Friday, June 30, 2006

Third Letter to Yale (June 2, 2006)

My heart paused when I saw the envelope from Yale. I didn’t imagine that it contained a letter commending my clever, if fantastical, “hermeneutical” reading of your first letter.

I accept all that you say and thank you for the honor you do me by the gracious, respectful way you say it. I apologize for characterizing the degree to Bush as motivated by money.

My fantasy that there couldn’t be many at Yale who admire or approve of Bush dies hard. I think now that I must have preferred to believe that the degree was about money than to believe that a majority of your selection committee believed Bush deserved the honor. It seems that I made the (untested) assumption that a “Yale education” should enable a person to perceive at least some of the reality whose shadows are cast on the cave wall (to use a metaphor I learned freshman year in Directed Studies Philosophy I). A Yale education should facilitate truth’s coming out—even political truth.

But perhaps it’s asking too much to expect a university education to improve its students’ political views. Perhaps I’m as likely to have been immune to improvement as George W. Bush seems to have been. And, as you pointed out about big donors’ coming from either end of the political spectrum, I’m sure that liberals can come to Yale with as much expectation of entitlement as the sons of Prescott Bush can.

Nevertheless, I believe that Bush was so far from deserving the degree that in the years to come Yale alumni familiar with Bush’s “accomplishments” will be as amazed as I was chagrined and embarrassed that in the year 2001 our alma mater conferred such an honor on such a man.

If we take seriously our patriotic duty as citizens to defend the Constitution of the United States of America, we cannot support a president who has repeatedly violated it, with impunity. Yale might have a patriotic duty to take back that degree. Do the bylaws of the committee that decides honorary degrees have a provision for stripping an honoree of his degree? Since an honorary degree is by definition not earned, it would seem to be no violation of parliamentary procedure to entertain such a motion. Even if Bush could not be forced to give back his certificate, the passage of such a motion could “send a message” that Yale now regrets its 2001 action and judges itself patriotically bound to act symbolically in defense of the Constitution.

Would you be willing to forward this suggestion to some of those who voted against a degree’s going to Bush in the first place?

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Second Reply from Yale (May 30, 2006)

In reply to my May 6 letter (posted yesterday), the President of Yale differed with me on the question whether more people opposed GWB's honorary degree than opposed JFK's. He pointed out that Yale graduates, at least from the 1920's through the 1950's, were heavily conservative and Republican. He believed that there were many, many who disapproved of JFK. He said that JFK became a lot more popular after his death.

He categorically denied that Yale awarded GWB the degree because of money. He said that if money had anything to do with it, the degree would not have been awarded, for there were as many big Yale donors who opposed the degree as favored it. He pointed out that Yale alumni represent a wide spectrum of views and that this had been the point of his previous reply.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Second Letter to Yale (May 6, 2006)

I’m glad that my letter of April 8 gave you a welcome break from the self-serving accusations you had recently had to endure from “conservatives.” Thanks for your reply, however circumspectly you had to express yourself when it comes to money questions, since fund-raising is, I have to suppose, one of your top priorities. My thanks would have come sooner, but I confess that I thought at first that you had dodged my questions and it took me a while to realize that you had actually answered them, if between the lines.

When you wrote that “there were as many students and alumni who believed strongly that George W. Bush should receive an honorary degree as likely believed that John Kennedy should not receive an honorary degree in 1961,” I think you were saying that the number was negligible. Neither of us really knows how many students and alumni opposed the honorary degree to JFK, but my sense is that there were not very many (even after Mr. Kennedy’s ungracious remark about now having “the best of two worlds, a Harvard education and a Yale degree”).

And I infer, from that answer, that you were telling me that, of the two alternatives from which I couldn’t pick one to prefer to be untrue—“[1] Yale administrators sold the honor or [2] they actually believed Bush worthy of it”—it’s the second one that isn’t true.

Which leaves me to figure out in what sense you “sold the honor.” I think I’ve got it. You didn’t literally sell it. Here’s how I think it went. Fund-raising was (and always is) crucial to the Yale enterprise. Bush represented big money. Really big money. Even though most of Yale disapproved of this small-minded servant of special interests’ having become President of the United States, he had, in fact and however dishonorably, done so. And, after all, Yale had given an honorary degree to JFK and other Presidents, including Bush’s father. To not give one to the son would not only fail to shake any of his people’s money loose, but would also probably stanch their current trinkle. There was no way as fund-raiser-in-chief that you could not give Bush that degree, no matter how distasteful it was to you intellectually, morally, or politically.

Of course, as far as “how much money changed hands,” you simply don’t know the full amount, for not all donations flowing in would have been identified as coming from Bush backers deeply grateful for Yale’s endorsement of their tax-cut champion.

I realize that your position constrains you from literally saying that I’ve accurately deciphered your diplomatic code. So let’s do what they do in the movies. Don’t blink your eyes if I’ve got it. That is, if I don’t hear back from you, I’ll know that I understood you correctly.

Monday, June 26, 2006

First Reply from Yale (April 18, 2006)

Ten days after my April 8 letter [posted yesterday], the President of Yale pointed out that Yale graduates have diverse opinions and listed for example John Ashcroft, John Kerry, Bill Clinton, Bill Buckley, Pat Robertson, and Bill Coffin. He said he believed that as many students and alumni thought in 2001 that GWB should receive an honorary degree as thought in 1961 that John Kennedy should not receive one....

Sunday, June 25, 2006

First Letter to the President of Yale (April 8, 2006)

Yesterday my Connecticut-born friend Ina learned that I graduated from Yale, and she asked me whether I was glad to have gone there. Without reservation I said yes. But I amazed myself by the vehemence with which I added, “…until Yale gave George W. Bush that honorary degree in 2001.” I devoted the 250 words of my 40th class reunion essay [posted earlier] to expressing my chagrin at the recognition Bush received from Yale at the 2001 commencement. One would think that I might have gotten over it by now.

I admit that I already despised Bush so thoroughly that I was not open to any evidence that he might be any good at all. I could interpret anything I might hear as evidence to the contrary. Rather like someone who, say, believed that the Bible—written, selected, edited and translated by men—is nevertheless in its entirety the inspired word of God and who was able to apply hermeneutics to cleverly explain away any apparent contradiction in it, either of internal inconsistency or of disagreement with what the believer wanted to discover God to have said.

But, in fact, our Sham-President Bush has done a good deal more since then not only to validate my opinion, but also to bring many others to a similar view. The reason I’m writing to you is to try to find out whether you have any estimate of the percentage of Yale graduates who now seem to believe that even if the honorary degree wasn’t that terribly big a mistake on Yale’s part in 2001, it has come now to seem a very foolish bestowal indeed?

And would you tell me how much money changed hands if Bush’s cronies purchased the honorary degree? I’m not sure which I’d prefer not to be true: that Yale administrators sold the honor or that they actually believed Bush worthy of it.

Grateful for your expected reply, I am sincerely yours....

Essay for 2004 Yale Class Reunion

In 2001, with chagrined incredulity and embarrassment, I learned that Yale would bestow an honorary degree on George W. Bush. As a citizen, I thought that Bush’s unmerited and highly questionable attainment of our Presidency had been embarrassment enough.

And then Bush ‘affably’ recited that insulting commencement speech. Even ‘C’ students can become President. Oh yes…if they have big-money connections. Why not? ‘C’ students can even get into Yale…if they have a wealthy Yale parent.

So Bush had given a bad name to legacy admissions policies, to America’s way of choosing a President, and now to the granting of honorary degrees.

A cherished memory of my first winter in New Haven is crossing College Street and exchanging smiles with A. Whitney Griswold, who was crossing towards me. I had read his essay, “Liberal Education and the Democratic Ideal,” and chose to go to Yale because I believed that it offered the best liberal education available—the education of a free person in a free society.

But now, when liberally educated citizens have never been more desperately needed, Bush forces are making it harder for individuals or society to be free—and ever so much easier for rich people with cronies in high places to get (and get away with) whatever they want.

By admitting Bush (the year after President Griswold’s death), Yale condoned and facilitated the advancement of an intellectually challenged mediocrity. By granting him the honorary degree in 2001, Yale seemed to congratulate itself on the undemocratic result.

Saturday, June 24, 2006


The year I was twenty-two, while taking a nap on a delightful, rainy Spring afternoon in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, I experienced what I have always thought of as a "mystical vision." It had that special feeling. In my vision I beheld a Universe filled with golden light, pervaded by an eloquent silence so profound it could have been composed by Bach, if not by an angel. In this light danced the most beautiful specks of dust, and I understood, with that special self-validating sense of knowing, that I was utterly dependent upon the Creator of this Universe for my existence. I had not created myself. I could not even ensure that I would take another breath. I had not created any of those specks of dust. And I could not create one. Yet, viewing that wondrous field of golden light, listening to that profound silence, utterly sure of my creaturehood, I felt at peace, full of calm.