Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Sam Smith

The fact that Barack Obama went to Harvard Law School and John McCain comes from Arizona doesn't mean we will find ourselves in yet another war, but it sure helps.

You have to go all the way back to William McKinley to find a president - who was neither from the west nor ever went to Harvard, Princeton or Yale - during whose term America found itself involved in a war. Conversely, with the sole exception of Jerry Ford, you have to go all the way back to Theodore Roosevelt to find a president who did come from the west or went to Harvard, Yale or Princeton and didn't have a war during their term of office.

To be sure, some of these wars were forced upon us and correlation doesn't prove causation, but when you look through our history with these factors in mind, you can't help but suspect some connection has developed in the last century between the rugged individualism of the west, the elite acculturation of Ivy training and America's propensity for foreign violence.

Here are some of the details:

- - Presidents who went to Harvard, Yale or Princeton or who came from west of the Mississippi who did have wars during their terms: Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, John F Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush.

- - Presidents who went to Harvard, Yale or Princeton but did not have wars during their terms: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B Hayes, William Taft. (William Harrison went to the University of Pennsylvania medical school but withdrew)

-- Presidents from east of the Mississippi who did not go to Harvard, Yale or Princeton but who had wars during their terms: Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, James Polk, Franklin Pierce, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, William McKinley.

-- Presidents from east of the Mississippi who did not go to Harvard, Yale or Princeton and who did not have wars during their terms: Andrew Jackson (none), Martin Van Buren (Kinderhook Academy), William Harrison (withdrew from Hampden-Sydney College), John Tyler (William & Mary), Zachary Taylor (none), Millard Fillmore (none), James Buchanan (Dickinson College), Andrew Johnson (none), Chester Arthur (Union), Grover Cleveland (none), Benjamin Harrison (Miami of Ohio), Warren Harding (Ohio Central College), Calvin Coolidge (Amherst), Herbert Hoover (Stanford), Dwight Eisenhower (USMA - ended Korean War), Jimmy Carter (Georgia Southwestern, Georgia Tech, USNA, and Union College)

Clearly if you want your president to avoid a war, vote for someone without a college degree. Next best bets: someone who went to Union College, to school in Ohio or to one of the military academies but later learned it doesn't work. Note that the two most eloquent voices for peace in this list - Eisenhower and Carter - went to one of the academies.

Of course, the results are skewed by the fact that for a long time there was no west to come from, but if you look at just those from the three Ivies, you will find a marked change over time. All the presidents from these schools without wars were in office over a hundred years ago, As the west developed, a strange concordance seems to have developed between the cowboy politicians and the eastern elites.

Maybe not so strange. The west, after all, was the great mythical breeding ground of American manhood and the top Ivy schools are those most ridiculed for their unmanly inclinations. In order to reach the White House, products of the latter must somehow imbue themselves with the purported power and patriotism of the former.

John Kerry, for example, turned it into a preposterous parody, but even Barack Obama, winning the primaries in no small part because of his early opposition to the Iraq war, has swiftly turned toward the assumed values of the great American west and is ready to bomb Iran as soon as he hits office.

Having war hero John McCain in the race certainly doesn't help, but the tradition of Democratic Ivy graduates treating campaigns as though they were in Marine boot camp is nothing new. Further, between elections, it is one of the things that keeps the Washington establishment going, as western showoffs in Congress compete at CSPANned public forums with Ivy trained scholars and journalists to prove which has the toughest approach towards other lands. I look at latter and try to imagine them uniformed and in a helicopter or a trench, but it doesn't quite work out and so I switch channels.

Sadly, however, this involves far more than preening and strutting. It has been a not insignificant cause of America's long affair with self-destructive foreign violence. Perhaps the most dramatic case was when Texan Lyndon Johnson and Harvard types - up to and including a former dean of the college - merged their search for machismo at the cost of millions of lives.

LBJ should have known better. He once described the CIA as a place filled with boys from Princeton and Yale whose daddies wouldn't let them into the brokerage firm. But I suspect he saw the Harvard boys as just another breed of cattle that he knew how to handle.

This confederacy of cowboys and Ivies has cost us, and others, mightily. And it doesn't seem to be ending, with the latest presidential symbols already battling it out as to who is tougher and more patriotic. It's a foolish and potential deadly debate. Let's just hope someone who graduated from CCNY decides to run in 2012.