The most interesting patriotic sentiment of the season was expressed by President Bush last month at Yale’s graduation: “And to the C students, I say, you, too can be president of the United States.” This was intended as a bit of charming self-deprecation: a rhetorical device Bush is quite good at—possibly because he means it. Modesty is one of his better qualities: He seems genuinely comfortable about acknowledging his own limitations. He doesn’t evoke a desire to retort, with Golda Meir, “Don’t be so humble, you’re not that great.” Of course, it requires a pretty powerful sense of entitlement to pull this off. There’s a real smugness underlying the self-deprecation: Hey, I’m mediocre, and I’m president anyway. (So there, Bill Clinton and Al Gore—study-butts both.)
Sure, a C student can become president. It helps if his father was president first and his grandfather was a senator and he was born into a family that straddles the Northeast WASP aristocracy and the Sun Belt business establishment. And a C student at prep school can get into Yale by adopting a similar action plan of strategic birth control. (That is, controlling whom you’re born to.)
By appropriating for himself the magnificent cliché that anyone can become president of the United States, Bush gives it a whole new dimension. Sure, we all know that with gumption and hard work, in this land of opportunity, you can overcome a mountain of life’s disadvantages to reach the pinnacle of success. That’s one option. But as Bush subtly reminded the Yale graduates, there is another option: With a mountain of life’s advantages, you can overcome a disposition against working hard and a cultural distaste for vulgar striving and reach those same pinnacles anyway! Our current president opted for the second strategy, and you cannot begrudge him a splash of smugness in noting that it worked.
What lesson will the Nation’s Youth draw from this inspiring tale? It would be tragic if they got the impression that being a lousy student is all it takes. It’s a good foundation to build on, but only that. One must also be young and irresponsible until it is time to become old and censorious. “When I was young and irresponsible,” Bush has noted, “I was young and irresponsible.” And now that he’s good, he is very, very good. Bush says he stopped being young and irresponsible on his 40th birthday. Perfect timing! That happens to be almost exactly when ruining other people’s fun starts to be more satisfying—and less exhausting—than having fun of your own. This is another strategy imitators of the Bush Way to Greatness overlook at their peril.
At the Harvard admissions office, they used to have an alleged philosophy they called “the happy bottom quarter.” The idea was that Harvard could fill each class, if it wanted to, with nothing but the very top high-school students but that this might be traumatic to those who didn’t make it to the top at Harvard. So, the admissions office supposedly reserved about 25 percent of each class for those who could handle the notion of not being a star student.
In practice, this did not mean searching for young folks with a Zenlike acceptance of life’s fate, or a profound sense of universal human equality, or enough mathematical wit to appreciate the joke that even at Harvard—unlike Lake Wobegon—everyone cannot be above average. No, “the happy bottom quarter” was a fancy way to make room for alumni sons and athletes and rich kids whose families might give money. These were people who didn’t need top grades in order to feel above average. They would be happy with a “Gentleman’s C”—meaning both that gentlemen were entitled to no less and that gentlemen strove for no more.
Nicholas Lemann’s book The Big Test describes how the cozy elite of the Gentleman’s C was replaced, in universities and society, by a more rigorous meritocracy of grades and test scores. By the time George W. was in college, that transformation was almost over. “The happy bottom quarter” was just a way to preserve some room for the old America in the new one. Today we like to think we live in an even newer America, where entrepreneurial hustle has replaced test scores and Ivy League degrees as the path to success (and the country’s richest person is a Harvard dropout). But George W. Bush’s life story of how a C student at Yale became president of the United States illustrates that even the America-before-last hasn’t completely lost its grip.
The other day I got a brochure from Harvard, apparently sent to every graduate, inviting me to pay $25 to join a computerized mentoring network of Harvard people helping one another to make connections and find jobs. This struck me as a fairly shocking reification of the notion of Harvard as cog in the machinery of a self-perpetuating elite. I’m not sure whether the brazen crudeness indicates self-confidence or a desperate conspiracy of the two older elites against the new one.
President Bush, though, seems to have found a wilier way to protect the older elites from challenge. Let’s hope the president’s words and example inspire more young Americans to buckle down, get mediocre grades, and party until they’re middle-aged.