hispanic groups, and even on the edges of the African American business community. They are appealing to all of those moderate and conservative Americans whose views, and whose lives, have been ridiculed or reviled by the left. They have revived the practice of door-to-door, face-to-face, relational party building that used to be the strength of the opposition party.

They are angry, and they are driven. They are profoundly and passionately clear on what and whom they are against. They intend to vanquish the upstart elite, the progressive establishment. It’s not Osama, Dead or Alive. It’s Dean, Dead or Alive. It’s Clinton, Dead or Alive. They have only one major problem: They don’t know what in the world—in the bigger, broader world where most moderate Americans live and work, play and pray, and try to raise their kids—they are for. Their relationship with their base is better than the Democrats’, but still terribly thin. It is not rooted in the interests of families struggling to survive in a service economy, with few or no benefits, in schools that continue to stumble and decline. It is not based on a foundation of respect for the working American, the struggling American, the vast majority of Americans who lack wealth. Not at all. Like the upstart elite, the new Republicans could care less about these matters. No, their newfound commitment to building a base is an instrument and offshoot of their tribal war with the progressive left. It is as clinical and cynical as the attitudes of some of the anti-war student leaders of the ’60s.

The Democrats lack this depth of passion and focused clarity. They aren’t as heated or as hardworking as the Republicans. They still sip sparkling water and make smug little jokes about Bush’s malaprops. They keep telling themselves how much smarter and slicker they are than the boobs on the right and the bohunks in the middle. They still think that getting straight A’s and appearing on television and having famous friends will dazzle the hoi polloi.

Both parties are led by women and men who believe it’s their God-given right to make more messes—from the Yale Commons, to blighted cities, to White House sleeping arrangements, to failed health reform, to bankrupt companies, to gutted industries, to post-war Iraq. They count on a wide and appreciative following in the media to report their antics and a silent servant class to clean up the wreckage.

Wrapped in their college-era insecurities and appetites, their hurts and their fears, they continue to sacrifice substance and progress on the domestic and foreign fronts to their internecine wrangles.

That’s why the American public needs to find new political expressions and create new political responses in the years ahead. The present political landscape is like East Brooklyn or the South Bronx in 1980—devastated, stark, reduced to rubble, given up for dead. It is no irony that these fabled urban wastelands were rebuilt while the media were distracted by the posturing press conferences of Bush and Dean, Clinton and Rove. No great man or wonder woman, no sour ideologue or graying adolescent, accomplished this monumental task.

American politics is ripe for reconstruction and renewal by institutions and individuals who can imagine new structures and healthier dynamics. It’s a landscape still largely occupied by decent, tolerant, moderate Americans. They are not waiting for a white knight. They could care less about the 40-year feud between one privileged left and two privileged rights.

They remain ready and willing to respond to those who respect the complexity and challenges of their daily lives and who speak to their needs and their dreams.

Michael Gecan is on the national staff of the nonprofit Industrial Areas Foundation. He is now based primarily in New York City and on Long Island. Gecan’s recent book, Going Public (Beacon Press), is an account of some of the successes and challenges of organizing. A graduate of Yale, he studied history, the arts, and letters.