Sorry, guys, I’m not going. No Yale Class Reunion picnic at the White House for me. I want to make clear this isn’t about the war, this isn’t about George Bush-although I will elaborate on, in a moment, a conjecture about George Bush and the war, and about what some people will do to make an impression at their class reunion.
And it isn’t really about any special antipathy to class reunions, which (unlike my classmate George Bush) I’ve attended with great regularity in the past and have many fond memories of. No, it’s more about a certain kind of reunion mentality, one that you can catch a whiff of in the text of the invitation I received a few days after the fall of Baghdad:
REUNION UPDATE! WHITE HOUSE ADDED TO OUR SCHEDULE! You must take action NOW!
Dear Classmates and Friends,
I am thrilled to announce that as part of our [Class of ’68] Reunion, President and Mrs. George W. Bush have offered to host a picnic dinner on the White House lawn on Thursday evening, May 29, 2003. Please read all of the details of this letter now, for you must take immediate action to signal your intention to participate in this special opportunity .
Your class leaders are hard at work planning the details with the White House. At this point the tentative time is 6 PM for cocktails 7 PM for dinner. The price … could be in the range of $135 to 195 per person ….
We have tentatively chartered a one-way special Amtrak train to take classmates from Washington to New Haven [the following morning] to join the Reunion activities in progress there ….
In addition to the exciting, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to share a portion of our Reunion with the President and Mrs. Bush at the White House, there are also a number of exciting events planned for the Reunion in New Haven ….
Don’t you love that part about “your class leaders are hard at work planning the details [of the picnic] with the White House”? I wonder if Rummy’s been called in to consult on the logistics of the potato-salad supply lines. Thank God “the White House” had time to spend with “your class leaders” when it had all that invasion stuff on its plate, and then working out the postwar governance of Iraq.
Can’t you see it? The scenario conjured up by the line “your class leaders are hard at work planning the details with the White House.” The lights burning late in the White House Situation Room. A haggard President huddled over a map, racked with agonizing choices: What will be the most effective strategy for embedding the wet bars on the White House lawn? Hot dogs and burgers on the grill, or just dogs? Concerned “class leaders” looking on, making the strategic suggestion here and there. Maybe Condi and Dick Cheney called in for hasty, last-minute catering consultations with “your class leaders.”
I don’t want to seem uncharitable to these eminences. I know they’re good guys who have worked hard for this, and I’m sure they believe they are doing a service to Yale and to our class (in addition to themselves) with this White House picnic ploy. But I wonder if there isn’t a bit of naïveté-if not presumption-in setting our class up as a prop for a White House photo op.
Don’t get me wrong: I love reunions, and I’m grateful for the chance to renew friendships formed at Yale (some of which may never recover from this column). I’m also grateful for the educational experience, and especially for the initiation into the lifelong pleasures of the “close reading” of literature that the Yale English department afforded before its hostile takeover by Theory Cultists. And a close reading of the White House picnic-invitation text yields a couple of insights beneath the surface.
First, the picnic-on-the-lawn format. I think the subtext here is: Nobody gets to use the indoor bathrooms. (Remind you of an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm ?) Except maybe “your class leaders.” As for the rest of those who choose to attend, it sounds like they’ll have to be satisfied with Porta-potties with the Presidential Seal on them. Nonetheless, I’d be surprised if this doesn’t result, down the line, in hefty donations to the Bush re-election campaign from class fat cats. Some might suggest it’s hypocritical in view of G.O.P. outrage over Clinton White House “coffees” and Lincoln bedroom overnights, but I suspect none of the picnickers is going to get near the Lincoln bedroom. Except maybe “your class leaders.”
The second subtext is a kind of shock-and-awe, pre-emptive takeover of the reunion by the Bush White House. Pity the poor classmates back in New Haven when the “one-way special Amtrak” roars into town, disgorging its cargo of smug White House picnic veterans. Suddenly there’s a new kind of class system at the class reunion; the entire weight of the experience has shifted and it becomes all about four hours at the White House, not four years at Yale.
As for my refusal, it’s more about being a journalist and columnist and feeling that whatever I wrote, for or against Bush, would inevitably be compromised if I accept his personal hospitality, however well-meant. As regular readers of this column know, I’m not a knee-jerk Bush-basher. It’s true I had some harsh things to say during the Florida election grab, and it’s true I may have embarrassed his Skull and Bones buddies by exposing some of their silly rituals. And I have been a lifelong Democrat who opposes tax cuts for the wealthy. But I have to say that since 9/11, my classmate has consistently exceeded my expectations, to the point where I now question the intelligence of those who question his intelligence. There’s a certain kind of Bush-basher who apparently needs to assuage his own feeling of intellectual insecurity by braying about how “dumb” George Bush is. Yeah, he’s dumb like a fox.
But for or against, it’s certainly worth examining from every angle the motivations of a President who, for better or worse, will have changed the course of history irrevocably. Readers may recall my Godfather theory of post-9/11 Bush foreign policy (“Today I settle all family business.” See Observer , Nov. 25, 2002). And so I will contribute another speculation to Bush Studies (Bush-ology?), one that suggested itself to me after I got the breathless invitation to the White House Picnic. You might call it the Impress the Class Reunion Theory of the war on Iraq.
Even among those who supported the war, many have wondered why Mr. Bush was in such a rush: the deadline pressure on the inspections process, the 48-hour ultimatum to Saddam, the mad-dash-for-Baghdad military strategy which stretched supply lines, but which got the war over and done with by April. Could it be the need to impress people at his class reunion in May? Was just being President not enough?
I’m joking, sort of, but if you have observed the social anthropology of Yale reunions as closely as I have over the years, you can’t rule it out.
A word here about the different types of rewards that reunions offer different kinds of attendees. As someone who has put in at least a brief appearance at every five-year reunion of my class, I’ve found them wonderful opportunities to renew old friendships and share old memories, but also totally fascinating in a novelistic sense. Attending a Yale reunion-not just your own, but wandering around to the older and younger reunion classes-is like watching a couple of hundred subtly intertwined John Cheever stories playing themselves out before your eyes. Well, Cheever and Updike, if you know what I mean.
I don’t want to be too clinically sociological, but from my observation you can divide the reunion attendees into the preeners, the communers and the abstainers.
Given a place like Yale, and a class like ours, nominally ’68, but fairly conservative-the quintessential boomer class, but one at a campus where ’68-ness, in its revolutionary, psychedelic and anti-establishment forms, manifested itself mainly after we had left-you can imagine the preeners. Not as many as you’d think; still, there are some for whom Yale was a place to begin a lifelong career of networking (to use an anachronistic phrase), of making career connections and getting a firm foot on the ladder to conventional success.
These are the ones who, subtly or in other ways, insinuate their many, many achievements into any reunion conversation. The ones for whom reunions are kind of hail-fellow-well-met opportunities to validate how really, really well things are going for them, “and here’s my business card.”
And then there are the communers. I’d include myself among them: I’ve found reunions a unique and remarkable experience of time travel , in which you run into people you haven’t seen for five, 10 or 20 years and suddenly find yourself transported in some way back to the kind of friendship and connection you felt when you were an undergraduate. And you spend two or three days in some kind of pleasantly destabilized altered state, being the person you were then and the person you are now-an emotional high from the communion of past and present friendships, past and present selves.
In fact, one of the high points for my friends and me at past reunions was to go around to the older and younger class reunions, to experience the dizzying sensation of seeing yourself, in effect, in older and younger incarnations, in five-year increments up and down the age scale.
So I’m a communer. It’s something that’s encouraged by the residential college system at Yale, where the thousand or so members of the class are divided up into 12 residential colleges. I know in mine, Jonathan Edwards, one of the smaller ones, there was a group of us who got very close just from sitting around the mock Elizabethan dining room drinking bad coffee and ridiculing each other in a (mostly) friendly way for hours and hours, year after year.
Anyway, the final category are the abstainers: those who have gone to reunions in the past or have never gone to reunions, but who, for reasons of personal tragedy, disappointment, apathy or pique, don’t return for the one at hand.
George W. Bush is famous in the class for going from apathy to pique. According to the story I heard, he refused to go to the big 25th reunion because he was piqued at some imagined slight to his father when then President Bush-the-father was given an honorary degree at Yale. Or as some biographers have it, did it date back to his freshman year, when then-chaplain William Sloane Coffin supposedly made some slighting remark about his father’s losing Senatorial campaign?
And George Bush had spent most of his own political career in Texas trying to distance himself from his Yale background and its Eastern Establishment baggage, giving himself a new identity as a dyed-in-the-wool good ol’ boy from Texas-especially after his losing Congressional campaign in 1978, when his Republican primary opponent brought up the Eastern elite, Skull and Bones thing. (I wonder how that happened-something to do with my first Skull and Bones story, which was published in 1977?) And during his Presidential campaign, he’d give interviews talking about how poor, sensitive George W. felt so alienated among the pointy-headed left-wingers at Yale. (So alienated that he became head of DKE, the notorious animal house frat, in addition to being tapped for Skull and Bones.) Come on, cop to it, George: You were a big man on campus, or a certain privileged segment of it.
So this whole White House picnic thing: You could see it from an admittedly Yale reunion point of view, as the Revenge of the Piqued, the Picnic of the Piqued. Or the Ultimate Preener Move: He still won’t show up in New Haven for a reunion, he’ll have the reunion come to him . But only after he’s won a war. And he still won’t let the class inside, as he did, for instance, when-shortly after taking office in the White House-he had a reunion with his Skull and Bones classmates. ( They could be trusted not to steal the silverware, I guess.)
Well, I don’t know about the rest of the class, but I know my answer to this “special once-in-a-lifetime” White House picnic offer: Thanks, but no thanks.
For one thing, I just don’t think it’s appropriate for the class to, in effect, endorse or look like it’s endorsing (and not just endorsing-sucking up to) a Republican politician just because he has this, like, super-cool house. (How would Republican members of the class feel if it were Bill Clinton?) I have a feeling that other members of the class might feel even more strongly about this than I do. (Oliver Stone was in our class.) Sure, like me, they can just stay away-but there seems something a little unseemly in the sycophantic, gee-whiz tone of the “thrilled,” “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” rhetoric of the invitation. I wasn’t a big revolutionary, but I think there’s enough spirit of ’68-ness, you might say, still in me to be disturbed by the rush to “kiss the ass of the ruling class” (as they used to say). Indeed, one of the reasons I think the invitation is distasteful is that it will inevitably be spun as the final surrender of the spirit of ’68 to the establishment. When, in fact, if you read Sam Tanenhaus’ provocative recent take on Mr. Bush in Slate (slate.msn.com/id/2081610), it’s Bush who’s now the revolutionary, promoting world revolution like a ’68er. Indeed, Mr. Bush’s foreign policy stance could be summed up in the words of Abbie Hoffman on the 60’s civil rights and Vietnam protests. “We were … self-righteous, reckless, hypocritical … headstrong … and we were right !”
Still, no dogs and suds on the White House lawn for me, but I don’t feel I’m missing anything. This is not a sour-grapes attitude: I don’t want to preen, but being in the White House is not a “once in a lifetime” experience for me. I’m not talking tours; I’m talking being in the East Room when Richard Nixon gave his teary, post-Watergate resignation farewell. I was close enough to see the tracks of his tears as he incongruously rambled on about how his mother was “a saint.” And I was in the West Wing on Jimmy Carter’s last day in office. When I arrive, you might say, Presidents pack their bags and don’t come back. (I’m joking, I’m joking.) I was there as a journalist, of course, which is a license not to be impressed by people in power-but still I can’t help thinking there’s something a little sad about all this breathlessness.
Yes, I understand the laudable motives of our “class leaders”: It will help raise money for Yale, but it risks making Yale seem a little foolish, too. Makes Yale seem a little too eager to curry favor with the powerful. I guess it’s a hopelessly outdated attitude for me to believe that an institution of learning should be about learning and scholarship rather than making connections-or selling connections, you might say, in this case. So I don’t want to spoil the party for the happy picnickers amidst the Presidential Porta-potties. Enjoy it, my beloved classmates. Just don’t bother to save any potato salad for me.