What Kerry was doing at Yale

(as seen through the eyes of the Yale Daily News).
As the election has drifted into deadly serious exposes of the lives of George Bush and John Kerry in the early 1970s, I thought a look back at a lighter time in their lives might be fun (no, there are no smoking guns in this stuff).

Last February, the Yale Daily News had two interesting stories about Kerry at Yale–one a mostly positive news profile, the other a mostly negative editorial. Both are interesting (and were largely overlooked at the time).

The mostly positive news story about Kerry at Yale:

And although Kerry was chairman of the Political Union’s smallest party — the Liberals — he gained enough support across the political spectrum to win the presidency late in his sophomore year. Presiding over the Political Union during the heated presidential elections of 1964, Kerry even earned the admiration of students on the other side of the aisle, said former Party of the Right chairman John McGonagle Jr. ’66.

Kerry’s selection as class orator surprised no one, since he had spent much of his Yale career speaking to classmates in his distinctive Massachusetts accent.

“I think it was a cultured accent, and it’s frankly a senatorial accent,” Abbott said. “It just sounded awfully funny to hear this accent out of an 18-year-old kid.”

Yet in Kerry’s day, as Yale President Kingman Brewster began liberalizing the Yale admissions process, a divide remained between prep school graduates and students who attended public schools. To some students who had not attended New England boarding schools, Kerry seemed like the “ultimate preppy,” Abbott said.

“At that time, I think he had a bit of a reputation for standoffishness, which I think was a bit well-deserved,” said Robin Landis ’66, who played with Kerry on the soccer team.

But Kerry’s friends say his reputation for aloofness — which led the New Republic to run a cover story last year asking, “Can John Kerry Make People Like Him?” — is inaccurate.

“I think John as an undergraduate at Yale had some of the same rap that he gets today, that he’s overly serious, that he takes himself too seriously,” said Frederick Smith ’66, a fellow member of Skull and Bones who later founded the FedEx Corporation. “I think that’s really a misnomer, because he’s actually a lot of fun.”

Kerry certainly was serious at Yale. Because he often woke up at 5 a.m., his suitemates gave him a single, Barbiero said. Between his sports teams, his political activities, and his classes, Kerry did not have much time to spare.

“John was just a guy who was very impatient,” Barbiero said. “He didn’t like lines — he had so much energy, he had no patience to queue up.”

“John was a person who took the process of politics very seriously and he gave it a great deal of respect,” McGonagle said.

But Kerry’s YPU presidency was not universally supported. During his tenure, a group of younger students split off from the Liberal Party to create a new Party of the Left. Members of the new party said Kerry’s vote against a measure supporting a progressive income tax helped instigate their secession.

The mostly negative editorial:

Apparently, one of the first things he [Kerry] told his freshman year roommates was that he was going to be president one day. He clearly had nothing better to think about, such as de-bunking his bed or freshman English. Okay, fine, we all did some pretty silly stuff when we arrived at Yale. Kerry’s problem was that he apparently never got better during his years at Yale.

Just like many members of the YPU, Kerry was an amazing speaker. In fact he was probably the best. And it seems that at Yale, he was generally disliked.

The Yale Liberal Party, of which I am a member and John Kerry used to be chairman, passes on many unpleasant stories about him. According to Liberal Party lore, Kerry was among the worst chairs in its history. Jorge Dominguez, currently a professor at Harvard and a member of Kerry’s Liberal Party Executive Board, reports that under Kerry’s leadership the party went on YPU probation. Probation means that the party’s leader could not get enough of the party’s members to sign a YPU attendance roster. Although getting people to sign in turns out to be a surprisingly arduous job, very few chairmen fail to do it in the end. Not getting enough signatures suggest one of two things: either the chairman faced some unfortunate circumstances or he has some personality problems. According to Dominguez, Kerry’s leadership caused his probation.

In order to get back at Kerry, members of the Liberal Party formed the Dixwell Society. By now, the group is largely defunct, although it still officially meets during Liberal Party reunions and its story gets retold for everyone wishing to hear. The society’s major point was to include every former chairmen except one who most people disliked. You can guess who. In addition, the News’ article reports that due to its conflict with Kerry part of the Liberal Party split off to form the Party of the Left.

At Yale (probably in 1971) I remember seeing John Kerry speak against the war in Vietnam. I was mightily impressed. He struck me at the time as “Kenedyesque,” and I thought he would make a great President one day, though I thought him probably too radical to get elected.

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