« A Demand-Side Theory of Rathergate; CBS Affiliates | Main | Uni High Nostalgia-- Marie Williams Bellet »

September 16, 2004

Kerry and Bush at Yale; Prof. John Morton Blum

I got nostalgic last night after talking to the Battery Chemist, who had been following Rathergate since the first night, and after skimming over The Guardians, the recent book about the Eastern Establishment- Kingman Brewster, Mac Bundy, Bishop Paul Moore, John Lindsay, and their pals. I'll blog another time on their interesting mix of talent, high-mindedness, and failure. For now, though, I'll note that Tom Veal has a good post on "John Kerryís Yale Political Union"....

I cannot, in fact, think of any Union president who went on to a conspicuous career in national politics before John F. Kerry. His immediate successor, Jay Wilkinson, now a federal appeals court judge, perhaps places second. Of Kerryís Yale contemporaries who are now politically prominent, only George Pataki had a substantial Union career. George W. Bush, John Ashcroft and Howard Dean didnít bother to join.


At the end of his freshman year, John ran for chairman of the Liberal Party. His opponent, Lou Sigal, was a year ahead of him and had the advantage of seniority, but John campaigned much more vigorously. I was later told by Liberal Party members that his platform consisted of two planks: his initials ("J.F.K.") and the argument that electing a Jewish chairman would "give people the wrong idea about the party". That may sound bizarre, but Yale had only recently dropped its Jewish quota, and antisemitic attitudes lingered, even among the soi disant apostles of tolerance.

[Of course, it turns out, too, that John Kerry is Jewish-- but didn't know it at the time because his grandfather had kept it quiet.]


In Fall 1963, Johnís first term as Liberal chairman, the Political Union enjoyed (or suffered) a rare moment in the national spotlight. It invited George Wallace to speak, outraging the Mayor of New Haven. The Mayor called on his friend, Yale Provost and acting President Kingman Brewster, Jr., to stop this affront to decency. Brewster, a bully by nature, summoned the members of the Union executive board to meet with him and told them that they had two choices: They could rescind the invitation to Governor Wallace, or they could be expelled from Yale. After a heated debate, they voted five-to-four for rescission, with John among the majority.

[In the book, *The Guardians*, I don't recall the details about *how* Brewster bullied the Union, which are interesting.]

John was reelected chairman for the Spring 1964 term, but all was not well with his party. Membership and activity declined sharply. Only 13 members qualified to vote in the May 1964 Union elections (about a third as many as the next smallest party), and almost all of those were openly hostile toward their nominal leader. One of the most vocal Kerry critics was elected to succeed him as chairman.

Happily for John, the Conservative Party and the Party of the Right, each with about an equal number of qualified voters, were at loggerheads over how to divide the Unionís elected offices. When the Conservatives insisted on taking not only the presidency, which the PoR was willing to concede, but also the office of speaker (the presiding officer at meetings), the chairman of the PoR, who wanted to be speaker himself, offered to back John for president. In return, John promised not just to support Party of the Right candidates for three of the five elected offices (the maximum that any one party could constitutionally hold) but to give its members half of the appointed positions, too.

[This is classic PU dealmaking, and goes to Kerry's credit as a politician. Note, however, the problems of leadership and administrative ability showing up even at this young age.]


The reader has doubtless surmised already that the ideological makeup of the Union did not fit the stereotype of 1960ís political activism at elite universities. The right-of-center parties dominated, and the ones to their left were not all that liberal . Johnís successor as Liberal chairman was Jorge Dominguez, a Cuban refugee of firm anticommunist views. When, in February 1965, the House debated a resolution calling for American withdrawal from Vietnam, only one Liberal (not John Kerry) favored it, and it went down to defeat by roughly a three-to-one margin.


Iíd like to note, as a corrective to inferences that many draw about the collegiate John Kerry, that he was not notably wooden or arrogant . I knew him moderately well and always found his company pleasant. He was also quite a good speech maker, albeit with a baroque tendency that was then commonplace in the Political Union. ... He was overtly and intensely ambitious, but so were plenty of other Yalies. Indeed, he was not the most ambitious of my contemporaries. (That would be Victor Ashe , whose subsequent career reached a climax of sorts when he spent millions of dollars to win 34 percent of the vote in a Senate race against Al Gore.)

I googled a few people of the PU era just after Kerry's and found mention of Rapoza and Menefee and Koford (whom I knew about anyway, since he's an economist).

In looking up Professor John Morton Blum, who it seems is still alive and talking to reporters, I found this article by Lanny Davis (Clinton's lawyer) on George W. Bush:

... I also remember certain courses did catch his interest, especially History 35, a popular course taught by John Morton Blum, the legendary liberal professor and award-winning biographer of Theodore Roosevelt.

History 35 focused on three of the most important progressive periods in U.S. history-- the populist era, Woodrow Wilson progressivism and FDR liberalism.

I saw George carrying a textbook from the course and jokingly asked, "What's a good Republican like you doing in Blum's course?" He smiled. (Smiled, not smirked. I don't understand why people say he "smirks." When he says something good, he looks pleased with himself --he should be! But that's different from a smirk, which connotes arrogance. Of all the things George may be, he's not arrogant.)

George responded to my comment: "I've learned more from John Blum than any other teacher I've had at Yale. I don't care what his politics are, I love that course."

I took that course too, about ten years later, and liked it. Blum would regularly hold court at Branford Dining Hall at lunch, and I went to that a few times, too. He taught well, and he writes well-- I still have his books on Teddy Roosevelt and Wilson. What I remember best from that course is my difficulty in deciding who to support in the 1912 election-- Roosevelt (Bull Moose Party), Taft, or Wilson. Roosevelt had charisma, but liked regulation and was backed by the goofy Left; Taft had soundness and a good antitrust record; Wilson supported racism but also supported free trade. Now that I know more, Taft is easily the best of the lot. Yale, not Harvard or Princeton!

Posted by erasmuse at September 16, 2004 09:20 AM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


Post a comment

Remember Me?